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Keeping Gambus Music Alive

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By Kurniawati Kamarudin

KUALA LUMPUR: At 61, his fingers could still deftly pick gambus strings.

Norihan Saif does not only play the gambus, but sings to the tunes he plays as well.

“Rarely can a person play the gambus and sing at the same time. Not many are blessed with such a talent,” said Kamrul Hussin, a professional percussionist who has performed with Norihan several times.

Norihan only smiled shyly at the compliment.

Born in Batu Pahat, Johor, Norihan is one of Istana Budaya’s most prized performer. He is often flown overseas to promote Malaysian culture and music to the world.

The gambus, an instrument originating from West Asia, has been synonymous with Malay folk music since the Arab traders brought it into Tanah Melayu in the 1800s.

The melodies emitted by the pear-shaped instrument are usually paired with the voices of singers belting out tunes of “ghazal”, “samrah” and “Melayu asli”.


Norihan was born into a family with a passion for ghazal music. His father 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, he whistled along to classics like “Pak Ngah Balik”, “Dia Datang”, “Bunga Tanjung” and “Seri Mersing”.

“The songs have always been close to my heart and today, I sing it in my performances,” he said.

His father’s house was where he would practice playing ghazal music. His father’s talent in playing the gambus was what nurtured his interest in the music.

“I remember sneaking around to play with my father’s gambus while he was at work. When I had gained some skill in playing it, I’d follow my father’s group to perform at weddings and in other villages. It was from there that I decided 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 by Arabic tunes, he said.

Norihan’s career as a musician started in 1979, when he played with Badan Kesenian Tentera Darat for 10 years. He joined Kumpulan Muzik Kompleks Budaya (today known as Istana Budaya)on Oct 1, 1988.

Norihan has been performing with Istana Budaya for 26 years now, but is 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.


Norihan had spent some time learning the instrument under the tutelage of 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 latter may continue where he left off.

“His words ring in my ear till today, and helps me strengthen my resolve to keep playing the gambus,” said Norihan, who could also play the violin and the kettledrum (gendang).

He was introduced to Fadzil while still in the Armed Forces’s ghazal group.

“Fadzil was the instructor at the time, and he often brought me along to his performances.

“When I moved to Kompleks Budaya, he was the head of music there at the time, so we grew closer,” recalled Norihan, who followed Fadzil for 15 years until he died in 2006.


Norihan is planning to retire from the industry next year, and has been imparting his knowledge to his protégés.

He had been a visiting instructor at the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (ASWARA) for the past six years, teaching vocals and honing the skills of the young talents at the academy in traditional music.

One of his protégés is 20-year-old Lukman Hakim Ahmad Azam.

The Taiping-born started learning the gambus when he was 10 years old, after his mother introduced him to it.

“I was initially uninterested, but after reading up about it and watching performances online, my interest grew. At 18, I was introduced to Norihan, who asked me to join his classes.

“When I started to pursue gambus music seriously, I found that it had quite an impact on my soul, even though I was more talented in playing the guitar and piano,” he said.

It took Lukman three months to play the gambus with ease. Norihan said Lukman was one of his protégés who was not only talented in
playing the gambus, but singing traditional Malay songs as well.


Lukman, who had just formed a group called RUNS, has big plans in expanding 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, today, more youths between the ages of 19 and 30 can play the gambus, particularly those in tertiary education institutions,” he said.

Lukman, who also idolised the late Fadzil Ahmad, hoped that gambus music would find its way into today’s music industry and gain a fanbase of its own.–BERNAMA


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