Party like it’s 1899

loading (Left to right) Chek Puteh Hashim, Zakaria Hashim, Yusof Mat Hashim, Ustaz Haji Rodalle, Rokiah Othman, Ismail bin Nayan, Haryany Mohamad and Omar Hashim.

With its Persian origins and exotic tunes, Ghazal Party is an art form unique to Penang’s mainland. But will it survive?

Ghazal Party’s tunes are easy to dance to, and once captured hearts in Seberang Perai.

Ghazal, which originates from the Arabic word ghaz meaning “songs addressed to a woman”, entertains almost exclusively on mainland Penang, leaving boria (a form of Malay theatre) to the island where a high concentration of tourists allowed it to flourish. Soon, boria became synonymous to Penang while Ghazal Party’s fan base steadily plummeted.

Ghazal has Persian origins and was introduced a century ago to Malay villages in Kepala Batas by local students returning from their religious studies in Iran. Its popularity spawned Ghazal Party groups along the northern stretch of the peninsula. Today though, it is a dying art in desperate need of revival.

The first Ghazal Party to be established in Penang during the turn of the twentieth century, the Ajinda Ghazal Party, was the brainchild of Syeikh Abdullah Fahim, a well-respected religious leader and the paternal grandfather of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. “In those days, night-time entertainment was few and far between. To amuse the villagers, Syeikh Abdullah decided to form his own Ghazal Party comprising a group of musicians, singers, dancers and comedians,” says Omar Hashim, an activist on a mission to preserve the art.

The musicians would belt out popular Egyptian ballads like Alabaladi, with a mix of Malay and Hindustani melodies thrown in. Most Ghazal Parties formed in Penang and Kedah were found in close vicinity to religious schools: “Students who were actively involved in the Ghazal Parties discovered that they could easily recite the Quranic texts. This is because both the Arabic song lyrics and the Quran share similar pronunciation patterns and rules,” says Ustaz Haji Rodalle, who plays the accordion.

A Ghazal Party performance will usually feature women dancers in belly dancing costumes.

Perhaps one of the more entertaining highlights of a Ghazal Party performance were the dancers. Because Muslim women were cautioned to guard their modesty, their appearances in such public events were kept minimal; instead, male dancers dressed up as women to take their place – some of whom, according to Omar, were closeted cross-dressers taking the opportunity to exhibit their inner femininity on stage, much to the delight of the audience. The rule has since changed to include female dancers in Ghazal Party performances: “Typically, there would be two or three women dancers in a complete Ghazal Party group, while an incomplete group might not have any. The dancers would belly dance. They can be of any age – we’ve had dancers who were in their forties and fifties!” says Omar.

Chek Puteh Hashim founded Fajar Irama Ghazal Party Sungai Bakau, formerly known as Cahaya Mata Ghazal Party Sungai Bakau.

Other Forms

There are also other forms of Ghazal in Malaysia. In Johor Bahru, it is known as Ghazal Johor. “They mainly focus on the musical aspect of the art. We, on the other hand, are called Ghazal Party because we feature a wider spectrum of entertainment to include dancing and comedy. Hence, a party,” says Omar.

As a Ghazal Party can last five hours long, the dancers and comedians will take turns so as to give the musicians and singers a breather. Yusof Mat Hashim, 60, has been a Ghazal Party comedian since he was a teenager. “I used to attend Ghazal Party performances to study the comedians for tips and tricks to practice with.” Now a funnyman in his own right, Yusof plays the character Usop Misai Kontot. “The name ‘Kontot’ is a play on Charlie Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache. My role is to draw as much attention to myself as possible whenever I appear on stage.” The comedian will frequently make brief cameos at any time during the performance, clowning around and teasing other performers before disappearing backstage.

The use of musical instruments by both Ghazal groups also differ slightly. “Ghazal Johor uses the harmonium – that is why they usually perform seated cross-legged on mats. Ghazal Party, on the other hand, uses the accordion, so we perform either standing up or seated on chairs. Plus, Ghazal Johor prefers to sing Malay songs that are heavily influenced by Ghazal melodies while Ghazal Party, in keeping with tradition, still sings Arab tunes.”

Ustaz Haji Rodalle is a pro with the accordion.

Raising Awareness

At present, only three active Ghazal Party groups remain: Ajinda Ghazal Party, Fajar Irama Ghazal Party of Sungai Bakau, and Mergung Ghazal Party in Kedah. Session Ghazal Party musicians would often band together either under Ajinda Ghazal Party or Fajar Irama Ghazal Party to perform at wedding ceremonies, political campaigns or circumcision rituals.

As music centres were unheard of in those days, Ghazal Party musicians were mostly self-taught, and trained to play by ear. Chek Puteh Hashim, the founder of Fajar Irama Ghazal Party, began playing music when she was seven. She made her own musical instruments before she saved up enough money to buy proper ones. By 13, she had mastered the violin, guitar, tambourine, accordion and drums.

Another Ghazal Party musician, Zakaria Hashim, was a preteen when he became acquainted with the music. “I remember making my own drum set with a Milo tin and bamboo sticks after coming back from a Ghazal Party performance,” he says.

Zakaria Hashim strumming his gambus, a traditional Arabic musical instrument brought over to South-East Asia by Arab traders.

Now in their golden years, members of the Ghazal Parties are doing their utmost to ensure the cultural art does not disappear with them. “How we’re introducing people to Ghazal Party is mostly through performing at weddings. We’ve also performed shows for the general public,” says Omar. In 2011 Ghazal Party was featured in the George Town Festival to pique the interest of the young.

Recently, they collaborated with the Penang State Museum and the National Department for Culture and Arts as a participating member of Malaysia’s first travelling exhibition, Silang Budaya (“Cross Culture”), held from April to December last year. The cultural programme was coordinated by the Penang State Museum to promote various traditional and cultural performances like Wayang Kulit Seri Asun, a shadow play theatre from Kedah; Cempuling, a type of traditional Javanese music from Selangor; Zapin Melayu, a dance from Johor; and Dabus, a dance that is closely associated with the art of self-defence from Perak. Ghazal Party was selected to represent Penang.

Chek Puteh Hashim.

People from all walks of life were invited to participate in the free three-day Ghazal Party workshop held at the museum. Interested parties needed only minimal musical knowledge to join in the fun. “The public was very welcoming of the idea. We had Penangites from different communities and ages who participated. Our youngest participant was a five-year-old girl; she was taught how to play the maracas by the Ghazal Party members. At the end of the workshop, the participants hosted a free performance for the public to enjoy,” says museum director, Haryany Mohamad.

The renewed interest in Ghazal Party has somewhat assuaged Omar’s concerns about the future of the art form. “Youths are slowly but surely learning the art, but ultimately our main goal is to ensure that Ghazal Party does not end up in a museum.”


Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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