Malaysian art, dance and traditional music in Kuala Lumpur

KL Philharmonic

Malaysia is a country with a rich artistic heritage and Kuala Lumpur is a great place to discover  this for yourself. There are many art galleries in KL holding all manner of displays from modern paintings and sculptures to traditional Islamic forms. Plus there are dazzling music and dance performances to enjoy every night of the week.

And as Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society comprised of around half Malays with half Chinese and Indian immigrants, there is much variety to the forms of art on display. From elaborate Oriental murals depicting tales from ancient mythology that adorn Taoist temples, to pages from the Koran meticulously copied out in fine calligraphy script. Some of the biggest influences in Malaysian art have come from the cultures of Arabia, Persia and, of course, Europe.

Music and dance in Kuala Lumpur

Music in Malaysia takes a great deal of inspiration from Islamic and Chinese forms. Percussion plays a huge role with a particular drum known as a endang plus instruments such as trumpets, gongs and flutes made from shells.

Other important influences come from neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia as well as a some similarities with Filipino styles. ‘Dance dramas’ recanting legends and stories from history were popular before colonisation and Arabic zapin music accompanied by drums and gambus are also widely found.

The slow and intense dancing of dondang sayang has elements of Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and Arabian culture while the rhythmic and swift kertok xylophone music has long been a feature of native tribes from the Malay Peninsular. More Arabian influence comes in the form of Ghazals that can often be heard in the malls and markets of big cities and have remained in the national conscious thanks to popular musicians such as Kamariah Noor.

Art and drama in Kuala Lumpur

The Malaysian government has been making strong efforts to preserve traditional forms of art and drama to ensure they remain for future generations. And despite the sometimes contrary influences of popular culture, their efforts are making some headway. Mak yong is a very old type of Malaysian drama made up of a mixture of song, dance and grand fairy tale-like storylines involving beautiful princesses and brutal sultans. Accompanying music is played by a Gamelan orchestra of metallic percussion instruments such as xylophones, gongs and drums.

Wayang kulit is another artistic theatre form which utilises shadow-play and puppets to depict epic stories about the life of Ramayana. Garland making (bunga malai) is central to the cultural heritage of Indians in Malaysia as it is in the subcontinent. Religious ceremonies and celebrations such as welcoming friends to a new house, weddings or simply honouring important guests are all met with a display of garish flowers.

Silat is both a system of self defence hailing from Malaysia but also is considered an art form in its own right. A combination of supple movements allows participants to protect themselves from attack. Other forms of ancient tribal hunting and combat used blow pipes (sumpit) while the weaving and dying of creative batik patterns on cloth is also extremely important culturally and has assumed a prominent part in the identity of the nation.

Modern interpretations can be found at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center (website: www.klpac.org). There are many studios and performance spaces with a wide variety of shows from cultural displays to abstract interpretative dance. But the organisation also serves as a training and research centre for visitors.

Art fans in KL should visit the National Art Gallery which boasts almost 3,000 permanent exhibits, Rainforest Gallery with artwork showing the natural world of Malaysia, Pelita Hati Gallery of Arts that features new installations and exhibitions every week and Galeri Petronas within the Petronas Twin Towers.

Islamic influences in Kuala Lumpur

Islamic art has become ever more popular in recent times and this trend has been mirrored in the art scene of Kuala Lumpur. The best place to see Muslim works of art in KL is at the city’s Islamic Arts Museum (website: www.iamm.org.my) which is filled with more than seven thousand different items including some of the best preserved Arabic texts anywhere in the world.

Featured artefacts include enormous models of Mecca’s grand Masjid al-Haram mosque to the smallest articles of jewellery. And the museum aims to present a more complete view of the Islamic world by concentrating on the oft-neglected sphere of Asia rather than the Middle East and Persia. There are a dozen galleries each organised according to type rather than geography, although works from India feature very strongly.