A few weeks ago I wrote about a new book with accompanying CDs called Longing for the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia.


One of the songs in this collection that I have come to like the most is a type of music from what is now Malaysia and Singapore called dondang sayang. It is a kind of music that was popular among Malays and Peranakan Chinese (a.k.a., Straits Chinese or Baba-Nonya), that is, Chinese who had intermarried with Malays and had acculturated in some ways to Malay culture.


The singer in this form of music sings pantun verses in Malay, a kind of poetry in four lines, and is accompanied by a violin, two frame drums (rebana) and a type of gong. At some point the accordion was added to this ensemble, but originally it was just the above four instruments, and that is what we hear in the wonderful dondang sayang song in Longing for the Past.

I found an article from The Straits Times (2 July 1985, Page 6) that quotes a dondang sayang violinist by the name of Abu Bakar Abdullah who said that “during the heyday of dondang sayang, mahjong sessions would not be held by the Straits-born Chinese – the Babas and Nyonyas – without the accompaniment of dondang sayang music and songs.”

I would love to be able to go back in time and see what that world was like. If you want to hear what it was like, Longing for the Past has a great example of it.