The BRATS (Bright Roving Annoying Teens) writers visit a kompang workshop in Kuala Kangsar, Perak to learn how the traditional hand-held drum is made.
A signboard with a picture of kompang and rebana points us to the workshop making the traditional instruments. Located on the main road in Sayong, on the outskirts of Kuala Kangsar, this workshop is where people from all over come to buy their kompang.
The owner Hj Zainuddin Andika used to make traditional drum like gendang and rebana. These days, the workshop produces mostly kompang as Zainuddin has retired. His daughter Nor Azzah Zainuddin now runs the family business with her husband and a few craftsmen.
The kompang is a traditional Malay percussion instrument. It is circular in shape with a wooden frame, and is hollow. One end is covered with goat skin, and sound is produced when the players beat on the taut goat skin.
Kompang originated from the Arab Peninsula, and is believed to have been brought into our country by Muslim Indian traders in the olden days. Kompang is usually played at Malay weddings and royal functions.
In the old days, kompang is made by hand. But these days, a lot of the work is done using machines. At the Sayong workshop, most of the processes were done using machine – from sawing the logs to stretching the goat skin.
Still, the process of making kompang is a long and hard one. First, a log is cut up, and hollowed out to the desired thickness to make the kompang frame. It is then smoothened out, painted and varnished.
Workers will also clean the goat skin, and prepare it to be used for the kompang.
“During my father’s time, he stretched the skin over the kompang frame with his hands. You need a lot of strength to do that. If you don’t stretch the skin properly, the kompang sound would not be right,” says Nor Azzah.
Their job now is made easier because Nor Azzah’s brother who works in a factory in Penang designed and fashioned a machine for stretching the skin over the kompang frame. Now, Nor Azzah and her workers only need to fasten the skin and the frame onto the machine, and then stretch the skin out to the correct tautness.
They cannot stretch the skin too tightly because it will tear, so an expert’s touch is still required even though the machine does the work.
The next step is decorating the kompang by nailing on a strip of ribbon all around the frame.
“We used to use leather strips to decorate the kompang, but we use ribbon now because it’s cheaper and easier to find,” says Nor Azzah, who adds that they sometimes have problems getting the supply of raw materials like wood and goat skin.
So, even though it’s possible to make up to 15 kompang a day, they usually only make about five due to the shortage of materials.
This Sayong kompang workshop has been around since 1977, and has established a good reputation.
“We have orders from schools, government agencies and others. There are even orders all the way from Johor. Customers usually have to wait a few weeks to collect their orders, depending on whether we could get the materials needed.
“The challenge for us is also competition from other kompang maker. There is another kompang workshop across the road,” says Nor Azzah.
Although Nor Azzah and her husband have taken over Zainuddin’s business, they have not acquired all his skills and knowledge. The workshop used to make traditional Malay drums like gendang dabus, gendang Jawa and gendang bedok. Now, they only make gendang silat, as well as rebana panjang and rebana ubi.
But they no longer make most of these instruments as Zainuddin has retired and is too weak to handle the task, and no one else knows how to make these instruments.
For now, the mainstay of their workshop is kompang. Nor Azzah was the only one of Zainuddin’s children interested in learning the craft from him. She doesn’t know if her children will inherit the business as they are all still so young, but she hopes her family’s kompang making business will continue to thrive.
Living life fully
Zainuddin Andika no longer works in the workshop making Malay musical instruments that he started 32 years ago, but his marks are everywhere. Drawings of the various drums and rebana that he used to make with Jawi descriptions, and certificates of his participation in various workshops line the walls.
“I learnt to draw when I was in prison,” says the 83-year-old who laughingly describes his retirement as being “condemned”.
Although Zainuddin walks with a stoop, and has “a pump in his heart”, he keeps himself busy. He proudly points to his vegetable patches behind the workshop… those are his “original” vegetables, not contamined by pesticides.
The affable man was brimming with stories and eager to share them with us.
He has a sign above the door that declares him as a former prisoner of the British, a fact that he is proud of. he does not talk bitterly of the experience, or all that much about the past. After his release, he tried different jobs which included becoming a tailor.
He is, however, most proud of his craft business. He learnt to make the Malay musical instruments from scratch. In his heydays, he was making various types of gendang, rebana and kompang. Although his daughter Nor Azzah has taken over his business, she has not mastered the craft fully and is most adept at making kompang but not the other instruments.
When asked what he thought of the future of his business, he squinted and sighed. “The ‘kompang’ future is bleak,”he says. As time goes by, the number of ‘kompang’ craftsmen has decreased. There will come a time when the art of ‘kompang’ making will just be a part of our history books. He does express a glimmer of hope however, and claims that it can be saved if the younger generation step up and start showing interest in the traditional arts.
At one time, Zainuddin was also making clocks.
He has also tried to contribute actively to his community.
Aside from being the president of the local school’s Parents and Teachers Association, he was his village chief in 1998. He pauses for awhile and goes on to say that he became a religious teacher in Sekolah Rakyat.
We were intrigued by how much he has done and yet, it appeared he wasn’t quite done. He laughed and added that he spent time dabbling in interior design. Unfortunately, age has taken its toll on Zainuddin. He no longer can be as active as he used to because his failing eyesight.
We ended the interview by asking him what his advice to the youth today was. He smiled brightly and said that the youth today, especially Malays, have to return to their cultural roots. But, he adds that they have to embrace it with a modern twist and keep up with technology at the same time. He ends by expressing his pride in being a Malaysian citizen.
Zainuddin has no intentions of resting on his laurels. He wants to continue expanding his horizons. He plans to compile information on all the Prime Ministers of the country starting from Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj till Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak. He claims he may write a book about them. Maybe one day we will have the chance to read his book.