Hold Sway

Published on 26 March 2017

Can the energy and vibrancy of dikir barat still attract young people today?

BY PAMELA HO

It wasn’t just the artistry of dikir barat that attracted me. Have you ever watched a bunch of performers and found that you’re smiling to yourself, not because they’re perfect but because you feel a connection? That’s what drew me in,” shares 20-year-old Danish Irfan, who is currently pursuing a Diploma in Business Information Systems at Republic Polytechnic. Not surprisingly, he joined the polytechnic’s dikir barat group, Wira, and now performs in the chorus.

Dikir barat — a style of Malay choral singing — may appear effortless with its swaying and clapping, but Irfan says the training can be tough. “You see us sitting down and singing on stage, but we don’t just sit during training sessions. To improve our stamina and breathing techniques, we sing while running!” reveals Irfan, who is also part of another group, Makyong Kedek, outside of school. “Besides spending months just practising voice projection, we also have to be in sync, not just with the other 19 singers but also the percussionists; so training sessions can be very repetitive.”

NEW EXPRESSIONS

Dikir barat originated from Kelantan in Malaysia. The word dikir is believed to have been derived from zikir, a form of religious singing and chanting; while barat means west in Malay, referring to the west of Kelantan or southern Thailand, where the influence is attributed to. This secular form of entertainment is traditionally performed at harvests, weddings and festive occasions.

Within a dikir barat group, there are typically four roles: tok juara (creative leader), tukang karut (song initiator), the awok-awok (choral singers) and the percussion ensemble, with performances incorporating singing, poetry, music and movement.

It’s not clear when exactly dikir barat was birthed, but Shariff Sah, president of the Singapore Dikir Barat Federation, says it could have come to Singapore as early as the 1970s, although the first known competition was held only in 1984, organised by Nanyang Junior College.

“In Singapore, dikir barat started in schools. It was then considered a new culture, a new art form for youth to express their creativity through lyrics writing, song composition, choreography and music arrangement,” says Shariff, who got involved in 1992 at age 14. He has been with his group, Kelana Purba, for 25 years.

Central to dikir barat is the message, which varies from educational to addressing social issues. “For local competitions like the Mega Perdana, groups are given themes which they’re free to interpret,” shares Shariff, who writes for his group. “For example, when Singapore turned 50, the theme was ‘50/50’. While some groups talked about Singapore’s history, other creative writers wrote beyond that, touching on equality or perfection.”

VOCAL PROWESS

FEMININE FLAIR: Diyana Ramlan, part of all-female group Dania Aniqah, says being involved in dikir barat is her way of preserving a part of Malay heritage.

The Mega Perdana — a biennial national-level dikir barat competition — was established in 1997, and this year marks its 10th anniversary. Organised by the Singapore Dikir Barat Federation, the 2016/2017 edition saw 18 groups and 540 participants competing in the first two rounds before 12 groups were selected for the grand finals on 26 March, held at the University Cultural Centre.

“In Singapore, we have both male and female performers. That’s less common in Kelantan, which is more conservative,” says Shariff. “Males and females are not mixed for competition, but we have pretty good female groups here!”

In fact, four out of the 12 finalists this year were all-female groups. One of these groups is Dania Aniqah, of which 23-year-old Diyana Ramlan is a part of. A former softball player, Diyana picked up dikir barat in 2010, when she was looking for a “less strenuous” extra-curricular activity at Temasek Polytechnic. Today, she is honorary treasurer of the Singapore Dikir Barat Federation.

“Being female doesn’t make much of a difference,” says the part-time undergraduate. “But I feel we’re still not viewed as equal to the male groups, judging by how some people leave the auditorium for a break when a female team performs. But I’m heartened to see that the standard of our female groups is rising. Some have even surpassed male groups in standings for competitions.”

As to why she remains committed, Diyana reflects, “Being involved in dikir barat is my way of preserving a part of the Malay heritage.”

YOUTHFUL SPIRIT

While dikir barat groups in schools and community centres used to attract students in their early teens in the 1980s and ’90s, Shariff observes that these days, the entry age tends to be at tertiary level, due in part to the lack of exposure to the art form earlier. “As such, one of Mega Perdana’s criteria is that the groups must have at least two youths, aged 21 and below, performing on stage. We want them to make an effort to attract younger members.”

He is, however, heartened that five primary schools in Singapore — Lakeside Primary, Qihua Primary, Woodgrove Primary, South View Primary and Greenwood Primary — have contracted dikir barat instructors to run 20- to 25-week programmes for the children.

Soffian Haron, who has been an instructor since 2001 and currently teaches at Lakeside Primary School, notes a decline in the number of youths getting involved in the scene over the years. “With so many options available to them in this digital age, it’s important to expose and teach the younger generation the art form; to ensure that dikir barat will not be a dying art.”

Soffian believes more can be done. “On our part, we have to adapt to the ever-changing arts landscape and the different profiles under our charge, as well as to adopt different strategies to make the dikir barat experience accessible to wider audiences.”

Shariff concurs, “I don’t want people to view the dikir barat scene in Singapore as revolving around a national competition. The Federation is thus keen to work with other groups, such as the People’s Association, to increase exposure for the art form to the youth and the public.”

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