Dondang sayang

Dondang Sayang is a form of singing poems, an art accompanied by its own unique orchestra. Dondang Sayang, translated from Malay means "melody of love". Originating from the Malay community, it has been adopted by the Peranakans as an integral expression of their culture.

Dondang Sayang grew out of shared cultural practices between the Malays and the Peranakans, although the performances also saw Indians, particularly the Chetty Malaccans join in - a testimony to the rich cultural heritage that is tied to the art.

The practice of Dondang Sayang can be traced as far back as the 19th century in Malacca, although some believe the 17th/18th century Hikayat Hang Tuah has made mention of this art. Lagu Gunong Sayang mentioned by a T. J. Newbold between 1832 to 1835 in Malacca is also believed to be an early reference to Dondang Sayang practised in Sumatra and Riau. The art continued to be closely associated with the Riau courts until the court's demise in 1911. Even so, associations such as the Gunong Sayang Association in Singapore, formed in 1910, and the Penang Dondang Sayang Club, formed in 1954, helped sustain the art until the 1960s.

The four-line pantun or "poems" sung have a set literary structure. The first 2 lines, known as pembayang, serve as an initial rhyming agent, often with little relevance to the final 2 lines, the maksud or "meaning" which carries the main thrust of the poem. The pembayang usually describes an everyday event, object or person. The punch-line however describes deeper emotions from love to death, life's values and culture.

The performance of Dondang Sayang involves a group of singer of ideally 2 women and 3 to 4 men and an orchestra of between 6 to 10 persons. Various musical instruments are played with the biola or the "violin" playing the main key and percussion instruments usually 2 rebana, or "Malay drums" and gongs adding life. Guitars, an accordian, tambourines, a flute are also sometimes added to the orchestra.

The singers exchange a witty banter, making up pantuns as they go along. The process is sometimes described as a business transaction, with one singer selling his pantun and challenging the next singer to buying it. Beginning with an almost standard approach, the tajuk or "subject" of the pantun is first asked of by the host or key singer, with the next singer responding with a choice of budi, "good deeds" or kasi, "love". Invariably, good deeds is chosen over love with the repartee on a single subject continuing for as long as 2 hours or until a singer is at a loss for words. Good singers thus need not only an in-depth knowledge of local tales and proverbs in order to compose suitable pantuns, but also quick wit and a mastery of the Baba language.

Dondang Sayang performances are held in homes and on festive occassions such as weddings. The more private performances are usually conducted by the nonyas or "Peranakan ladies" while the more formal and public occasions have the babas or "Peranakan men" performing. These included competitions and at "spirit shrines" or keramat.

Bonny Tan © National Library Board, 2000

Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
(Call no.: RSING 899.2304 THO)

Dondang Sayang. (1980). Goodwood Journal, 2nd Qtr., 9, 15.
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)

Further Readings
Panton dondang sayang Baba Baba pranakan. (19--). Kuala Lumpur: Perkhidmatan Reprografi, Perpustakaan Universiti Malaya.
(Call no.: RSEA 899.2304 PAN)

List of Images
Dondang Sayang. Goodwood Journal, 2nd Qtr., 9, 15.
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ) 

The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Arts>>Performing Arts>>Music
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Dondang sayang--Singapore
Love songs--Singapore
Arts>>Music>>Folk and traditional music
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
People and communities>>Social interaction>>Love and romance

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