Negaraku: The Sonic Totem of the Nusantara (Part 1)

By Shazlin Hamzah

March 2023 FEATURE
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MOST INTERESTINGLY, historical scholarship surrounding the making of the national anthem was brought about by a chain of interconnected events that led to a profound raison d’etre for the song. Negaraku's history, based on the records that are currently available, is said to have begun as far back as the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874. It was the agreement that marked the beginning of the residential system being implemented by the British in Malaya.

Misunderstandings that ensued from this intervention in the Malay governance had catastrophic consequences. These, in essence, were the driving factors behind the murder of J.W.W. Birch, the first resident of Perak, on 2 November 1875. The ruler of Perak at the time, Raja Abdullah, was charged with participating in the plot against Birch. He and his family were forced into exile to Seychelles in 1877 along with other chiefs, including Laksamana Muhammad Amin, Shahbandar Kadek Mohamed and Minister of Larut, Che’ Ngah Ibrahim.

 Upon banishment, Raja Abdullah lived on the island of Mahé, which served as a resting place for European sailors heading to Singapore and other parts of Asia. It was a busy layover, with bards and musicians performing regularly. The French, who brought their culture, entertainment and nuances with them, settled on the island.

There was a popular melody frequently played on the island by a French band around 1892. This song is said to have been written by a poet named Pierre-Jean de Béranger, originally titled "La Rosalie". Béranger (1780-1857) was an acclaimed French chansonnier and popular songwriter of his time. Béranger did not know musical notation, but he was a poet who sang tunes for his poetry as he remembered them. Several of these tunes were adapted from folk songs and operettas.

An Invitation From the Queen

Queen Victoria invited Raja Idris, who was the Sultan of Perak while Raja Abdullah was in exile, to England in 1888. The Sultan was accompanied by Sir Hugh Low, the British Resident, and Raja Mansur, the Sultan’s aide-de-camp. As the ship approached Southampton, a British government representative boarded and requested note sheets for the Perak state anthem in preparation for the Sultan's ceremonial welcome, during which a band would play this song.

The concept of having a “state anthem” was unknown in the Malay Kingdoms, where people owed allegiance only to their sultans. Nonetheless, it would have been particularly disgraceful to admit that they did not have an anthem for the state they represented. Raja Mansur, fearing absolute disgrace, apologised for “not bringing the notes with him”. He then offered to hum the tune to the bandmaster for scoring. So he hummed "La Rosalie", the popular song from Seychelles.

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According to Raja Razman Raja Abdul Hamid, the Sultan of Perak's Private Secretary between 1939 and 1952, Raja Mansur never travelled to London with Sultan Idris after his accession. Instead, it was Raja Sir Chulan, his elder brother, who did that. Both James Harding and Dato’ John Gullick had accounts that supported this. Sultan Idris visited London three times during his lifetime. On his second trip, he accepted King Edward VII's invitation to his coronation, and was accompanied by Raja Chulan instead of Raja Mansur. According to the late Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim, Raja Chulan frequently visited his father in Mahé and also attended King Edward VII's coronation with Sultan Idris in 1902.

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As it turned out, the band at the ceremony they attended played the melody in a grandiose fashion; and the song was declared the state anthem of Perak upon the return home of the Sultan and his entourage.

This was only known to the people of the palace and the royal family as there were no radios to broadcast the news. It explains why the common folk in Perak were unaware of the existence of the state's official song. People at the time also had trouble understanding the idea of a “national anthem” because it was unfamiliar and considered purely Western. Despite attempts to distribute gramophones to schools throughout Perak to play this state anthem in the 1930s, it was hardly ever heard outside the courts.

Bangsawan in the Nusantara

Sultan Abdullah was finally permitted to leave Seychelles in 1895, after which he lived in Singapore with his daughters, Raja Halijah and Raja Aminah. A few Indonesian Bangsawan groups were already performing in and around the island, and one of the songs regularly played by these groups was the famous Seychelles melody, "La Rosalie". It was known as "Stamboel Satoe". It was believed that there was constant communication between the people travelling between Singapore and Seychelles, and the travelling Bangsawan groups also contributed to the spread of the melody.

Wayang Kassim and Indra Zanzibar, among others, performed the song in Penang in the 1900s during the play, Nyai Dasimah. During the same period, the song also gained popularity in Indonesia. Rokiah sang the melody in keronchong rhythm for the 1937 Indonesian movie, Terang Boelan.

The film was well-received in Indonesia, and later, Malaya. The song had several versions and lyrics, and different groups would sing and play it during the “extra turn” intervals at Bangsawan performances. Nonetheless, the melody remained consistent. In the late 1940s, M. Yatim, also known as Maroeti, recorded a version of "Terang Boelan". The lyrics are as follows in Figure 1.

In the late 1940s, a German orchestra, The Felix Mendelssohn and His Hawaiian Serenaders, recorded an instrumental version of the song. This version was later recorded in 1951 and titled "Mamula Moon", with a Hawaiian twist.

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Sultan Abdullah was exiled for about 17 years. When the British finally allowed him to return to Malaya, he went to Singapore and then to Penang. Abdullah returned to Kuala Kangsar in 1922 and died there. He was laid to rest in Bukit Chandan and was given the title Marhum Habibullah.

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[To be continued…]

Shazlin Hamzah

is a research fellow with the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA). She just wrote a book with the title Wajah Malaysia Dalam Gurindam Lagu-lagu that explores the notion of nation branding vis-à-vis the role of patriotic songs from the 1950s-60s.


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