The gambus (lutes) of the Malay world: its origins and significance in Zapin Music
By Larry Hilarian, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
In this paper I will briefly discuss how I came to study with John Blacking at Queen.s University of
Belfast in 1987. I will also discuss accounts of Blacking.s stay in British Malaya and Singapore
since the late 1940.s and early 1950.s. This information on his arrival in the Malay Peninsular was
articulated to me by Dr. and Mrs. Ivan Polunin, very close associates of Blacking when he was an
assistant adviser on aborigines (Orang Asli) to the British Military forces. Blacking had mentioned
to me that his first love was the people and music of Peninsular Malaya. As he did not manage to
fulfil his research into this area, I feel privileged to be able contribute to the studies done on this
In will then explore the main focus of this paper, which is the appearance of two types of lute
instruments commonly known as the .gambus. in the Malay Archipelago. The main focus will be
on the historical development of the different variants of gambus. This paper will examine the
controversies surrounding the .transmission. and .migration. of the gambus-type instruments into
the Malay world. I will also discuss how these instruments are identified today as symbols of Islam
and Melayu.ness..
The importance of the relationship between the music and dance (zapin), and the role of the gambus
as a key instrument in zapin will be discussed. The performance of the two zapin dance forms:
Melayu and Arab will be demonstrated with the aid of video images. I will also examine the
differences between the two styles of zapin and explore some aspects of its musical characteristics.

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