By Kurniawati Kamarudin
KUALA LUMPUR: At 61, his fingers could still deftly pickÂ gambus strings.
Norihan Saif does not only play the gambus, but sings to the tunes he playsÂ as well.
“Rarely can a person play the gambus and sing at the same time. Not many areÂ blessed with such a talent,” said Kamrul Hussin, a professional percussionistÂ who has performed with Norihan several times.
Norihan only smiled shyly at the compliment.
Born in Batu Pahat, Johor, Norihan is one of Istana Budayaâ€™s most prizedÂ performer. He is often flown overseas to promote Malaysian culture and music toÂ the world.
The gambus, an instrument originating from West Asia, has been synonymousÂ with Malay folk music since the Arab traders brought it into Tanah Melayu in theÂ 1800s.
The melodies emitted by the pear-shaped instrument are usually paired withÂ the voices of singers belting out tunes of “ghazal”, “samrah” and “Melayu asli”.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Norihan was born into a family with a passion for ghazal music. His fatherÂ played for a group in his village of Kampung Simpang Lima Bagan.
He was exposed to various genres of Malay folk music from young. As a child,Â he whistled along to classics like “Pak Ngah Balik”, “Dia Datang”, “BungaÂ Tanjung” and “Seri Mersing”.
“The songs have always been close to my heart and today, I sing it in myÂ performances,” he said.
His fatherâ€™s house was where he would practice playing ghazal music. HisÂ fatherâ€™s talent in playing the gambus was what nurtured his interest in theÂ music.
“I remember sneaking around to play with my fatherâ€™s gambus while he was atÂ work. When I had gained some skill in playing it, Iâ€™d follow my fatherâ€™s groupÂ to perform at weddings and in other villages. It was from there that I decidedÂ to pursue a career in gambus music,” he said to Bernama.
Gambus music in Batu Pahat in the 50s and 60s was very much influenced byÂ Arabic tunes, he said.
Norihan’s career as a musician started in 1979, when he played with BadanÂ Kesenian Tentera Darat for 10 years. He joined Kumpulan Muzik Kompleks BudayaÂ (today known as Istana Budaya)on Oct 1, 1988.
Norihan has been performing with Istana Budaya for 26 years now, but isÂ still working on perfecting his skills from day to day.
He admitted that it was not easy to sing and play the gambus at the same time. It took him 10 years to perfect the skill.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Norihan had spent some time learning the instrument under the tutelage ofÂ the Gambus King, the late Fadzil Ahmad of the group SHR Mahari Ghazal.
He remembered it as one of the most meaningful periods of his life.
Fadzil had adviced him to deepen his knowledge of the art so that the latterÂ may continue where he left off.
“His words ring in my ear till today, and helps me strengthen my resolve toÂ keep playing the gambus,” said Norihan, who could also play the violin and theÂ kettledrum (gendang).
He was introduced to Fadzil while still in the Armed Forcesâ€™s ghazal group.
“Fadzil was the instructor at the time, and he often brought me along to hisÂ performances.
“When I moved to Kompleks Budaya, he was the head of music there at theÂ time, so we grew closer,” recalled Norihan, who followed Fadzil for 15 yearsÂ until he died in 2006.
PASSING IT ON
Norihan is planning to retire from the industry next year, and has beenÂ imparting his knowledge to his protÃ©gÃ©s.
He had been a visiting instructor at the National Arts Culture and HeritageÂ Academy (ASWARA) for the past six years, teaching vocals and honing the skillsÂ of the young talents at the academy in traditional music.
One of his protÃ©gÃ©s is 20-year-old Lukman Hakim Ahmad Azam.
The Taiping-born started learning the gambus when he was 10 years old, afterÂ his mother introduced him to it.
“I was initially uninterested, but after reading up about it and watchingÂ performances online, my interest grew. At 18, I was introduced to Norihan, whoÂ asked me to join his classes.
“When I started to pursue gambus music seriously, I found that it had quiteÂ an impact on my soul, even though I was more talented in playing the guitar andÂ piano,” he said.
It took Lukman three months to play the gambus with ease.Â Norihan said Lukman was one of his protÃ©gÃ©s who was not only talented in
playing the gambus, but singing traditional Malay songs as well.
THE FUTURE OF GAMBUS
Lukman, who had just formed a group called RUNS, has big plans in expandingÂ the influence of gambus music in the future.
Among it is to incorporate traditional and ghazal music with rock.
“I really hope gambus music will be kept alive and relevant. Fortunately,Â today, more youths between the ages of 19 and 30 can play the gambus,Â particularly those in tertiary education institutions,” he said.
Lukman, who also idolised the late Fadzil Ahmad, hoped that gambus musicÂ would find its way into todayâ€™s music industry and gain a fanbase of its own.–BERNAMA