Ethnics, Cultures & Religions

Archive for October, 2008


Top pix-Fauziah Suhaili of Bongawan, Sabah (Brunai ethnic), and below insert, a male gambus player also from Bongawan

Faril Ali Malaysian musician-Photo credit:

Gambus group of Kadayan ethnic from Lingkungan, Beaufort 

Gambus in Sabah

Materials on gambus can easily be found; even without me giving references most of you have no problem in locating them. The Internet.

What I wrote here is merely an introduction to those who have no idea about what gambus is.

Qanbus in Arabic is a replacement of Arabaian oud. Gambus that we know of in Malaysia was originally a musical instrument derived from Arabian Peninsula in particular, Yemen.

A nine and twelve stringed musical instrument, sounds like guitar, play by plucking with plastic plectrum. In the olden days the strings were wires as was guitar but now nylon is also used.

Gambus a shape of sliced pear, found its way to this part of the world-South East Asian nations: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei by Arab traders in 15th Century.

Other countries like, Africa, gambus is called in many different names such as, gabusi, gabbus, kabusa, and etc.

The well-known Malaysian musician who popularized gambus is Farid Ali from Muar Johore, a trained guitarist from Institute of Technology of California.

Farid Ali has been exploring many facades of gambus; among others he combined it with the Latin America music.

In Western part of Borneo, it’s the Malay communities of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei that play gambus.

In the olden days in Malay communities such as above, gambus playing was a must in any celebrations, like, wedding, circumcision and any occasions, which involved with entertainment.

It’s the music for zapin, joget, ronggeng, and etc.

There are several types of gambus in this region namely: gambus ghazal, gambus Johor, and gambus Brunei, and that naming seemed to be influenced very much by the Malay from Peninsula.

While in Sabah, gambus can be seen in many shapes too. The strings range only from six or eight, and a pair of strings represents one tune.

I am fascinated to learn that Fauziah Suhaili from Bongawan of Sabah who after only two years picking up gambus managed to produce a showcase and record debut on gambus.

Gambus players in Sabah are found in Sipitang, Lingkungan, Weston, Papar, Bongawan, Kimanis, and Membakut. Notice these places are predominantly where the Brunai (the people), Kadayan, and Bisaya (Sabah Bisaya) ethnics are residing.



People of the tip of Borneo

Bonggi People

There is one small ethnic resided on the very tip of Borneo Island, not exactly, but rather on top of Kudat. To be precise is on the island, north of Kudat called Banggi or Banghi. An island lies between Borneo Island and Philippines on the North.

Some local don’t like the sound of Banggi, because it means corpse in their dialect. Who wants to name after their place corpse? Thus modify the sound slightly into Bongi or Bonggi. Coincidently these people are also called  as Bongi or Bonggi.

They are also found in Balambangan Island just next to it.

The Bonggi people aren’t that many by any account, they are no more than 2,000 people living here at the moment.

They are one of those who resist religious beliefs to the very day and they are still into animism-superstition, for example, they don’t eat anything red in colour (crab when cooked is red). They may be a few of them now converted to Christian.

They go about their life either as farmers or fishermen.

They like chewing betel nut.

Some years ago, I remember seeing a write up in our local media. They were listed among the poorest group of people in Malaysia. Not surprisingly having Sabah categorized as second poorest state of Malaysia, Kelantan being the first. But if you ask me to make an evaluation, after visting Kelantan and also know Sabah fairly well, I would consider here is the poorest place in the boleh land of ours

As an example, it is normal to see their houses, have only rooftop made of nipah leaves and floor made of bamboo and no walls. Forget about any other amenities.

Nonetheless, I hope to see this group of people keeping up with the rest of Sabahans as soon as possible.

Out of the doldrums though, come the beauty of their culture, language, dance, and attire. Can’t belief my eyes they are fascinating people. Wonder if these are the acclimatized ones? See photos on the top.

Tattoos the culture

Top left an Iranian lady with tattooed face, middle,modern flower tattoo and the eagle like drawing is one typical of Dayak’s of Borneo. In the middle an arabic tattoo writing and bottom an Arab girl tattooed body for private eyes only.

Tattoos the culture

Nothing wrong with ‘tattoo’ soldiers 
The Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) has called on the Malaysian Armed Forces not to discriminate against Iban youths when they apply to join the service because of their body tattoos

A recent newspaper report quoted an Army General in Kuching as saying young people with tattoos in Sabah and Sarawak are allowed to join the army. However, tattooed Muslims are not welcomed. 

Tattoos are in fashion these days, especially among the young. Some people prefer to call them body art. 

In Borneo, the Dayaks are renown for their tattoos. You are not one, unless you are heavily tattooed. Simply put, it’s part of their cultural heritage. 

As a family, my wife, my son and I love tattoos. We even have small ones done on ourselves. It’s part of our Borneo DNA, which we take quite seriously. 

Traditional Borneo tattoos for men are usually associated with headhunting or war expeditions, and for women they are considered as elements of beauty. 

Tattoos are simply part of the ‘rites of passage” for them. 

With the introduction of the Middle Eastern religions to our world, this traditional practice has somewhat declined especially with the young until now. There is some kind of revival; it is like the young people have suddenly rediscovered their heritage all over again, although the designs are more commercial than traditional. The practice is more widespread than a few years ago. 

Traditional tattoos in Borneo are also generally associated with myths and legends. 

A Murut legend has it that a young woman from their tribe a long time ago advised a crocodile family how to produce eggs to start their family when they ran into difficulties in doing so. 

For her help, all Murut must tattoo an image of crocodile on each shoulder or two tattoos on their legs so that all crocodiles recognise them as friends and would never harm them. 

The Dayaks of southern and western Borneo see a direct connection between tattoos and death. 

They believe when the soul leaves the body and goes in search of heaven, only tattooed women who provided well for their families and headhunters/warriors with hand tattoos as token of their success will be guided to the right place as the tattoos burn brightly in the darkness. 

While the Middle Eastern religions are said not to encourage tattooing, a visit to the holy city of Mecca will reveal that many older Muslim Arab women have tattoos on their hands and faces. 

Many younger Banjar people in Sabah who are devout Muslims take pride in their tattoos. 

When asked, their reply is,” we are Islamised Dayaks, and we are proud of our heritage, is there anything wrong with that?” 

If they are citizens of the country and wish to join the army, must they be discriminated against for displaying their cultural heritage?



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