BERMUKUN, a cultural tradition of the Malays, Kedayans, and Melanaus, is fading away due to rapid changes in the modern age.
Passed down by the older generations more than a century ago, it’s now only observed at weddings and cultural performances, organised by government agencies and NGOs.
Generally, bermukun activities involve singing, dancing, and berpantun (rhyming verses), accompanied by drums, and sometimes violin or accordion.
Female attendees are usually seated behind a curtain while male attendees will sit in groups or wherever they choose outside the curtain with a dancing space reserved in the centre.
Buang Lamat from Kampung Pulau Melayu, Miri – one of the few Kedayans still maintaining the tradition – said government agencies and NGOs should do more to promote bermukun.
The 60-year-old pointed out that the new generation should be encouraged to preserve this cultural heritage before it disappeared altogether.
He said at weddings featuring bermukun performances, their group would make an effort to take part to show their love for local traditions, even though the celebrations may be held far from Miri in places such as Niah, Bekenu, Limbang, or Brunei.
“Sometimes our group will join Bermukun competitions, organised by local NGOs, to keep the tradition alive, and make known it to other Borneo communities and tourists.
“Bertandak (dancing) skills are very important as they depict the style, beauty, and elegance of bermukun bertandak. The costumes worn by the male dancers add a touch of glamour to the performance,” Buang added.
Fellow performer Daud Lamat chimed in to say the unique tradition of bermukun, practised only in the Malay Archipelago, should be maintained for the future generations to know their cultural roots.
Bermukun consists of three main parts – drummer (tukang gendang or mak gendang), dancing (bertandak), and rhyming verse (pantuns or menopeng).
Two women sometimes sit behind the curtain as the mak gendang and menopeng readers.
Bermukun begins with the mak gendang drumming up a rhythm, followed by the men who take turns dancing with their partners before ‘selling’ or ‘buying’ pantuns (menopeng) to the drumming group.
These pantun ‘selling and buying’ exchanges between the mak gendang and the male dancers, also known as penopeng, may continue all night.
The songs and rhythms of the pantun may also change, depending on the skills of the participants.
When organising bermukun, there are some taboos to observe in terms of respect for religion, neighbours, and society. It cannot be held on a Friday night, Ramadan, the night of Israk Mikraj, and Nisfu Syaaban.
Other than that, bermukun can only be held after the night (Isyak) prayer and will end before the call to dawn (Suboh) prayers.
Unique Sarawakian art
Assistant Minister of Women, Family and Childhood Development Rosey Yunus described bermukun as a unique Sarawak art that should be preserved.
The Bekenu assemblywoman said efforts to keep the tradition alive through programmes and competitions among both young and old alike would ensure its continuity as a form of wholesome entertainment.
She said efforts by Miri FM to organise the ‘All Borneo Bermukun Competition’ and Pustaka Miri to promote the tradition through its programmes should be supported, especially by the relevant government agencies and NGOs.
According to Rosey, this age-old cultural art had once been a popular form of entertainment among the Malay village communities across Borneo.
Back then, visitors from the other villages would come and join the bermukun at weddings, special occasions, and ceremonies as part of the entertainment to display their singing and dancing abilities.
And presently, bermukun teams from Miri, Bintulu, Limbang, Labuan and Brunei have also staged performances to showcase their elegant costumes, accessories, and bertandak styles to entertain audiences.
“Even though the modern music industry is expanding rapidly, bermukun still exists as a form of ceremonial entertainment in Malay, Kedayan, and Melanau villages.
“This culture and tradition would be meaningless if the art were no longer practised, particularly by the new generation,” Rosey said, expressing concern that the tradition would die a natural death if not nurtured and preserved.
Today, bermukun can only be seen during weddings and as a form of entertainment at official ceremonies, particularly in the northern regions of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.