Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Children dancing the Sewang dance, welcoming visitors to the festival © Tan Chew Lian

Aboriginal and Indigenous Dance Art: Identity of Malaysian Natives

The beautiful body-sway of Malaysian traditional dance is often showcased outside the country as an effort by Tourism Malaysia to introduce local arts to the world. Aside from the mainstream traditional dance, Malaysian aborigines are also known for their unique traditional dance art. Unfortunately, these forms are not commonly known nor are they publicized as much as modern dance art.

Representing approximately 0.01 percent of Malaysian population, there are approximately 180,000 aborigines in Malaysia divided into a number of tribes. Each of these tribes has a traditional aboriginal dance that is relevant to their spiritual beliefs and is often an element in their shamans’ spirit-contacting rituals. This includes the Mahmeri tribe’s Gulang Gang Dance, Berjerom of the Jah-hut tribe, and the Sewang of the Semai and Temiar tribes.

To provide more exposure of traditional dance art to local society and tourists, the Malaysian Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture recently held the Aborigines and Indigenous Arts Festival in the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) in Kepong, Selangor. The festival, which was the first of its kind in Malaysia, aimed to bring these musical and dance arts together in one place as a celebration of their uniqueness and diversity.

The cozy and relaxing environment of the FRIM complemented the cultural arts, allowing the performances to take place in nature with an organic backdrop of lush greenery.

The performers, all dressed in colorful and unique costumes and ornaments made from coconut leaves, welcomed Datuk Ab Ghaffar A Tambi, the Deputy Chief Secretary (Culture) of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture, who officiated the festival. Also in attendance at the officiating ceremony was Datuk Norliza Rofli, the Director-General of the National Department for Culture and Arts, who is known for consistently emphasizing the importance of culture and arts as legacies that need to be preserved and revered.

Other than aboriginal and indigenous music and dance performances, the festival showcased costume modelling, exhibitions, and demonstrations of topeng moyang (ancestor masks), sumpit (a type of weapon made from bamboo), rattan and bamboo baskets, carving art, traps, tools, accessories, trinkets, clothes, musical instruments, and food. In addition to acknowledging the artistry achievements of aboriginal tribes, the festival increased visitors’ understanding of aboriginal and indigenous culture and arts. There were dance shows by aboriginal performance arts groups from the nine states of the Malaysian peninsula and two ethnic groups from Sabah and Sarawak (Borneo), including artistic groups from the National Department for Culture and Arts.

The aboriginal groups were Orang Asli Seletar and Bakar Baru Perling from Johor and Post Behtau and Semelai groups from Pahang. Other performers came from Borneo, who, for the first time, traveled by airplane to attend the festival.

The showcased dances were Sewang Senoi, Mahmeri (mask), Ketam Bangkang from Johor, Ceracik from Pera, Sewang Lanok from Negeri Sembilan, Sek Sek from Kedah, Orang Kitai from Melaka, Temadak from Sabah, Ngoncong from Sarawak, Sewang dance by aborigine artist Bahbola, and Sewang Malaysia. An additional highlight to the festivities included singing and musical performances by famous aboriginal and indigenous singers and bamboo musicians. These performances had an interactive element to pique interest as visitors were encouraged to sing and dance with the performers. The communal atmosphere created by the melding of divergent cultures and backgrounds in a unified appreciation for the aboriginal and indigenous choreography and orchestrations was unprecedented.

Adding to the lively aesthetic of the festival were the vending stalls through which artisans and cooks sold handicrafts and food from different aboriginal and indigenous settlements of Malaysia. Of the wares being sold, the buluh perindu (wooer bamboo) captured the most interest as it is said to have been used by aboriginal males in the past to mesmerize girls into loving them.

For honey lovers, the aboriginal and indigenous people brought with them the most pure and rarest royal black honey and made it available for sale to generate income. The festival provided an accessible platform to match suppliers with buyers, as raw and pure honey is highly sought by local urbanites and is always in demand.

Other food that has generally just been obtainable in villages was made available for wider distribution during in the festival. The food was cooked using traditional techniques that have been passed on through generations by ancestors. For example, one dish called lemang buluh is made by using indigenous bamboo cooking methods,

where the preparer combines glutinous rice with beef, fish, or tapioca, stuffs the ingredients into a bamboo stalk, and grills over charcoal for three to four hours.

Visitors also had the opportunity to participate in a fish-catching competition at a nearby pond. This competition, however, differed from most others as the participants were required to catch fish using bare hands. The participant who caught the most fish in a given time was declared the winner.

The festival was successful in entertaining and providing information about Malaysian aboriginal and indigenous arts to visitors and tourists.