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Akar Umbi

Songs of the Dragon, indigenous identity and Temuan rights to the Forest

by Tan Sooi Beng
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 5

start_quote (1K)Through their own version of world music, Akar Umbi has generated an awareness that the survival of Temuan culture is dependent on the forests, rivers and land around them.
end_quote (1K)
Tan Sooi Beng

The orang asli (meaning ‘original people’) are the indigenous minority people of Peninsular Malaysia whose ancestors inhabited the peninsula before the Malay kingdoms were established. They comprise 18 different groups, which make up 0.5 per cent of the total population of 26 million. While a few have become professionals and businessmen and some work in factories in urban areas, the majority still live in the forest and forest-fringed areas. They depend on swiddening, hunting, gathering, fishing, and trading in forest products for survival.


To bring development, the government has adopted a policy of integrating and assimilating the orang asli into mainstream society, more specifically into Malay society. The Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) or The Department of Orang Asli Affairs was set up for this purpose. Assimilation - together with increased deforestation and dislocation (as a result of logging and development projects) - has threatened to cut the orang asli off from their ancestral lands, the source of their livelihood and cultures.

The orang asli have responded to the state’s assimilationist goal and the appropriation of their ancestral lands by uniting, lobbying politicians, and bringing their cases to the court. They formed organisations such as the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (set up in 1976) and the Indigenous Peoples’ Network of Malaysia, a network of indigenous peoples’ organisations in Sabah, Sarawak, and the Peninsula. The orang asli began to claim an “indigenous identity” to “regain their cultural symbols” and to counter control by the state. In his book, The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources, Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia, Colin Nicholas, the co-ordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, writes that the orang asli have come to realise that “an assertion of their indigenous identity is a prerequisite for their survival”. There is a need to “assert both their personal and collective identity to counter the power of ‘outsiders’, particularly the state”.

Asserting cultural identity through music

One of the ways to assert this identity is to set up cultural troupes (involving old and young people of the orang asli communities) to perform indigenous music and dance and their own versions of popular music. The various orang asli groups come together to perform and exhibit their handicraft at the annual International Indigenous People’s Day events.

Akar Umbi (meaning ‘Tap Root’) is an example of a cultural group of the Temuan, one of the indigenous orang asli groups living in Pertak, a forest reserve just outside of Kuala Kubu Baru (KKB). Akar Umbi is a musical collaboration which was initiated by Antares and Rafique Rashid, two musicians who moved to KKB in 1992. These two musicians encountered the rich culture of the Temuan and have been documenting the oral traditions, stories, and music of the Temuan which are in danger of disappearing.

Since its formation, Akar Umbi has presented live renditions of the songs of Mak Minah Anggong, a Temuan ceremonial singer who lived in Kampung Orang Asli Pertak. Mak Minah sang her songs at various concerts including the Second Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching before she passed away unexpectedly on 21 September, 1999. To pay a special tribute to Mak Minah and to share her passionate love for the rainforest with others, Antares and Rafique assembled a CD of 10 tracks using whatever material that had been recorded at rehearsals and performances. The CD is entitled Songs of the Dragon (2002) as the dragon refers to Mak Minah’s clan lineage whose totem is the Naga (the spirit guardian of rivers). The tracks include traditional Temuan songs with contemporary musical arrangements as well as healing ritual songs (sawai or sewang) with buluh limbong accompaniment. The buluh limbong are pairs of bamboo instruments struck on a long block of wood which are used in healing rituals and also to accompany other songs for entertainment by many orang asli groups.

In the CD, Mak Minah Anggong is the lead singer while Mak Awa, Mak Nai, and Mak Indah perform their traditional sacred songs on the buluh limbong. The Temuan women, who sing in the Temuan language, are accompanied by other Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian musicians performing on guitars, keyboards, and percussion. According to Antares, the music “breaks through traditional cultural barriers”. Not only are the musicians multi-ethnic, the music is “a musical fusion.”

In Hutan Manao (Akar Umbi 2002), for instance, Mak Minah sings in the Temuan language using the traditional style of singing with a narrow vocal tension. She is accompanied by the alternating rhythms of the buluh limbong, consisting of a longer lower-sounding tube known as ‘father’ and a shorter higher-pitched tube known as ‘mother’ which are both struck on a long block of wood. The two tubes are pitched approximately a minor third apart. Although the keyboard and electric guitars play western chords, they emphasise the minor 3rd interval and the rhythms of the bamboo stampers, thereby keeping harmony to a minimum. The bamboo flute and electric guitar are also given melodic interludes. The song describes the joys and hardships of roaming the forest for days in search of jungle cane (manao) for the furniture stores.

Akar Umbi performed Hutan Manao live at the benefit concert for Bosnia at the Shah Alam Stadium on 16 September 1994 and a series of other songs at the Second Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival (28-29 August 1999). Since the Shah Alam concert, which had an audience of 42,000 and was broadcast live on national television, Mak Minah has become a “cultural representative” for the marginalised orang asli community.

Guardians of the rainforest

Mak Minah’s songs portray the love and reverence the indigenous people have for the forest, river, and mountains that surround them. Indirectly, Mak Minah’s songs advocate the cultural autonomy of the orang asli at a time when two Temuan villages were to be relocated and Temuan sacred sites and ancestral heartland flooded to make way for a 400 feet high dam across the Selangor River. Mak Minah opposed the building of the dam strongly. The Temuan believe that they were placed on earth to be guardians of the rainforest. Legend says that “when the orang asli are no longer visible, the world will end.” Experts have emphasised that the wetlands and the famous firefly colony near Kuala Selangor would be affected by the dam project. Despite protests, work on the dam began in February 2000. When logging and rock blasting began, the Temuan families living in Pertak and Gerachi had not been properly resettled.

Sungai Makao (River Makao) is a lyrical song with Minah Anggong on vocals, Rafique on acoustic guitar, and Antares on Balinese flute. Mak Minah sings about the Makao River, which flows through Pertak Village where she was born. The Temuan believe that the Makao River has its source in Gunung Raja, the sacred mountain, and regard it as the symbol of abundance and good health. Mak Minah incorporates into the lyrics a reproof against the destructive logging activities at the Temuan reserve.

Lari, lari, kuda lari (Run, run, horse run)
Belang, belang, kuda belang (Stripe, stripe, striped horse)
Lari, lari, kuda lari (Run, run, horse run)
Pahang, Pahang, pergi Pahang. (Pahang, Pahang, go to Pahang.)
In Kuda Lari (Running Horse), Minah Anggong warns those who intend to disturb the spirit guardians of the river that some mishap might occur. Kuda Lari is a Temuan nursery rhyme and a humorous account of how Cecil Ranking, the first magistrate and revenue collector of Kuala Kubu Baru, fell off his horse and had to chase it all the way to Pahang. According to legend, Ranking attempted to kill a crocodile penunggu or sacred guardian of the river in 1883. This may have triggered a dam disaster which killed Ranking and flooded the town of Kuala Kubu Baru. It is believed that rivers are guarded by dragons, snakes, and crocodiles, which will cause chaos if their homes are destroyed.

Songs of the Dragon has been produced the DIY way so that Akar Umbi has complete control over the production and distribution of the CD. Some of the tracks such as Burung Meniyun were recorded by Rafique in his home studio, using a four track cassette, MIDI sequencers, and a programmable drum machine. Other tracks featuring traditional bamboo ritual music such as Raja Perahu were recorded on a portable digital audio-tape (DAT) during rehearsals at Antares’ house at KKB with a relaxed ambience. Additional tracks featuring the voice of Awa Anak Lahai (sister of Mak Minah), who has taken over the lead singing, were recorded at a private studio. Antares has been raising funds from friends and private funding agencies to pay for studio time, musicians, and other aspects of album production. Distribution is being done mainly through the website and through friends in the music world.

Passing it on

Antares says that the CD has helped “to keep Mak Minah’s memory alive through her beautiful songs, and encourage the younger generation of orang asli to cherish and value their traditional songs”. Through the album, “the Temuan in particular and orang asli in general have begun to feel a sense of pride in seeing one of their own become a singing celebrity… The overwhelming response of the crowd at the Shah Alam Stadium to Mak Minah’s singing has shown the Temuan that other people do value their traditions and believe there is much to learn from their culture.”

By presenting the songs in a modern setting, younger Temuan have been inspired to learn these songs and play them at weddings and other festivities. Using modern instruments such as the guitar and keyboard and the world music idiom also helps the younger generation to connect and engage with modernity. Ten per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the CD go towards a Mak Minah memorial fund for the children, widows, and old folks of Pertak Village. Antares says that part of the memorial fund will be used to help young orang asli with athletic or music potential. He is convinced that helping individuals achieve something in the field of culture and sports is the most effective way of raising the orang asli's self–esteem. This is in contrast to state Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli officers who try to “assimilate orang asli into modern Malay society by destroying their natural habitat and their spiritual links to the land.”

Through their own version of world music, Akar Umbi has generated an awareness that the survival of Temuan culture is dependent on the forests, rivers and land around them. The Akar Umbi performances and CD have stimulated concern about the destruction of the Temuan’s ancestral land and environment (due to the construction of the Selangor Dam) and action on their behalf. The Temuan songs assert that Temuan identity and the intimate relationship of the people with the natural resources of the forest are the basis of the continued existence of present and future generations.

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Tan Sooi Beng is professor of ethnomusicology at the School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Information regarding the purchase of the Akar Umbi CD and the video documentary, Guardians of the Forest, can be obtained from Magickriver's Akar Umbi website. Magick River is a “rainbow alliance of individuals promoting ecospiritual activities and community arts projects that involve the Temuan”. The author thanks Antares for personal interviews, photos, and information on Akar Umbi.

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