Memukun - Brunei's Unique Tradtion

[Note: The following article was published in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times under the Golden Legacy column on 9th June 2007.]

One of the unique features of Brunei Darussalam's many ethnic traditions and cultures is 'memukun'.

It is fairly hard to describe to an outsider unless one has actually listened to it.

‘Memukun’ is a very Bruneian tradition where a group of people (usually elderly) will sing accompanied by guling tangan (Brunei’s traditional musical instruments) or a small drum and sometimes accompanied with a dance.

Some have likened memukun to a 'quatrain singing to the tune of traditional hand drums'.

Normally it is a duet with one gender 'selling' pantun verses to the other 'gender' and the other side is supposed to ‘buy’ or reply with another set of pantun verses.

In the 1960s and 1970s memukun was very popular during weddings and memukun sessions can go on from evening until dawn the next day - this was called 'memukun kesiangan' (memukun until the daylight) or 'mukun menyubuh' (memukun until dawn).

There are still many households in Brunei especially in Kampong Ayer where memukun continued to be popular and remained a feature for evening entertainments during wedding ceremonies.

Even though memukun is said to be owned by Bruneians especially the native Brunei Malays, Brunei Kedayans, Brunei Belaits and Brunei Tutongs but surprisingly memukun is not unique to Brunei; a number of Brunei Malay origins who lived in the neighbouring state also practice it especially in the Limbang, Miri and Lawas areas of Sarawak.

It was said that in the 1960s, the experts of memukun were from Limbang and the good ones were always invited to Brunei and paid a token sum to perform at wedding ceremonies.

It is not known whether memukun is originally from Brunei or whether there is a mixture of culture between the two countries.

But what is important is that the memukun tradition is a traditional communication tool used by the Brunei Malay society and which also function as an entertainment during wedding and other social events and can go on for seven days and seven nights continuously.

During wedding ceremonies, the memukun session can be heard during the wedding itself or other functions during the ceremonies such as on the night of the wedding and on the third day of the wedding (muleh tiga hari).

Sometimes, memukun session can also be heard during circumcision ceremonies.

In the older days and even nowadays, memukun was carried out by two groups of people - one group made up of female and the other, male though two groups of the same gender singing to each other is also not unusual.

The two groups are separated by kain batik strung across the two groups.

The two then take turns at 'selling' and ‘buying’ their pantun verses.

If the lady is single and the male is single, normally if they are able to sell pantuns successfully, according to some elderly stories, the chances of them marrying each other are very high indeed.

So memukun is also part of a mating ritual of getting to know each other.

That is not very surprising, if you listen to some of the verses, they can be very suggestive indeed.

However to be successful, memukun sessions can not be carried out by just two people.

It requires more than the two (called ‘pelaku’) who will be the main actors selling and buying verses (pantun), a third will be drumming the hand drum and a number of dancers accompanying the session.

Another group of people known as the ‘pengunjak’ will also cheer those who took part either in the memukun or in the dance.

Memukun is always accompanied by a musical instrument.

Sometimes the accordion or the guitar or the full guling tangan set but the simplest is just a 'gendang' or drum.

The drum can be made up of deer’s skin or goat's skin or cow's skin and is known as ‘tambur’ among the Brunei Malays but the Kedayans called it the ‘dombak’.

The drums will be held in place by pins and always held on the laps of the drummers.

Memukun sessions are normally held at the balcony of houses and done simultaneously with the drums, the selling and buying of pantun verses and with the spectators dancing to the tune of the music.

The pantun verses are unlike the normal pantuns with some words or verses repeated and the additional of words such as –lah, - hai, -aduhai, -ya and –nya.

Memukun became mainstream when Radio Brunei broadcasted live memukun sessions in the 1980s.

When it was first broadcasted, the elderly vendors at the Tamu taped the sessions and replayed the memukun over and over again during the daytime.

Today memukun aficionados can even do a phone in during one of these live radio memukun sessions and sing through the telephone.

Every time the program is on, there will always be a number of elderly Bruneians taking part in the sessions.

Despite the seeming popularity, there is a worry that this unique tradition will slowly die.

Already not many people seemed to have spotted that most of the memukun lovers or those taking part tended to be more elderly.

If the tradition is not kept alive, it may not last and with that Brunei will lose another of its unique cultures.

For the time being, if you want something very Bruneian, memukun it is. Nobody else have it now. Just us the Bruneians.

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