The Case of the Bambus

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The Case of the Bambus

The Story of the Gambus and its Evolution
Yap Yuan Li Ben
AAI481 - Studies in Malay Music
Nanyang Technological University

The Story of the Gambus and its Evolution

The gambus is an omnipresent and most commonly found lute instrument in the various styles of Malay folk music. It is usually made from wood and is formed almost like a guitar but with 9 to 12 wire strings compared to the guitar’s 6 to 12 strings. There are two types of gambus, namely Gambus Melayu which is the Malay gambus and Gambus Hadhramaut which is the Arabian gambus. Both of them originate from similar backgrounds with the Gambus Melayu a modification of the Gambus Hadhramaut. Today, the gambus is recognised as a national musical instrument of Malaysia and a symbol of Malay traditional music identity (Hilarian, 2006). We will explore further in this essay the origins and evolution of gambus and its role in the Malay musical genre of zapin, hamdolok and ghazal. Gambus Melayu

The slimmer and smaller pear-shaped gambus Melayu is comparable to the Yemeni qanbus. Its uniqueness is in its ornamented sickle-shaped carved pegbox that has emblems engraved into it (Hilarian, 2003). Its body is made from jackfruit tree wood and it has a goat skin belly. The strings in gambus Melayu is attached and tuned precisely similar to gambus Hadramaut (Nik Mustapha, 1998). The gambus Melayu is frequently used in Zapin and Hamdolok performances in Johor (Matusky, 1985 as cited by Ang, 2005). The sounds of the gambus Melayu can also be heard in Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak, Indonesia and Brunei (Hilarian 2006). Gambus Hadhramaut

The arched-back, pear-shaped Gambus Hadhramaut is quite similar to the classical Arabian ‘ud (Hilarian, 2003). It is made from a combination of light wood like red meranti, a type of construction timber and durian belanda. The gambus Hadramaut does not have frets and the strings are plucked and attached in double course except the 11th string. The strings are tuned in perfect 4ths beginning from the highest string from the middle C (Ang, 2005).

The Transition of the Gambus from Arab to Malay Culture
Studies done by Hilarian (2003, 2007) theorized that in the 9th century, Muslim Persian conquerors and traders brought the barbat, an early form of lute instrument, into the Malay Archipelago during their migration to Southeast Asia for entertainment purposes (Sachs, 1940). This is supported by Alatas (1985) who claimed that many Persians and Indians traded in the rich port of Klang, Selangor. The barbat was then modified by Arabs in Mecca to ‘ud and qanbus in Yemen which explains why the gambus bears a striking similarity to barbat, ‘ud and qanbus (During, 1984) down to the tuning in perfect 4ths (Lambert, 1997). In the 16th century, Portugese traders introduced folk music, plucked and bowed stringed instruments to the people of Malacca. However they did not directly influence the introduction of the gambus to the Malay world. The African, Indian and Moorish slaves present at that time integrated their influences of music together with the portugese instruments and created a fusion of music styles that included dondang saying and joget ronggang (Kartomi, 1997). Between the 17th and 18th century, the close ties amongst Johor, Riau and Aceh states via trade, commerce and inter-marriages provided a permeable barrier for gambus to enter the Malay world. Between the 19th and 20th century, the opening of Suez Canal expedited sea journeys from the Middle-East to the Malay world. Many Arabs settled in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia from Hadhramaut (Yemen) bringing along the ‘ud (Alatas, 1997). Consequently, the eminence of gambus Hadhramaut succeeded the gambus Melayu in the late 19th or early 20th century in Peninsular Malaysia. The patronage of gambus by Malay rulers, spread of Islam and the cultural convergence of people facilitated dissemination and modification of the gambus throughout the...
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