Composer for Every Country: Malaysia

Reading the etymology of "Malaysia" on Wikipedia, I'm not sure I've ever seen so many words used to say "we dunno." The country's name is a combination of "Malay," which is the name of the majority ethnicity, and the suffix "-sia," meaning "land." So, "Malay Land." Ok, so far so good. But whence Malay? Well, could be Sanskrit. Could be Javanese. Could be Tamil. Regardless, by the time Europe found them, the locals called the Malaysian peninsula "Tanah Melayu," or... "Malay Land." Seems humans are human when it comes to naming conventions, after all. (Can I take an aside here and suggest that Disney Land was so named because they were attempting to create their own country? It seems like there's a lot of countries whose names come out to "something-or-other land," is all I'm saying.)

Human habitation of the Malay peninsula is old, going back 40,000 years or so. There are a few different indigenous peoples, locally grouped as Orang Asil, which include the Semang, the Lanoh, the Jahai, and a number of others. Most of the tribes are part of a larger group labelled "Negritos." Wait... Really? That's what we're going with? Sigh... ok. These tribes are in danger of extinction. In at least one case, the Jahai, study of their language has helped explore elements of human perception, specifically, smell. Their religion includes supernatural forces called "Karei," which can be attracted or repelled with various odors. Their language includes a rich vocabulary or scent words, and they consistently show superior ability to identify specific scents. One must assume this ability comes in handy for hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Located at a crossroads area on mainland Asia, Malaysia is demographically diverse, with the Malay ethnicity being the majority, and substantial minority populations of Chinese and Indian (specifically, Tamil) groups. The culture is strongly influences by two of the kingdoms discussed in my blog on Indonesia: the Buddhist Srivijaya Kingdom, and the Hindustani Majapahit Kingdom. More particular to the Malaysian peninsula was the Malacca Sultanate, founded by Parameswara in 1400 (by tradition). Who was he? Well, he was a King of Singapore for a time, although whether legitimately or by usurpation depends on who you ask. The local account of the Malacca Sultanate is written in the Sejarah Melayu, or "The Malay Annals." The kingdom lasted until 1511, when the Portuguese took the capital, and it was during that century that the Malaysian people began converting to Islam.

With the Indonesia blog, I didn't quite have space to get into a particularly terrible time for Southeast Asia's modern history: the Japanese occupation. For whatever reason, the Japanese during World War II exhibited appallingly brutal behavior pretty much wherever they went. As a person with relatively close Japanese ancestry (my maternal grand-mother), the Pacific Theater of World War II is a point of great ambivalence in my head-space. But we don't overcome history by ignoring it. The Japanese occupation of Malaysia affected everybody, especially Chinese, whose resistance efforts are largely forgotten in the popular understandings of local history. 

On to more pleasant topics: music in the country is so diverse it defies generalization, but like Indonesia, music and dance are intimately related. Instruments come from all manner of geographic locations, and although percussion ensembles form the backbone of much Malaysian music (including the two-headed gendang, a tambourine-like instrument called kompang, a variety gongs, xylophones...) other a huge variety of other instruments are prominent as well. These include instruments from Persia (the rebab), India (the serunai), Europe (the violin and accordion), and China (full Chinese orchestras are not uncommon). There are more genres than I can go over in this space, but many of them are still living traditions, ranging from the ghazal, an Arabic poetry of strict form, to dondang sayang, a song form with two singers alternating verses, and a whole litany of dance forms, like dikir barat, performed by seated dancers, or nobat, or mak yong, or... 

--- --- ---

My composer for today is Valerie Ross (b.1958). Biographical information is rather scarce. She was born in Kuala Lampur, and attended University of London for a Bachelor's Degree in Music, University of Australia for a Master's in Education and a Doctorate in Philosophy. Her music explores the varieties of cultural elements inherent to Malaysia and her global travels, and she has a particular interest in electronic music. Among her projects is MuSIT, short for "Music for Sensory Integration Therapy," in which she collaborated with occupational therapists. The music was written "to enhance neurological processing based on sensory integration, a theory of brain-behavior relationships developed by Jean Ayers." The composition linked below is her work "Sixty-Three Dimensions," premiered by the Frahm-Lewis Trio.