Brunei's unique tradition of 'memukun'

Monday, July 4, 2011

THIS writer was at one of the many wedding functions that occur in Brunei.

Just before the fasting month of Ramadan, it is very difficult to avoid weddings. There is at least one every weekend. This time round, it is the niece to the writer's better half who is getting married and during one of the weekday nights, a "memukun" group was there at the bride's house to add atmosphere to the whole occasion.

Memukun is fairly hard to describe to an outsider unless one has actually listened to it. "Memukun" can be considered a very Bruneian tradition where a group of people (usually elderly) will sing accompanied by a "dombak" or "tambur" and a rabana or a small drum. Some have likened "memukun" to a "quatrain singing to the tune of traditional hand drums".

Normally it is a duet with one gender "selling" pantun verses to the other "gender" and the other side is supposed to "buy" or reply with another set of pantun verses.

About four years ago, this writer wrote an article about memukun in this column describing it as "one of the unique features of Brunei Darussalam's many ethnic traditions and cultures". However this writer has been told that this is not so. It is not unique to Brunei and despite the beliefs of many people in Brunei it did not originate from Kampong Ayer.

"Memukun" is said to be owned by Bruneians especially the native Brunei Malays, Brunei Kedayans, Brunei Belaits and Brunei Tutongs but memukun is not unique to Brunei; a number of Brunei Malay origins who lived in the neighbouring state also practice it especially in the Limbang, Miri and Lawas areas of Sarawak.

It was said that in the 1950s and 1960s, the experts of "memukun" were from Limbang and the good ones were always invited to Brunei and paid a token sum to perform at wedding ceremonies. In Kuala Belait and Seria, the good ones were invited from Miri.

During wedding ceremonies, the "memukun" session can be heard during the wedding itself or other functions during the ceremonies such as on the night of the wedding and on the third day of the wedding ("muleh tiga hari"). Sometimes, "memukun" session can also be heard during circumcision ceremonies.

In the older days, "memukun" was carried out by two groups of people one group made up of female and the other, male though two groups of the same gender singing to each other is also not unusual.

The two groups were separated by kain batik screen strung across the two groups. Traditionally there should be two lines of kain batik. The first at knee length and the second at shoulder length. The female group, usually young and around 30 years old, is normally hidden behind the kain batik screen.

The two groups then take turns at "selling" and "buying" their pantun verses. The man may sell his pantun to one of the ladies sitting with the ladies group and the lady may buy his pantun or may ask one of the ladies there to buy it on her behalf.

If the lady is single and the male is single, normally if they are able to sell pantuns successfully, according to some elderly stories, the chances of them marrying each other are very high indeed. So memukun is also part of a mating ritual of getting to know each other. However to be successful, memukun sessions must be carried out by a number of other people. It requires someone called a "pelaku" who will be the main actors selling and buying verses (pantun), someone drumming the hand drum and a number of dancers accompanying the session. Another group of people known as the "pengunjak" will also cheer those who took part either in the memukun or in the dance.

"Memukun" is always accompanied by a musical instrument. Sometimes the accordion or the guitar or the full guling tangan set but the simplest is just a "gendang" or drum made up of deer's skin or goat's skin or cow's skin and is known as "tambur" among the Brunei Malays but the Kedayans called it the "dombak". The drums will be held in place by pins and always held on the laps of the drummers.

The pantun verses are unlike the normal pantuns with some words or verses repeated and the additional of words such as -lah, - hai, -aduhai, -ya and -nya.

In the 1960s and 1970s memukun was very popular during weddings and "memukun" sessions can go on from evening until dawn the next day this was called "memukun kesiangan" ("memukun" until the daylight) or "mukun menyubuh" ("memukun" until dawn).

Historically, it is not known whether "memukun" is originally from Brunei or whether there is a mixture of culture between the peoples of Brunei who migrated overseas and the local cultures there.

"Memukun" became mainstream when Radio Brunei broadcasted live "memukun" sessions in the 1980s. When it was first broadcasted, the elderly vendors at the Tamu taped the sessions and replayed the "memukun" over and over again during the daytime.

Today "memukun" aficionados can even do a phone in during one of these live radio "memukun" sessions and sing through the telephone. Every time the programme is on, there will always be a number of elderly Bruneians taking part in the sessions.

Despite the seeming popularity, there is a worry that this unique tradition will slowly die.

If the tradition is not kept alive, it may not last and with that Brunei will lose another of its unique cultures. What we should all note is that the "memukun" tradition is a traditional communication tool used by the Brunei Malay society and which also function as an entertainment and a teaching tool to the younger generation on knowing the culture of Brunei.

The Brunei Times