Kompang Jidor: The Rhythm of the Nusantara

By Izzuddin Ramli

November 2022 FEATURE
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Photo by: Cheryl Hoffmann @ PUSAKA

ALMOST EVERY WEEK in Kampung Parit Madirono, Pontian, Johor, a group of 12 men congregate in a balai raya or a surau. Donning baju Melayu and samping cloth, they sit in a circle, each holding a kompang (a single-headed frame drum). At the centre, a man sits with a jidor (a large double-headed cylindrical drum), ready with a drum mallet in hand. Two to three copies of Arabic scripted kitab (book) are laid open on wooden rehals (book stands) fronting them. Soon, they begin singing selawat (praise) in chorus, accompanied by the interlocking beats of the kompang.

They are Persatuan Kompang Kampung Parit Madirono, a group led by 48-year-old Mahni Jais, whose lineage can be traced to Java, like many others in the village. As a young man, Mahni began learning the art of kompang from master Misron Sadiman, whose late father founded the group before Malaya’s independence. 

Occasionally, the group carries their percussion around the state, performing during social festivities such as maulidur rasul (the birth of Prophet Muhammad), berkhatan (circumcision), childbirth and weddings. They also regularly train the younger generation of performers in their community and hold workshops for kompang groups from other parts of Johor. During such events, the performance could last up to three hours. At times, the cadenced crescendo of kompang rhythms reverberate from dusk to midnight.

To the public unfamiliar with the kompang tradition, this group is just another kompang group playing frame drums to enliven social events. But to kompang practitioners, they are the custodians of a particular style of kompang known as Kompang Jidor, one of the older kompang traditions practised only in Johor.

From the Middle East to Nusantara

The introduction of kompang into Malay musical repertoire possibly began as early as in the ninth century, concurrent with the introduction of Islam into Nusantara. Then, Muslim traders from the Arab world sailed to the Malay Archipelago to sell their goods. To attract customers, they played the dufuf (a single-headed frame drum with percussive additions such as bells, rings, cymbals and metal discs), believed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is said that when the Prophet Muhammad completed his Hijrah and arrived in Medina in 622 AD, girls from the Najjar tribe greeted him by singing and playing the dufuf. Arabian women also played the instrument during the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD to uplift the spirit of the warriors. 

Photo by: Cheryl Hoffmann @ PUSAKA

The Islamisation of the Majapahit empire in the 13th century further spread the kompang tradition, with music being used as a medium to advance the new religion. Sufism was introduced then, and music was seen as a route to experiencing the divine. The Javanese incorporated kompang into their musical ensemble called gamelan, a bronze percussive musical ensemble played in many traditional ceremonies. They rearranged the lyrics to align with Sufi teachings.

With a special government office supervising the performing arts, the Majapahit empire continued to develop gamelan, including the kompang. It spread through various regions such as Bali, Sunda and Lombok. In Java, kompang metamorphosed into various types and was known by different names such as bibid, babonan, terbang, kempling, kumpang and rebana. 

The transformation of Melaka from a small fishing village to a glorious trading port in the 14th century and the conversion of the Melaka Sultanate to Islam in the 15th century also played a big role in expanding local music. As a vibrant port city, Melaka became a new settlement for Arab and Indian Muslims, apart from other regions on the Peninsula’s west coast. Coming from rich musical cultures, they formed communities and practised their own traditions while maintaining their relationship with locals.

The ongoing cultural interaction resulted in some of their musical instruments being adapted into local traditions. Other than the gambus (plucked lute), frame drums remained the principal instrument linked to the Islamic sound used in many ensembles. Throughout the Malay Peninsula, kompang is also named hadrah, rodat and rebana. In Perak and Perlis, the frame drum is called rebana and was used as the main instrument in the Sufi tradition of Hadrah

While kompang remains a vibrant tradition in the country, performed traditionally by communities in kampungs, it is also being taught to the youth in local schools. However, the authenticity of its form has waned through the years, as the younger generation prefers innovative beats incorporating contemporary popular musical influences. It was especially apparent in the 1990s when modern Malay music began adopting Nusantara elements into their predominantly Western-influenced music. The mixing of kompang beats with western instruments made the two timbres of the kompang more pleasing to ears attuned to modern music rhythms.

Twelve Interlocking Beats

Kompang repertoire is unique to each community, depending on their lineage and origins. The migration of Javanese Muslims to Johor in the 19th century brought along deep-seated cultural traditions including Kompang Jidor. By the 1940s, many kompang troupes had been established by Javanese migrants and local Malays.

As in many other kompang traditions, Kompang Jidor is performed while sitting cross-legged, standing or walking. However, unlike the Kompang Melayu tradition that only has four beats, Kompang Jidor encompasses twelve kompang and jidor beats. These twelve beats are known by their Javanese names – Jidor, Babon, Banggen, Nelon, Ngelimo, Ngorapati, Anak Babon, Paron, Ngapati, Ngentong, Nyalahi and Nyelangi

Photo by: Cheryl Hoffmann @ PUSAKA

It is commonly played during selawat, based on the Kitab Barzanji, a book of praises to Prophet Muhammad written by a Medina poet, Ja’afar b. Hasan b. Abdul Karim al-Barzanji in the 18th century. The praises are arranged as rawi (call) and jawapan (answer), and sung in the Arabic language.

Persatuan Kompang Kampung Parit Madirono traditionally sings only one selawat in the Malay language, the way they were taught by their predecessors. The lines of "Ibnu Adam" poetically remember their origins as people of the Abrahamic faith: 

Anak Adam Siti Hawa datuk nenek si moyang kita

Sudah wafat di dalam dunia

Di kubur di luar kota

Tuhan memberkati ketenangan


(Children of Adam and Eve, our paternal and maternal ancestors;

They left the world within this world,

Their graves lie beyond the city walls,

God grants them blessings of peace.*)

They are the last remaining active kompang group in Johor, keeping the Kompang Jidor tradition alive. Their community-based and inter-generational interaction distinguish them from other kompang groups in Malaysia. Since the group’s founding in the pre-Independence era, the lineage of Kompang Jidor practitioners in this community has been flowing like a perennial river. Kompang Jidor master Misron Sadiman, the son of the original founder, and current group leader Mahni Jais, work tirelessly to pass down their knowledge to the next generation. 

The transmission of this cultural tradition to younger performers, however, is one of the main challenges faced by kompang groups in Johor, particularly those who play an older style of kompang including the twelve-beat Kompang Jidor. According to research done by PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based cultural organisation that has been working closely with Persatuan Kompang Jidor Kampung Parit Madirono over the past few years, many traditional, community-based groups have disbanded and stopped performing altogether. Old age or the passing of elder masters in the community, lack of interest by the local community and migration of the younger generation out of their kampung are among the main reasons for the declining number of Kompang Jidor groups in Johor.  

The making of kompang and jidor poses another challenge. In the past, they made their own instruments, but its production had not been consistent since they depended on the weather to dry the goat hide used for the kompang skin. For the past decade, they have been relying on Mokhtar bin Hamid, a kompang maker from Perusahaan Kompang dan Jidor Parit Sumarto in Parit Raja, Batu Pahat, Johor.

Since 2017, the efforts of the Kompang Jidor masters of Parit Madirono have been reinforced and revitalised through a research and documentation project with PUSAKA, called Enhancing the Sustainability of the Kompang Johor Tradition, supported by the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA). This project encompasses regular workshops for local youths and exposure to a wider audience. Previously renowned in Johor but unknown to the rest of the Malaysian public, they now perform at esteemed venues and festivals in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, showcasing and teaching their unique kompang style to urban audiences. 

Kompang Jidor tells of the cultural richness of the Javanese-Malay community in the country, and marks one of the ways in which Islam took root in Nusantara. It reflects the celebratory nature of Malaysian society. For Kompang Jidor masters Misron Sadiman and Mahni Jais, their aspirations are simple but profound — they wish for the Kompang Jidor tradition to continue resonating for generations to come.

*Excerpt of "Ibnu Adam" selawat translated by Pauline Fan.

Izzuddin Ramli

edits Penang Institute’s Suara Nadi and finds himself speaking to writers, researchers, and cultural activists in Bual Nusantara, a podcast channel published by the Institute.