If there’s anything that has always been a part of human civilisation that’s not food, then it must be music.
Music has been a central part of human life and you can see glaring similarities which aren’t bound by culture or time. The creation of musical instruments is also, in part, a product of humans living in their natural habitat, which makes native musical instruments an extension of their cultural origin. One thing is for sure – the natural environment has always been a source of inspiration for music in human civilisations, including the ones that we find on Borneo island.
According to oral tradition, Borneo’s traditional instruments were crafted as experiments to imitate the natural soundscape. The angklung, for example, is made from many bamboo tubes which are attached to a bamboo frame. The tubes are carved to maintain resonance and come in different sizes to achieve different octaves.
In Brunei, the instrument gulingtangan (literally ‘rolling hands’) is well known and easily identifiable with its series of small gongs that sit atop ropes which are encased in a wooden frame. The instruments work exactly like a piano except that instead of pressing on keys, you hit the gongs with wooden sticks to create melodies.
Universiti Brunei Darussalam actually made a robotic gulingtangan last year. You can check it out at www.ubd.edu.bn
The canang is a percussion instrument with three dinner-plate-sized gongs that are slightly bigger than the ones on the gulingtangan. The gongs are suspended by a rope and supported by a wooden structure. It is usually played in succession or progression and has a semi-pitch that syncs with the gulingtangan.
If the gulingtangan and the canang act like the guitar and bass then the gendang labik must be the drummer. The gendang labik is traditionally made of buffalo hide and acts as the band’s main keeper of tempo.
The instruments found in the gulingtangan ensemble are among the most common traditional instruments in Brunei so it’s not hard to find an orchestra at social events and weddings. However, musicians are finding clever ways to combine modern and traditional melodies together, which further highlights the uniqueness of every instrument.
Seri Berunai, a music group made up of students from Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) and UBD, believes that traditional instruments can offer sounds that modern instruments cannot replicated. Md ‘Afif Aslam Jasmin, a member of Seri Berunai, described the gulingtangan orchestra sound as “hauntingly enchanting”.
It’s not just meshing the different sounds together to compose a piece. There’s a lot shifting of instruments around to create a piece that sounds awe-inspiring
Of course, that’s not to say that modern instruments can’t be used to play traditional songs. But the absence of traditional instruments in a traditional song can only carry the song for so far. Before you know it, you’d be longing for the sounds of the gulingtangan because it carries a tone from way back, long before external influences started to seep in.
Musicians from Borneo and the Malay Peninsula recognise this and many bands have combined traditional and modern instruments in an unlikely ensemble. In the process, they also create new genres based on the past and present working together.
The Island Orchestra could be defined as music which sees the old in the new while getting the new breathing life back into the old, creating a musical arrangement that’s everlasting.