Maintaining our identity through music

National 4 minutes, 42 seconds


Nowadays, the melodious sounds of the gulingtangan orchestra are commonly heard at Brunei International Airport, weddings and other events.

But this might not always be the case.

Although the challenge of attracting the public, especially youth, to this traditional music has been resolved for now, there are still concerns over how to keep it alive.

The orchestra consists of five types of instruments: the gulingtangan, the gong, the tawak-tawak, the canang and the gandang labik. The gulingtangan is the lead instrument.

Hj Azahari Gamok, a former musician and music instructor at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, said the traditional eight-piece gulingtangan has existed for centuries, dating as far back as 1485 during the reign of Brunei’s fifth monarch, Sultan Bolkiah.

During previous eras, Hj Azahari said the gulingtangan could only be played by specially selected people at royal events. Over time, the general public was allowed to play it as well, but cost was very much an issue, with a gulingtangan set priced at a minimum of $10,000.

According to Hj Azahari, Brunei no longer makes gulingtangan and usually has to import it from places with similar musical cultures such as Sabah.

Another challenge in attracting the public was the instrument’s limited range, as the traditional gulingtangan’s notes were based on the F Octave.

“Gulingtangan at that time didn’t follow the regular notes (found in Western music), so there weren’t many songs you could play,” he said.

In 1971, the government and gulingtangan players took the initiative to resolve the issue by creating more pieces that produce various notes. He said with more notes available, the musicians were able to play more songs and produce modern songs that would attract people. As a result, modern gulingtangan now have up to 13 pieces.

The public began to show more interest, but Hj Azahari still worries that the musical heritage might one day fade away.

He said the public, especially youth, must continue to take initiatives to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Now the gulingtangan orchestra has modernised and developed. This is why the youth are now showing an interest because more modern instruments are being used to further enhance the sound of the music,” he said.

But Hj Azahari said the price and availability of the instruments are still issues.

The Ministry of Education has taken initiatives to make gulingtangan more accessible for the public, particularly students, through extra-curricular activities by the Department of Co-Curricular Education.

According to the ministry, there are more than 15 schools with gulingtangan extra-curricular activities, and they are also involved in annual competitions held by the ministry.

Nor Jalina Hj Ja’afar, Deputy Principal Administration of Rimba Secondary School (SMR), said the school has been taking initiatives to promote the music among the youth.

They include performing the traditional music at school events, organising competitions and having a gulingtangan set available for the school’s extra-curricular activities.

She said the music and instruments are important because they are part of the country’s culture, especially for the youth, as they will be the ones who will be passing on the musical heritage to future generations.

“If the tradition dies, the youth won’t know our (musical) culture,” she said.

Nor Jalina said the students have responded positively, and the next step is for them to pass on their knowledge and skills.

“We encourage the students who are already skilled to pass down their skills to new students to ensure (this tradition) continues and (interest in) gulingtangan doesn’t fade.”

Mohamad Shah Rizal Amir Hj Mohiddin, a teacher and coach for the Sekolah Tinggi Perempuan Raja Isteri (STPRI) gulingtangan team, said the school is raising awareness on traditional songs and the instruments within the gulingtangan orchestra as a step toward preserving them.

He said preserving the instruments is important as they are part of our national identity.

“It’s one of the things they can bring anywhere, including abroad. It’s what makes them Bruneian.”

Mohamad Shah Rizal said the next step is to maintain the momentum by continuing to attract more students through modernisation of the sound and showcasing the instruments at competitions and events.

Nurul Farhanah Hj Suhaili, leader of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) Orchestra Gulingtangan Varsity Club, said the group is continuing to preserve and promote gulingtangan through modernisation.

“Even if you play modern music, the traditional music should never be left out. We are modernising it but still keeping it traditional,” she said, as it represents our identity.

The president of the Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) Gulingtangan Group, Muhammad Siraj Munir Ahmad, also believes that one way of attracting youths’ interest is to add modern musical instruments such as guitars, keyboards and accordions.

He said gulingtangan is an important part of local culture that must be preserved, in which he believes awareness is needed.

“It’s part of our local identity. All of us have to play a role and continue to promote it,” he said.

Ezyan Rasyidah Irwan, a STPRI student who is part of the school’s gulingtangan team, said she got involved in the orchestra in 2014 as she was interested in the sound.

“It makes me feel relaxed. It’s my escape from reality, from my problems, and helps me when I’m feeling down,” said the 16-year-old.

Ezyan said that preserving the heritage is important for the younger generation to ensure they are aware of their roots.

“We have to preserve it by continuing to showcase it to ensure they are interested and pass it on to future generations. I’m committed to continuing to preserve our culture,” she said.

The Brunei Times