Dikir barat

by Ho, Stephanie

Dikir barat is a style of Malay choral singing popular in Singapore and Malaysia. With a flexible format that incorporates singing, poetry, movement and music, dikir barat is a form of entertainment that cuts across various segments of society.

Traditionally, dikir barat was usually performed during the harvest season, weddings and festive occasions. Groups from different villages and towns also sparred with each other in dikir barat competitions.1 In modern times, dikir barat has spread to the cities and performances can be seen in urban areas and are even screened on television.2 In addition, dikir barat is no longer merely entertainment; it is now used as a vehicle for social commentary, to stimulate discussion on current issues and even to educate audiences.3

Dikir barat is believed to have originated from Malay villages in southern Thailand. The word barat means “west” in Malay. Some researchers argue that barat refers to Thailand, which is situated to the west of Kelantan, Malaysia, where the term dikir barat originated. In Thailand, this musical genre is known as dikir karut to emphasise the presence of the tukang karut (song initiator). The word dikir is believed to have been derived from zikir, a form of religious singing and chanting. Dikir barat, however, is considered a form of secular entertainment.4

From southern Thailand, dikir barat was said to have then spread to Kelantan where it became localised. This came in various ways such as the incorporation of pantun (poetry) and the Kelantanese dialect into the musical art form. From Kelantan, dikir barat spread to other parts of Malaysia and Singapore.5

The dikir barat group
A dikir barat group typically comprises four main elements: the tok juara (leader), tukang karut (song initiator), a chorus of about 10 to 15 performers known as the awok-awok and a percussion ensemble. The tok juara sets the theme of the performance and keeps the group together during the performance. Themes usually span a wide range of contemporary and social topics that include love, marriage and life in the village or city.6

The tukang karut initiates responses and challenges competing groups. This is important as dikir barat is very much a battle of wits. While competing, teams have to weave “a continuous stream of impromptu, rhythmic verses” to ridicule and deride their opponent.7

The tukang karut has to be quick-witted and think on his feet as he has to spontaneously compose four-line poems known as pantun according to the theme introduced by the tok juara or to rebut his competitor.8

The awok-awok provides excitement through body movements, handclapping and singing to reinforce phrases sung by the tok juara and tukang karut. The percussion ensemble that supports a dikir barat group varies in size. A typical ensemble consists of two rebana – handheld drums – of different sizes, a pair of maracas and several gongs.9

In a typical performance, the tok juara starts by introducing the theme through a lyrical song. He usually sings without accompaniment and in a slow tempo. He is followed by the tukang karut who stands and moves around while singing and improvising lyrics. The awok-awok responds to the tok juara and tukang karut by singing, as well as performing rhythmic and synchronised movements of their arms, hands and upper torso, while remaining seated cross-legged on the floor.10

In a competition, teams are judged on a number of criteria, including intricacy of the language, song lyrics, voice quality of the singers, poetic quality, rhythm, creativity of the hand movements, costumes, showmanship as well as overall presentation.11

Dikir barat in Malaysia
Dikir barat is popular in many parts of Malaysia especially in Kelantan where it is regarded as a traditional art form. Besides performances, dikir barat recordings are also popular.12 It was reported in 2006 that there were about five major production houses in Kelantan releasing around 20 dikir barat albums a year.13

In May 1998, a controversy arose from the Kelantan government’s decision to ban dikir barat performances. The government claimed that a number of dikir barat organisers included other forms of entertainment that contradicted Islamic teachings.14 The ban was short-lived: the government then allowed performances as long as groups agreed to abide by several conditions. Performances were only allowed by groups affiliated to the State Dikir Barat Association, and female dikir barat singers, comedians and other forms of entertainment were strictly prohibited during such performances.15 Dikir barat performances in other Malaysian states were not subject to such rules.

Dikir barat performances in Kelantan continue to attract the crowds because dikir barat songs are often infused with dangdut (a type of Indonesian folk music) elements, Malay dance forms zapin and joget, and even pop, rock and techno music. Older and popular dikir barat songs are also remixed to appeal to a wider audience and changing tastes.16

Dikir barat in Singapore
Dikir barat became popular in Singapore during the 1980s. In 1984, the Malay Literary, Debating and Cultural Society of Nanyang Junior College organised the first dikir barat competition for schools. This competition sparked off interest among secondary schools and junior colleges, which began to form groups for the competition.17 The art form soon caught on as schools introduced it as an extra-curricular activity and formed dikir barat groups. The training instills in students the values of discipline, tolerance and teamwork.18

Before long, dikir barat gained traction among Singapore youths. Breaking from tradition that dikir barat was to be performed only by men or boys, girls in Singapore also began to join or form their own dikir barat groups. Even as these youths were learning a traditional musical genre, they also began to modify and modernise dikir barat performances. For example, groups used their creativity to introduce new movements rather than stick to the traditional moves.19 Songs composed for dikir barat performances also borrowed elements from English, Malay and Hindi pop songs.20

By the 1990s, dikir barat had become so popular that groups began recording their songs. The album Dikir Nusantara released by two top dikir barat groups was so successful that it sold out within a month of its release.21 Competitions such as the national dikir barat competition organised by Majlis Pusat and the People’s Association in 1993 helped to further promote the musical genre.22 Community centres also formed their own dikir barat groups, and organised competitions and performances.23

In January 1993, the Singapore Dikir Barat Federation was established with the objectives of promoting the art form, streamlining and coordinating dikir barat activities, and providing guidance and resources for groups.24 The non-profit organisation is located at Kampong Ubi Community Centre.25

Being an important part of Malay culture and heritage, through the years, there have been attempts to bring the art form to the masses, and to include it in cultural and major events in Singapore. In August 1997, the Singapore Dikir Barat Federation and the Singapore Youth Council organised the first dikir barat marathon. It involved more than 400 Malay youths from schools and community groups entertaining the crowds with a non-stop seven-hour performance held at the Youth Park in Somerset.26

In 2007, the inaugural Malay Arts Festival held at the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam encompassed dikir barat performances.27 In 2009, world leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in Singapore were entertained by programmes showcasing the different cultures of Singapore, one of which was a dikir barat performance.28

Chingay parades held during the Chinese New Year have also included dikir barat in their repertoire. The 2011 Chingay featured dikir barat performances, while the 2012 parade incorporated an outdoor dikir barat  competition, which was performed by 400 people on a water-logged 360-metre-long platform.29

Stephanie Ho

1. “Song of Advice and Sketch,” Straits Times, 2 March 1989, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Patricia Matusky and Tan Sooi Beng, The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk and Syncretic Traditions (England: Ashgate, 2004), 356. (Call no. RSEA 780.9595 MUZ-[ART])
2. Matusky and Tan, Music of Malaysia, 356.
3. “Song of Advice and Sketch.” 
4. Matusky and Tan, Music of Malaysia, 355.
5. Sharifah Masturah Bte Syed Osman, “Dikir Barat in Kelantan and Singapore: Looking Beyond Its Superficiality,” (BA (Hons) Thesis. National University of Singapore, 1988–1999), 9–10.
6. J. Peters, “Sonic Orders in the Sonic Environment of Singapore,” in ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics: A Field and Laboratory Study of Musical Cultures and Systems in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, 2003), 386 (Call no.: RSING 781.6200959 SON); “Song of Advice and Sketch.” 
7. Osman, “Dikir Barat in Kelantan and Singapore.”
8. Matusky and Tan, Music of Malaysia, 357.
9. Matusky and Tan, Music of Malaysia, 356, 358; Peters, “Sonic Orders in the Sonic Environment of Singapore,” 386.
10. Osman, “Dikir Barat in Kelantan and Singapore,” 12–16; Matusky and Tan, Music of Malaysia, 356–7.
11. Lisa Kong, “Singing to the Rhythms of the Drums,” Straits Times, 5 January 1989, 36; Sherri Jalil, “Young and Serious,” Straits Times, 24 February 1993, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Carolyn Brennan, “Religion, Cultural Identity and Kelantan’s Dikir Barat,” Australian Journal of Anthropology 12, no. 3 (December 2011): 306. (From EBSCOhost via NLB’s eResources website)
13. S. Mahavera, “Dikir Barat Rocks Ok!” New Sunday Times, 1 October 2006. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
14. Zainal Alam Kadir, “A Slow Death for Dikir Barat?” New Straits Times, 2 June 1998. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
15. Nik Imran Abdullah, “Kelantan Lifts Ban on Dikir Barat Shows,” New Straits Times, 9 July 1998. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
16. Mahavera, “Dikir Barat Rocks Ok!” 
17. Radin Zahara Osman, “A Bigger Following for ‘Dikir Barat’,” Straits Times, 29 October 1985, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lisa Kong, “The Schools Are Alive with the Sound of Dikir Barat,” Straits Times, 5 January 1989, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Community Zinging,” Straits Times, 9 August 1989, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Osman, “Bigger Following for ‘Dikir Barat’.” 
21. Yaakub Rashid, “Songs for the Common Folk,” Straits Times, 15 May 1991, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Tuminah Sapawi, “Contest of Music and Wit,” Straits Times, 17 December 1992, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Tuminah Sapawi, “Warriors Fight, and Voices Do Battle, among other Items,” Straits Times, 12 December 1996, 18; “Choral Singing Contest,” Straits Times, 27 April 1995, 27; “Dikir Barat Competition Returns,” Straits Times, 18 July 1996, 12; “Boon Lay Goes Cultural,” Straits Times, 5 December 1996, 15; “The Best of Dikir Barat,” Straits Times, 6 March 1997, 8; “Choral Singing Competition,” Straits Times, 19 March 1998, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Tuminah Sapawai, “Choral Advice,” Straits Times, 10 February 1993, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Singapore Dikir Barat Federation, “About,” Facebook, n.d.
26. “Dikir Barat Marathon Draws 400 Youths,” Straits Times, 12 August 1997, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Adeline Chia, “Soaking Up Malay Culture,” Straits Times, 3 August 2007, 71. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Wong Kim Hoh and Lynn Lee, “Glittering Evening of Fun Hospitality,” Straits Times, 15 November 2009, 1. (Fom NewspaperSG)
29. Amanda Tan, “Get Set for More Multiracial Chingay,” Straits Times, 27 October 2010, 2; “Dikir Barat on Water for Chingay Parade,” New Paper, 12 December 2011, 10–11. (From NewspaperSG

The information in this article is valid as of 11 February 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.


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