The gambus is an integral part of the Malay culture because it is used in connection with specific genres of Malay traditional music. Brought to the Malay archipelago by the Arab traders as early as the 15th century, it is very much an icon of Borneo's culture. It is especially a staple form of entertainment during weddings.
So it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to watch not one but 60 gambus players clad in green and blue baju melayu, gathering in public for the first time to play a medley of Bruneian songs during the recent Sabah Fest at Kota Kinabalu.
These 60 strummers of the Brunei-Malay community came from Papar, Bongawan, Kimanis, Sipitang, Membakut and Weston. They were all members of the Persatuan Masyarakat Brunei Sabah (PMBS).
Most of them were born and raised in Sabah but kept their Bruneian roots strong. One of them, in fact, spoke in unmistakable Brunei Malay.
For Awangku Jerryle, 20, of Menumbok, the gambus had been in his life for as long as he could remember. It was in the kitchen where he had dinner, or tucked neatly at the corner of his living room. It was in the balcony of his house and many of his friends' houses. Whenever he spent time out with his friends or uncles or cousins, the gambus was always in their midst, as much part of his life as the lives of the other Bruneians living in Sabah.
It was a night of Malay culture illuminated with a blast. When the 60-strong gambus orchestra, young and old, took to the stage, they started with energetic and spirited tunes. Traditional music needn't be meek. The packed ballroom learned not to underestimate traditional musical instruments.
It had taken them a month of rehearsal, meeting religiously every week at the Papar Civic Hall under the conductorship of Yaakub Aris from Sri Pelancongan Sabah.
Women, too, are keen gambus players. One, in particular, made her mark in traditional music world — 18-year-old Fauziah Suhaili from Bongawan. During the Sabah Fest she was the opening act for the gambus performance.
Says Fauziah, "The irony of this whole situation is, though I love playing gambus and participated in many gambus competitions, I have never owned a gambus. All this while I've been playing rented gambus or borrowed from friends." During the fest, however, Fauziah was able to strum her very own gambus for the first time, bought by her godfather.
She started playing the gambus two years ago. In the beginning it was hard to gain the trust of the elders. "They wouldn't even allow me to touch it," says Fauziah. But it changed when they heard her play. Since then Fauziah participated in many competitions, always as the only female, drawing much attention. "I was afraid during the first few competitions. I still feel the jitters but it's not so bad now."
"I was lucky to get so much support from the gambus community. They taught and encouraged me a lot. I'm grateful for their guidance," she said.
There's no denying this demure young woman can play. She won the Gambus Fest Female Solo performance competition last year. Fauziah is looking forward to recording her first album this July.
A wood-carved, 16-inch wide gambus takes two months to finish. Awang Mohammad Hashim, 24, of Kraftangan Gambus Seri Serbang Bongawan says, "It took me a year to learn about gambus making from my father." Hashim's father, Awang Besar has been a gambus maker for over 20 years.
The timbre produced by the gambus is very much a factor of the width and the thickness of the wood. The nyireh and the tengautengau are the two types of wood most often used to make the gambus.
There're two types of gambus commonly played in Borneo, the gambus ghazal, also known as the "gambus Johor", and the gambus Brunei, also known as the gambus asli, which is smaller in size.
The gambus asli uses actual fishing lines for strings while the gambus ghazal uses acoustic strings.
Prices for the gambus range from $300 to $500.
Questions about gambus made Tejul Munchi, 66, from Membakut, all smiles, "Gambus keeps me young and happy. I'm the happiest when I sing and strum the gambus. I've been playing it since my younger days." Whenever his fingers caress the gambus and music is in the air, he says his spirit is lifted, hence the robustness in his life — knock on wood, literally!
Rapid socio-economics development has brought some traditions to the verge of extinction. Gambus in Sabah, on the other hand, is being given a new lease on life by the Bruneian community. It is filling melodious music in the air of the Land Below the Wind.
The Brunei Times