This paper compares two rare manuals on performance practices of Malay gendang silat ‘martial arts drumming’—from 1968 and 1994—with a focus on issues they raise concerning standardization and transmission among its practitioners. These examples help illustrate a larger point concerning revitalization of Malaysia’s traditional performing arts in the postcolonial era, when notions of Malay-Muslim culture and identity among the peasantry and officialdom were transformed.
Both texts are written by Malay musicians, and both cover general aspects of this long-standing folk tradition, but one uses an indigenous methodology, whereas the other one’s is foreign. The 1968 text—written in vernacular Malay, and replete with specialized terms and mnemonic devices intended for local musicians—documents practices of a once-active and influential gelanggang ‘training center’ in Malaysia’s agrarian northwest state of Kedah. Though its scope is limited to gendang silat music, it is a valuable ethnographic text on Malay arts, providing a snapshot of an era when such traditions were myriad and still deeply meaningful.
The 1994 text, by a Kuala Lumpur-based researcher under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Tourism, draws from the same cultural/geographical sources as the 1968 text, but is written in standard Malay using an academic register, and uses Western terminology and notation to depict the music. It arrived at the opposite end of a transformative period that began after the appearance of the 1968 work: a time when traditional performing arts were falling into disuse, and government patronage became vital to their preservation.