The kompang, a small Malay drum, is mainly played at weddings by troupes of performers specially hired for the event. Teruna Panca De’lima, one of several such troupes in Singapore, stands out for their traditional style of playing.

For most of the week, Mohammad “Nizham” Khairulnizham, 33, patrols the streets around Orchard Road as a plainclothes police officer, blending seamlessly into the hordes of shoppers. On weekends, however, all eyes are on him and his bandmates as they usher brides or bridegrooms up the aisle, playing the kompang and singing at the top of their voices.

Nizham is one of the founding members of Teruna Panca De’lima, a kompang troupe which he established with his friends in 2009.

“I began the troupe with a few of my friends,” he recalled. “At the time, some of us were [either] doing our National Service (NS) or still in school. We used to hang out at night but we had nothing much to do, and a few of us were thinking of getting part-time jobs to earn some extra income on the side. We were considering a few options until we came up with this idea.”

Most of the troupe members already knew how to play the kompang, having picked it up during their schooldays. “Some of us were in the Malay Cultural Society (MCS) in school, where we learned dikir barat (a traditional Malay musical form involving choral singing, accompanied by percussion instruments like the kompang),” explained Nizham.

“Since five or six of us already knew how to play, we thought we should teach the rest and start a group, so that we could earn some extra money on the weekend.”

A friend’s upcoming wedding provided the perfect opportunity for them to road test their idea. “When you hire a kompang group, you need to pay them for their work. We wanted to ease that burden for him, so we played at his wedding for free, and he let us try performing,” he said. Several years on, the troupe has now grown to 18 members.

The troupe in their first official set of costumes, circa 2011. The members leading the troupe in performance on a particular day are outfitted in red (the role of ‘leader’ is rotated among a few of the troupe’s more experienced members). Photo courtesy of Mohammed Khairulnizham

Nizham explained that the kompang originated in the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa, and was brought to Southeast Asia by traders in or around the 13th century. “Nowadays, if you’re talking about [it in] the Singapore context, the kompang is mainly played at Malay weddings and other occasions – celebrations, functions, religious events,” he said. In fact, the group was invited by a local football team to play at their home games a few years ago, but had to turn down the opportunity due to other commitments at the time.

Despite being relatively new, the troupe made the somewhat unusual decision to keep to a traditional approach in their performances. Although they play a range of tunes in their performances from contemporary Malay songs to religious tunes, the group tends to favour songs from the 1970s and ’80s, and has a strict policy of adapting those songs to a handful of traditional kompang beats.

In Nizham’s opinion, most of the kompang troupes in Singapore tend towards more modern styles of music. “They might add in other instruments, maybe other drums, to make the sound more “full”. Some add in Indonesian instruments like the gamelan. We just stick to the kompang.

He went on, “For the kompang, there are standard rhythms, maybe eight or nine types. Different drums will play different beats, so when they’re all played together they make up the classic kompang sound.”

“Groups that prefer a more contemporary style will try to adapt the beat of their kompang playing to fit that of the song. They might also play a wider variety of songs than we do, I’ve heard English songs and Bollywood songs before. But for my group, we just stick to the very basics – three or four different beats.”

In addition to playing more traditional songs, the group prefers fast-paced songs which are more suited to making merry. “We want the event to be a joyous occasion, so we try to play songs which are fast-paced, not slow, to maintain a festive atmosphere. Something with a slow tempo would clash with that.”

One of the troupe members giving a silat (Malay martial art) performance at a wedding, with musical accompaniment by the rest of the troupe. Silat performances are given in the bride and groom’s honour and are a traditional part of Malay weddings. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Khairulnizham

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding – or in this case, the playing: the troupe’s calendar is packed with bookings. According to Nizham, in some months, they might have bookings for every weekend, or even one event each on Saturday and Sunday. Although their clients are almost entirely from the Malay community, he recalled one particular exception.

A few years ago, they were hired to play at an interracial wedding. The bride was Malay, and the groom was British, but they chose to hold their wedding celebration at a Chinese event hall. From the address provided, the troupe was unable to work out what the venue was, so it was a pleasant surprise for them when they showed up for work.

“We didn’t know what the building was till we showed up that morning! They [the couple] weren’t Chinese Muslims, and there were no Chinese relatives present, as far as I could see. But it was very nice, very unusual. I think it really shows off how multicultural Singapore is.”

On his part, Nizham is only too happy to help couples make their big day special. However, the most rewarding part of the experience is getting to feel closer to his culture; it’s also the reason for the group’s choice to keep to a traditional approach in their performances.

“When I was young, I wasn’t really attracted to cultural stuff, I was more reserved,” he shared.  “It was after I began learning dikir barat and playing the kompang that I began wanting to learn about my culture. And because I’m interested in it, I need to know that it’s still there. That’s why we don’t want to change too much in our playing. When you do that, you lose the roots of what you’re doing.”

“Like nowadays, in Singapore, where everything is constantly changing, many Malay couples now prefer to follow Western customs in their weddings,” he went on. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that sometimes, Malay culture is forgotten. I can speak from experience that some people forget they need a kompang group for their wedding. So I get a lot of last-minute calls where people tell me they want us to play, and their event is this week or the next week!”

The troupe in action, accompanying a groom (not pictured) to the bride’s location. According to Nizham, the format of a Malay wedding usually involves the groom going to “collect” the bride from her home. The troupe will escort him up to a dais, where the bride, seated, awaits him. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Khairulnizham

Although Nizham doesn’t envisage himself losing interest in the kompang anytime soon, he also acknowledged that, as the troupe members get older and need to devote more time to their families, a handover will have to take place eventually. As such, they are keeping an eye out for the next generation of talent.

“As we’re all getting older, I don’t think my guys will be sticking with this until we retire, so we’re exploring avenues to get younger generations to learn and one day, take over from us,” he said. “If they’re interested, they could come and join us, and we will teach them how to play the kompang and they can come with us for events.”

For now, though, he believes that the art is not in danger of dying out. Between the Malay Cultural Society in schools and the Singapore Hadrah and Kompang Association, which keeps in touch with local kompang troupes, there are opportunities for the curious to pick up the instrument.

I joked that there shouldn’t be issues with demand, as people will always be getting married, and he laughed in agreement before growing serious.

“That’s true. But I don’t want it to become common for people to get married and they don’t think of getting a kompang troupe to perform, and just have a DJ for the whole event. I don’t want that to be the case.”

Written by: Chew Hui Lin

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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