The Sons of the Forest – Traditional Malay Folk Music in Pahang
Bob and I step into Man Kayan’s warmly lit and comfortable parlor, at his home on the outskirts of Kuantan, Malaysia. There are cushions scattered across the floor, half sewn costume jackets hanging from rafters, and musical instruments stacked on every surface in the room. Bob has brought me to Man’s house to rehearse for a concert Man is organizing for the following weekend. Bob and I play rock and roll, and Man prefers traditional Malay music, but he wants the concert to include a variety of different musical styles, so he’s invited us to join in.
Man Kayan, surrounded by his musical instruments and traditional costumes made by his family. Photo: Emmanuel Marshall.
Man Kayan is something of a god-fatherly figure of the traditional music scene in the Pahang region. This part of Malaysia is quite conservative; it’s coastal, and a lot of people here are fishermen or have restaurants. Man himself runs a small cafe, and it’s a social hub for local music and poetry lovers.
Man Kayan is something of a god-fatherly figure of the traditional music scene in the Pahang region.
Me and Bob settle ourselves on cushions, and Man’s wife serves us hot, sweet tea. We all light traditional Malay cigarettes (tobacco rolled up in dry grass stems), and Man’s older sons and nephews join us. They are all players in Man Kayan’s band — his older sons play guitar, and the younger children are all percussionists or dancers, or both.
Kome Anak Pahang
As we smoke and drink our tea, Man tells us about the origin of his band; ‘Kome Anak Pahang’. He speaks to Bob in Bahasa Malaysia and Bob translates to English for me.
We called our band ‘Kome Anak Pahang.’ It means; the son’s of the forest. That is a significant name, because so much of what the traditional Malay people need comes from the jungle.
“I started this band in 2010,” Man Kayan tells us. “I was living a very normal life then. I worked as a public servant, just a regular guy, going to an office every day. I started to feel that I needed a change, so I quit my steady job and started this little restaurant instead. It was a risky choice, but I wanted to have time to make music. I have always loved the traditional music of this part of Malaysia. I began to play traditional style Malay music at my new cafe, and I noticed that the local kids here were really interested. My own children played with me, and their friends would come around and listen to us practice. There are not so many things for kids to do here. If they are not at school they just hang around on the street and look for trouble. When I noticed that the local kids were listening to my music, I saw that I had an opportunity to do something really special. I gathered a big group of kids together, and we spent weeks hunting around in junk shops and markets for traditional musical instruments. We even made some of our instruments ourselves. I started to teach the kids the old songs that I remembered from my childhood – the traditional drum rhythms and chants. We called our band ‘Kome Anak Pahang.’ It means; the son’s of the forest. That is a significant name, because so much of what the traditional Malay people need comes from the jungle. Wood makes everything here in Pahang; our homes, the cooking fire, the boats we use to go fishing. Without the forest the environment becomes unhealthy. We need trees to live. We need trees to make our drums and guitars. The traditional music of eastern Malaysia is music from the forest.”
On Saturday, Bob and I join Man and his band for the concert. When they take to the stage, the Kome Anak Pahang band look like courtiers from an ancient world. Some of the kids perform beautiful, graceful dance steps that are a blend of gymnastics and traditional martial arts. Man Kayan’s family don’t just make their own instruments. His wife and daughters sew beautiful traditional style costumes for all the musicians to wear when they play.
Bob explains the meanings of some of the traditional Malay lyrics to me. The songs are about love and marriage; hardship and community spirit; the courage of warriors and the burdens of working people. When I think about it, these songs are somehow familiar. Kome Anak Pahang’s music is very different to the stuff me and Bob play in our set; we do some Bob Dylan, John Denver and Bob Marley. The sound is a world apart from Malay folk music, but the stories are the same – stories about ordinary people finding their way through life and celebrating the small victories.
Historical photographs from the Pahang Art Museum collection. Photo: Emmanuel Marshall.
The concert is staged in the gardens behind the Pahang Art Museum. Man Kayan urges me to take a tour of the museum after the gig, and when I do it’s the perfect visual counterpart to his music. There are black and white photos of Malay village life in the earliest days of British colonialism and beautifully preserved royal costumes that are the prototypes for Man’s band’s costumes.
The robust stoicism etched in those black and white faces has the same reassuring quality as Bob Dylan’s blues harp.
That same powerful sense of community that Man has created with his band is visible on the faces of the villagers in the old photographs. The robust stoicism etched in those black and white faces has the same reassuring quality as Bob Dylan’s blues harp.