In this article I will continue with Muar’s colourful cultural lifestyle.
Besides the lively Ghazal songs, Johor’s traditional heritage include another two interesting traditional dances namely the Zapin and the Kuda Kepang Traditional Horse Dance. Both performances differ greatly not only in their style but as in their music as well. While the Zapin illustrates more on religious elements, the Kuda Kepang on the other hand presents their belief in animism, a belief of spiritual involvement not only in human lives but also in animals, plants, trees and non-living entities as well. Zapin is very Arabic in nature while the Kuda Kepang is ninety percent Javanese with a mixture of perhaps ten percent Hinduism.
Arab influence in the Malay society has long been noticed and accepted and this is evident in the many religious performances of the Malay Muslims in some of their activities. When the Arabs came to our country sometime in the 14th Century, they obviously brought along their traidtional and cultural behaviour as well. Most of these Arabs are believed to have come from Yemen as a means to spread the Islamic religion. Most prominent is the ‘Marhaban’, a choir singing Arabic songs chanting the praises of Allah and the prophet Muhammad. The ‘Marhaban’ choir normally perform at Muslims houses during the Muslim month of Syawal, the month Muslims celebrate the end of the fasting month.
During my early days, the Zapin was sung in Arabic. It combined Islamic devotional chanting with body movements. Women were not allowed to dance as a respect for the Islamic religion, in contrast to their belly-dancing exposing all the ‘aurats’ of the dancing women. However, today’s Zapin has changed tremendousy particularly where women dancers formed part of the dancing troupe. The songs are now sung in the Malay language. The religious element is slowly decreasing and no longer performed to the religious requirement and has become more secular of traditional entertainment.
Although Zapin started in the central part of the country, it was the state of Johor that promoted this dance and had since become so popular that it is now accepted as a traditional dance of Johor. In most cases, a Zapin song will complement that of Ghazal. For instance the song ‘Dia Datang’ is a Zapin song but played during a Ghazal performance. The instruments used for Zapin is the same as that of Ghazal. To a certain extent, Zapin has become a part of Ghazal.
In some Malay weddings performed by the Ghazal troupe, they will include the Zapin dance. I always like watching this dance as its movements are so lively adding a bit of the ‘ronggeng’ steps.
There are various types of Zapin dance namely the Zapin Tenglu and Zapin Pulau which originate from Mersing, Zapin Lenga from Muar, Zapin Pekajang from Johor Bahru, Zapin Koris from Batu Pahat and Zapin Parit Mustar and Zapin Seri Bunian from Ponitian.
Each Zapin illustrates the tradition and living norms from where they belong. The Zapin Tenglu and Zapin Pulau’s sharp irregular movements seen in the two variations are inspired by the lives of Mersing’s fishermen. Like being tossed around in a fishing boat on the rough weather. On the other hand, the Zapin Lenga illustrates the lives of farmers and therefore the dance movement are more calm and serene kampung environment.
During my time it was just Zapin Arab. The Arabs of those days were truly Arabs, the way they dressed, the food they ate and the language they spoke among themselves. Even the men would only marry the Arab women, the Syeds to the Sharifahs and the Sheikhs to the Sitis. How many of you realize that the Arabs of my time were never regarded as bumiputras?
Of course as times passed, many things are likely to change and the Arabs today are no longer the Arabs of my time. But one thing has not changed, many Muarian Malays tease their ethnic Arab friends with this phrase…”Arab dugus pisang kelat, bangun pagi terjilat jilat”. Don’t ask me who started this first, but ask my Muar contemporaries even those ethnic Arab Malays and they will surely agree with me.
THE KUDA KEPANG TRADITIONAL DANCE
I will never forget one night when I watched a Kuda Kepang dance at the Padang Muar Club when there was a fun fair held for about a week. I was very young, not more than twelve years old and was so excited to be able to go to the fun fair. At the fair I was stunned to see so many amusement outlets, a joget stage where elderly men took their turn to swing their bodies and with so many women sitting on a row of chairs, people selling balloons that could fly higher and higher if you let it go and with so many ice-cream sellers selling varieties of ice-cream. Then I saw a group of people watching a certain dance performed by men. I went nearer to have a better view of this peculiar dance. These male dancers were wearing uniforms and they were dancing holding a rattan-knitted piece with a shape of a horse and very colourful. The music played by their musicians sounded very odd to me and it had no melody, just the sound of the ‘angklong’ and few hand drums. When I arrived, these men were already dancing each holding by their side a rattan-knitted piece of a horse. There was one man holding a whip and kept on whipping in the air. After few minutes of dancing, some of these dancers became wild and started to be aggressive. Some onlookers ran backwards trying to stay away from these dancers. I was becoming a bit scared but stayed put to watch this fascinating and peculiar dance. Suddenly one of the dancers ran outside the dancing arena and began galloping like a horse. That was the moment I felt terribly scared and ran looking for my cousins. Not far away I saw this particular dancer suddenly climbed a tree and what enthralled me was he climbed the tree just with his two legs while both his hands were holding that horse rattan- piece. The man with the whip ran after him and and as he reached the tree, he spread some flowers and immediately the dancer descended and began eating the flowers similar to a horse eating. Since that day, I will always distant myself whenever watching a Kuda Kepang dance but have not reach to the point of paranoia.
The Kuda Kepang traditional dance has its origin in Indonesia particularly where the population of the ethnic Javanese is predominant. It is generally accepted that the influence of Hinduism is still prevalent in many parts of Indonesia and has contributed significantly in many of its cultural activities. The most glaring is in Bali where it plays a dominant role in almost everything. However, Indonesia itself is a very fascinating country rich in its own cultural and traditional heritage. As years passed, many of its own traditions began to blend with that of Hinduism creating its own unique system of cultural inheritance of present day society. Among these is the intriguing Kuda Kepang dance.
The Kuda Kepang traditional dance came to the state of Johor along with the migration of Javanese Indonesians approximately in the eighteen century. Most of them settled in areas near the border of Muar district and Batu Pahat towards Air Hitam. Till this days, most of the population in that areas are mainly the ethnic Javanese. Some of them still speak the Javanese language among themselves. However, the Kuda Kepang dance only surfaced in the early twentieth century and began to display their tradition in public.
The performance of this traditional dance is mysterious in nature as it includes spiritual involvement. Believe it or not, the dancers can go into a trance and needs to be tamed like a horse. I have tried to search for some details in some of the blogs written about Kuda Kepang but I don’t seem to find any that gives wide coverage.
From what I have gathered from the few discussion I had with the elders of Muar town, before the start of the performance the group will burn a small stack of incense and when it produces smoke, they will begin to chant certain mantra, an act of spiritual communication with the unseen world. They will seek protection from the evil spirits and therefore their chanting is to get the blessing of a supreme spirit that resides within the boundary where they will be performing. In the meanwhile, few coconuts will be stored in preparation to quench the thirsts of the dancers in the event they get into a trance. To determine the number of dancers to perform, they will place some flowers known as ‘bunga kenanga’. The Javanese call this ‘kembangan kunongo’. The leader will then pick one of the flowers and to verify the number of the flower’s petals. The petals ranges from five, seven or nine. If the petals are seven, then the number of dancers to perform will be seven. In any case, they will never perform in even numbers.
These flowers will always be available during the performance because those in a trance will come looking for the flowers to eat it and it will only be kept by the leader. So if you watch a Kuda Kepang dance, never bring along this flower because if any one of the dancers get into a trance, he will rush at you for the flower. Remember my experience when I saw one of them climbed the tree just by using his legs? There was every likely that a naughty fellow had put a ‘kenanga’ flower somewhere on the tree branch. Those in a trance are obviously being possessed by a spirit.
There is one mysterious firgure appearing during the performance wearing a mask of a tiger. He is known as the ‘Petrok’, one who will always be on guard against any evil spirits. According to some old folks, all the evil spirits who happen to be around the area will distant themselves from the ‘petrok’. That is the power of this ‘petrok’. During the early days, these ‘patrok’ used real tiger heads instead of today’s tiger masks as it is never easy to get real tiger heads. Furthermore, tigers now belong to the extinction species and is protected.
Muslim fundamentalists regard this dance as blasphemous as it does not conform to the tenets of the religion which forbids any form of idol-worshipping. However, to these dedicated Javanese the pride of their cultural heritage which has managed to stay alive for centuries has nothing to do with the Islamic religion. Afterall, as far as they are concerned every religion believe in the unseen world. This subject is best not to be discussed in my blog and let the experts decide.
My effort is to rediscover the past, the discovery of our own history that will serve many other purposes. It is a curiosity about the reality of the past, rather than some mythical invention. Muar town of my time still preserve some leftovers that may soon disappear from the face of the earth. One thing about the performance of the Kuda Kepang dance is the exposure of the existence of living beings within our dimension but unveiled to our naked eyes. It is within our own individual rights to believe or not to believe.