Dikir Barat: An Evolving Identity Marker

By Izzuddin Ramli

May 2022 FEATURE
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Photo by: PUSAKA @ Mahesan Selladurai

AS THE SUN sinks low in the sky, the fishermen draw in their nets and make their way home. On shore, they gather at the wakaf, a wooden pavilion found in villages throughout Kelantan. They reach for a set of musical instruments kept there as common property – rebana ibu, rebana anak, gong and canang. A few of them sit in a tight circle in the middle, then one of the fishermen starts singing. Soon, the wakaf is filled with melody and rhythm, call and response. They pause for the maghrib prayer, only to continue later, playing late into the night.

This is how dikir barat, a traditional art, is performed in a village setting in Kelantan. A dikir barat ensemble consists of the tok jogho (lead singer), tukang karut (spontaneous verse composer), awak-awak (chorus and clappers) and musicians. It starts with the bertabuh musical prelude, followed by singing led by the tok jogho. Each line sung by the tok jogho and tukang karut is repeated by the awak-awak chorus in a call-and-response pattern. The chorus animates the verses with hand movements, punctuated with clapping that follows the beat of the gong.

The history of dikir barat is obscure. There are multiple versions of how dikir barat first emerged in Kelantan. The most common story is that it originated in southern Thailand as an art form known as dikir, and was performed by Pattani Malays. It was Pak Leh Tapang, a legendary dikir barat tok jogho, who first introduced it in Kelantan and began to improvise the art form to his own musical taste. He added the pantun or karut part which has become a common feature of today’s dikir barat. The term “barat” was once used by Kelantanese to refer to the Pattani region of southern Thailand.  

Photo by: PUSAKA @ Cheryl Hoffman

In Kelantan, dikir barat soon developed into a widespread and beloved art form practised in almost every village. Many legendary local dikir barat performers rose to take the limelight, bearing creative stage names such as Daud Bukit Abal, Seman Wau Bulan, Halim Yazid, Jali Bunga Tanjung, Megat Nordin, Jen Endoro, Zaidi Buluh Perindu, Fendi Ayam Serama and Mat Glamor.

Read also: Manora: Much More Than Just a Ritualistic Dance

Today, dikir barat has become a popular form of entertainment throughout Malaysia, played by people from all walks of life on various occasions. There are also community-organised dikir barat competitions, and the art form is regularly featured in the co-curriculum of national schools. Dikir barat has moved beyond Kelantan and even beyond the borders of Malaysia, crossing the straits and reaching the Malay community in Singapore.

Rooted in Oral Traditions

Dikir barat reflects the dynamics of everyday life. Songs composed in the dikir barat tradition encompass a range of topics such as marriage, community issues and even local politics. For instance, the well-known dikir barat songs, Lembu Tak Tambat (Cows on the Loose) by Cikgu Naim and Kerbau Putus Tali (Unleashed Water Buffaloes) by Poknik Man Cok Cangkul, tell of cows and water buffaloes roaming freely in the kampung, depicting the humour and chaos that ensue.

The lyrics and performance style of dikir barat offer fresh perspective and commentary on complex social phenomena. It lies in the mastery of the tok jogho and tukang karut to translate the layered experience of daily life into the colloquial language of the local audience. On some occasions, especially during competitions, dikir barat performers respond to a theme provided by the organisers. They also often sing renditions of familiar songs, belting out improvised lyrics in the Kelantanese dialect to the borrowed melodies of Hindustani or traditional Malay songs.

The emphasis on linguistic skill is unsurprising as dikir barat is derived from Malay oral traditions, especially the balas pantun. It involves the process of remembering, recreating and transmitting. In dikir barat, the call and response in verse depart from the traditional pantun form, manifesting instead in improvised couplets that follow dikir barat poetic’s characteristic metre and cadence. As in other Kelantanese performing arts such as mak yong, main puteri and wayang kulit, dikir barat embraces improvisation and spontaneity.

Photo by: PUSAKA @ Cheryl Hoffman

Improvisation is a defining feature of orality. In Kelantan, great performers of oral traditions are necessarily masters of improvisation. In fact, the dominance of percussive instruments in the dikir barat ensemble – such as rebana ibu and rebana anak – encourages the musicians and singers to improvise. When the tukang karut takes the floor, he ushers in raw energy that carries the performance to a climax and a rush of adrenaline. Charisma is the lifeblood of a tukang karut – he embodies the spirit of subversion and nakal (mischief), his phrases of wisdom at times straying into playful profanity.

In dikir tewas, a competition between two dikir barat groups, emotions sometimes run high and may even lead to brawls among performers. The stirring wau bulan finale offers a space for reconciliation and a celebration of the underlying brotherhood of dikir barat. Composed by the legendary Seman Wau Bulan, the wau bulan song that now traditionally closes a dikir barat performance symbolises a return to the human and the essential self.

Photo by: PUSAKA @ Mahesan Selladurai

Beyond Entertainment

After the National Culture Policy was introduced in the 1970s, many Kelantanese traditional performing arts such as mak yong and wayang kulit were incorporated into national institutions and imbued with a “national” identity. Many masters of Kelantanese traditions resisted this, but this was not so much the case for dikir barat. Dikir barat groups tend to accept performing the “cleansed” version of the art form in the mainstream sphere, while continuing to execute the more subversive dikir in Kelantanese settings.

When PAS took over Kelantan in the 1990s, the state government banned the traditional performances of mak yong, wayang kulit, main puteri and manora. Their initial plan to also ban dikir barat was abandoned, however, due to the immense popularity of the art form. In addition, the state government saw dikir barat as a useful medium to spread messages and propaganda. Having survived the cultural politics of the last three decades in Kelantan, dikir barat today thrives as a ubiquitous subculture.

Read also: The Poetics and Politics of Main Puteri (Nov 2021)

The New Economic Policy and the corresponding era of development sent many Kelantanese to big cities, especially KL and Johor Bahru, for opportunities for work and education. Among the Kelantanese diaspora in KL, dikir barat groups such as Akademi Dikir Barat Arjunasukma started to emerge as means of gathering and affirming Kelantanese identity. It was Kelantanese migrant construction workers who introduced dikir barat to Singapore in the 1980s. The irresistible rhythms of dikir barat were well received by Singaporean Malays and it has now been incorporated as part of their hybrid culture.

For Kelantanese workers and youth far away from their beloved home state, dikir barat is a vehicle of self-expression and solidarity with peers. For the folk in Kelantan – farmers, fishermen, teachers, civil servants – dikir barat remains an imaginative and invigorating way to make sense of everyday life.

Izzuddin Ramli

is a Kelantanese analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.