Dondang sayang


Dondang sayang is a traditional poetic art form mainly associated with the Malay and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) communities in Singapore and Malaysia. The term is derived from the Malay words dondang or dendang, meaning “to sing”, and sayang, which encompasses a range of meanings that include “love”, “longing” and “dejection”.1 Although dondang sayang has declined in popularity since the mid-20th century, the art form is still loved and performed by many.2

Origins
The origins of dondang sayang are unclear. Some people believe it originated from Riau, Indonesia, when it was introduced by Princess Wan Benai of Bintan island in the 12th century.3 A more widely held belief is that it was created in the Malaccan courts during the 14th and 15th centuries. In the Hikayat Hang Tuah – a record of life during the time of the Malacca sultanate – the warrior Hang Jebat, who led an uprising against the sultan of Malacca, was credited with the invention of dondang sayang.4

Regardless of its origins, dondang sayang was a popular form of entertainment in the Malaccan courts where it was often accompanied by dancing. This courtly pastime later spread to the common people who performed dondang sayang during traditional festivals.5 After Malacca came under British rule in the 19th century, dondang sayang gradually spread to the other parts of the Straits Settlements – Singapore and Penang – and to other parts of Malaya.6

Form and structure
In a typical dondang sayang session, two or more singers pit their wits against each other through pantun – a Malay poetic form – based on a theme or subject (tajuk). In public performances, dondang sayang is usually sung as a duet between a male and female performer in a light-hearted and teasing manner. Some common subjects for dondang sayang pantun include good deeds (budi), love (kasih), flowers (bunga), fruit (buah-buahan) and the sea (lautan).7


Pantun have a basic structure of four lines, each comprising four words. The first two lines create suspense and foreshadow the message. The third reveals the message of the theme, while the fourth delivers the punch.8 In dondang sayang, the pantun structure is modified to include repetition and fillers.9 An example of a dondang sayang pantun is as follows:10

Man:
Tanam selasih di tepi perigi [Plant selasih (basil)11next to a well]
Lambat laun berbunga juga [Soon it will blossom]
Walaupun kasih bertukar ganti [Though I have many lovers]
Ada masa terkenang jua [You are sometimes in my mind]

Woman:
Buah selasih di atas bangku Selasih [fruit on a bench]
Di tanam orang di pangkal serai [It is planted next to lemon grass]
Kalau rindu sebut namaku [Should you long for me, just say my name]
Air mata jangan berderai [It’s no use crying now]

While dondang sayang practitioners typically know hundreds of pantun by heart, the more talented ones can improvise pantun on the spot. To do this, singers need to be quick-witted and have a good grasp of the Malay language as well as knowledge of Malay customs and culture.12

Dondang sayang singers are accompanied by a small band of musicians playing the violin, Malay hand drums (rebana) and the gong. These core instruments may be accompanied by guitars, an accordion, western drums, tambourine and a flute. The drums and gong play coordinated rhythms, while the violin plays a melody independent of the singing.13

Dondang sayang can be simple compositions with a direct message, or contain verses with multiple layers of meanings and allusions. The former have been described as “simple-language pantun” or “plain-language pantun”. In these, the third and fourth lines of the pantun directly convey the message of the subject under discussion. So-called “deep-meaning pantun” or “metaphorical pantun”, on the other hand, involve a three-tier system: the use of a higher-level subject that is interpreted or expressed through a metaphor, the middle-level subject, and then ending off with a lower-level subject. For example, if love is the higher-level theme, it is expressed through the middle-level metaphor, fruit, and finished off with lower-level themes like scorning the opponent, giving advice, bragging or acting humbly. Deeper layers of meaning may allude to politics or specific community references.14

Dondang sayang in Singapore
In Singapore, dondang sayang has been publicly performed by the local Malays since the 19th century. Dondang sayang sessions often started after the late evening prayers and lasted until dawn. The sessions were usually held in conjunction with weddings, completion of Quran reading courses and other celebrations.15 Dondang sayang was also frequently presented during scene changes at bangsawan (Malay opera) and other performances.16


Soon, other influences began to creep into the genre. New musical instruments such as the tabla, a type of Indian percussion instrument, began to be used in performances, while new rhythmic patterns were introduced. For example, dondang sayang mambo, a fusion of dondang sayang and Latin dance styles, was a dance craze in 1950s Singapore.17

By the 1970s, local interest in dondang sayang had waned, as the younger generation was not interested in learning the art form.18 However, attempts were made to revive dondang sayang in the 1980s. These include the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now MediaCorp) television programme, Kelab Dondang Sayang, which aired from 1982 to 1985; the Sentosa Development Corporation’s annual dondang sayang show; and performances and classes organised by community centres.19

Since the 1980s, dondang sayang performances have been held at cultural, heritage and community events;20 arts and language festivals such as Pesta Raya (Malay arts festival) and Bulan Bahasa (Malay Language and Cultural Month);21 as well as plays and concerts held by groups like the Gunong Sayang Association and individual artists.22

Dondang sayang in the Peranakan community
Dondang sayang is also associated with the Peranakans or Straits Chinese. The main difference between the Peranakan and Malay versions of dondang sayang is the language used. The Peranakans used their own Baba Malay (a form of patois) and cultural references, rather than solely the Malay language.23 This point is significant because Peranakan lifestyle and culture is different from those of the Malays due to differences in religion, cultural practices and life experiences.24

Between the 19th century and the 1960s, the Peranakans mainly performed dondang sayang in their homes, usually during informal gatherings with family or friends.25 Dondang sayang was also an essential part of festive occasions and celebrations such as Chap Goh Meh (the 15th day of the Lunar New Year), wedding dinners, birthdays and anniversaries, where it was often accompanied by the ronggeng, which is a performance by a couple with interchanging parts that can involve both music and dance, and draws on a diverse range of cultures.26

William Tan, a Peranakan, recalled accompanying his father to musical sessions held at friends’ homes on Sundays. During these sessions, eight or nine people would sit around a table “sharpening their wits” through dondang sayang. A person would start with a verse, a second would reply and so on. If a person could not respond during his turn, the next person would take over.27 Tan said that the hardest part of dondang sayang was the “on-the-spot rebuttal by the singer”, as this required “a keen mind, a quick tongue and mastery of the language as well as knowledge of proverbs and idiomatic terms”.28

The Peranakans established several dondang sayang associations in the 20th century. In Singapore, the Gunong Sayang Association was set up in 1910 to support the singing of the art form, while the Penang Dondang Sayang Club was initiated in 1954.29 During every Chap Goh Meh, members of the Penang club would travel around the city in decorated buses, serenading the people.30 The Gunong Sayang Association, which consists of both Peranakan and Malay members,31 is still active as at 2015 and performs at cultural, arts and heritage events32 as well as stages their own plays.33

When Singapore became part of Malaysia in 1963, the learning of Bahasa Kebangsaan (National Language) was encouraged. With more Singapore Peranakans being fluent in Malay, increasing numbers of them began to sing the dondang sayang in Malay rather than in the Baba patois. In Malacca, however, the Peranakans still sing in the latter.34



Author
Stephanie Ho




References
1. Yusnor Ef. (1994). A brief on Malay asli and dondang sayang. In J. E. E. Peters (Ed.), Forum papers: Presentations at the 2nd ASEAN composers forum on traditional music. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI, p. 58. (Call no: RSING 784.0959 ASE)
2. Faithful 60 who keep the dondang sayang swinging. (1977, January 25). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Jeman Sulaiman. (1988, June 7). Courteous, thoughtful dondang sayang. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Amend, J. M. (1998). Negotiation of identity as theme and variation: The musical art of dondang sayang in Melaka, Malaysia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, pp. 39–40. (Call no.: RSEA 305.895105951 AME); Nurhani Hajar; (1987, May 14). The philosophical values of legends. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Amend, J. M. (1998). Negotiation of identity as theme and variation: The musical art of dondang sayang in Melaka, Malaysia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, p. 46. (Call no.: RSEA 305.895105951 AME)
6. The dondang sayang has its origin in Malacca. (1985, June 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
8. Ning Juita. (1988, May 25). Back to the days of tender tussle of the pantun. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of sdondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
10. Yusnor Ef. (1994). A brief on Malay asli and dondang sayang. In J. E. E. Peters (Ed.), Forum papers: Presentations at the 2nd ASEAN composers forum on traditional music. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI, p. 59. (Call no: RSING 784.0959 ASE)
11. Muhamad bin Zakaria & Mustafa Ali Mohd. (1994). Traditional Malay medicinal plants. Kuala Lumpur; Shah Alam, Selangor Darul Ehsan: Fajar Bakti, p. 89. (Call no.: RSING 581.634 MUH)
12. Ning Juita. (1988, May 25). Back to the days of tender tussle of the pantun. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
14. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
15. The special verses of dondang sayang known as pantuns. (1985, June 25). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Amend, J. M. (1998). Negotiation of identity as theme and variation: The musical art of dondang sayang in Melaka, Malaysia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, p. 51. (Call no.: RSEA 305.895105951 AME).
17. Amend, J. M. (1998). Negotiation of identity as theme and variation: The musical art of dondang sayang in Melaka, Malaysia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, pp. 53–54, 61. (Call no.: RSEA 305.895105951 AME).
18. Faithful 60 who keep the dondang sayang swinging. (1977, January 25). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Jeman Sulaiman. (1988, June 7). Courteous, thoughtful dondang sayang. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Residents to celebrate their big day after 20 years. (1988, September 30). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Koh, B. A. (1988, August 19). Join the 'culture' hunt during Heritage Week. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2014, August 19). Travel with Pesta Raya. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Mardiana Abu Bakar. (1988, August 11). Linking Malay language with the arts. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Hujan balek ke-langit. (2001, October 12). Today, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2013, September 7). Ready to belt it out at 90. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
23. Peters, J. (2003). Sonic orders in the sonic environment of Singapore. In J. Peters (Ed), Sonic orders in ASEAN musics: A field and laboratory study of musical cultures and systems in Southeast Asia (Vol. 2). Singapore: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, p. 383. (Call no.: RSING 781.6200959)
24. Amend, J. M. (1998). Negotiation of identity as theme and variation: The musical art of dondang sayang in Melaka, Malaysia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, p. 59. (Call no.: RSEA 305.895105951 AME)
25. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of Dondang Sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 5–6. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
26. Ooi, K. G. (2010). The A to Z of Malaysia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 275. (Call no.: RSEA 959.5003 OOI); T. F. Hwang takes you down memory lane. (1975, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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28. Lim, M. (1998, July–September). For William Tan life is a song. The Peranakan Association Newsletter (6–7). Singapore: Peranakan Association, p. 7. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957).
29. Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The Baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 8–9. (Call no.: RSING 780.89 THO)
30. Serenading for Chap Goh Meh. (1962, February 15). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Jeman Sulaiman. (1988, June 7). Courteous, thoughtful dondang sayang. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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33. Meet the Makchim. (2008, October 16). The Straits Times, p. 47. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hong, X. (2005, September 6). A Peranakan’s progress. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chew, D. (2004, September 8). Peranakan play all can be proud of. Today, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ling, N. (2013, July 30). Cinderella goes Peranakan. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
34. Lim, M. (1998, July–September). For William Tan life is a song. The Peranakan Association Newsletter (6–7). Singapore: Peranakan Association, p. 7. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957)



The information in this article is valid as at 9 March 2015 and correct as far as we can 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.

 

Subject
Performing arts
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Music
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Dondang sayang--Singapore
Heritage and Culture
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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