From attire to musical instruments, craftsmen in Johor have dedicated their lives to the traditional arts, and in their own way, undertaken the tireless task of conserving their craft. There is a rich history of traditional Johorean arts being relentlessly passed on and, the craftsmen who master them are, in many ways, providing a haven for heritage.

But in the face of modernisation, what drives them to do what they do?

The Gambus Maker: Encik Halidan bin Ithnin

Originally from Yemen, the gambus is a short-necked lute that’s sparked an entire musical genre of its own after its introduction to the Southeast Asian region. Played to accompany the traditional zapin dance and ghazal performance, the gambus was acknowledged as a Malaysian heritage by UNESCO World Heritage in 1997.

Constructing the stringed instrument requires a tremendous amount of practice and patience. Few readily accept this challenge as it takes time and dedication to master, but Halidan bin Ithnin of Bengkel Industri Budaya took the plunge when his contract as a lecturer at ASWARA ended. Godson to pioneer gambus maker Hassan bin Othman, Halidan learned by observation.

The whole process is difficult,” Halidan says matter-of-factly, “There are no shortcuts.” Every piece is handmade and each step is essential for the instrument to sound good. Though he still uses the traditional design and method, Halidan breathes new life into his craft by incorporating typically Malaysian floral patterns to decorate his gambus, keeping in line with Malay tradition, culture and identity.

His gambus designs are sought after by zapin and ghazal groups in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as ethnic musical instrument collectors from around the world, but Halidan prefers for his customers to test the product personally before purchasing one, as his utmost satisfaction comes from the challenge of achieving the exact sound that resonates with them.

Halidan believes that to preserve the tradition, people need to be made more aware of it through activations like competitions for gambus playing. In that way, they might be inspired to pick it up and learn to play, and in turn, the demand for it would rise.

Understanding how traditions have shaped the landscape of Johor today plays an important role in building a strong sense of identity and community in a multicultural society. In embracing the history of the Johorean culture, the craftsmen of Johor hope to help future generations feel more connected to their roots, to take pride, and to show that traditional art forms are still relevant.

Strips or ribs of wood are bent to form the body or soundbox, known in Malay as the badan.
Strips or ribs of wood are bent to form the body or soundbox, known in Malay as the badan.
Encik Halidan fits the pegs or telinga.
Encik Halidan fits the pegs or telinga.
By using a power planer, Encik Halidan slices away any irregularities to smoothen out boards of wood more efficiently and accurately.
By using a power planer, Encik Halidan slices away any irregularities to smoothen out boards of wood more efficiently and accurately.
Typically Malaysian floral patterns are incorporated into Encik Halidan’s gambus designs.
Typically Malaysian floral patterns are incorporated into Encik Halidan’s gambus designs.
Ornate carvings frame the muka or ‘face’.
Ornate carvings frame the muka or ‘face’.
Sound holes or lubang bunyi are decoratively and ornately carved into the face.
Sound holes or lubang bunyi are decoratively and ornately carved into the face.

The Teluk Belanga Designer: Jamil Sukaimi

A traditional attire Johorean Malays don proudly for special occasions, the design of the teluk belanga is unique to the state of Johor. It is instantly recognisable by its hemmed round collar, which features a special technique of stitching called tulang belut or ‘eel’s spine’. The slit of the collar is fastened by a singular kancing, a button that often boasts semi-precious or precious stones.

Created to commemorate the shift of the state capital from Teluk Belanga to Johor Bahru during Sultan Abu Bakar’s reign in 1886, it has been the state’s traditional wear ever since. Customarily, the garment is painstakingly hand-stitched, a technique still employed by designer Jamil Sukaimi of Teluk Belanga Design.

For Jamil, the teluk belanga is more than just a piece of clothing. Taught by his grandfather and mother, the skill has been passed down the family line for generations. Because the garment is made by hand, it is both labour-intensive and time-consuming to construct.

At the same time, there’s a rising demand for the teluk belanga, so customers often have to pre-order his designs. Thankful for the recognition of his workmanship, some of his regular customers include the Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar and his Royal family.

In the hopes of inspiring young people to take up the art, as well as to unearth raw talent, Jamil sometimes hosts competitions in which up to 70 people compete. Afraid of losing the art, his drive comes from the belief that it carries Johor’s unique identity. He wishes to keep that culture and tradition alive, whilst tackling the challenge of adapting with the times.

“One can explore the future, but knowing your identity is essential, and one should never forget where we come from.”

As for aspiring designers, Jamil advises, “One can explore the future, but knowing your identity is essential, and one should never forget where we come from.

The collar employs a special technique of hand-stitching called tulang belut or ‘eel’s spine’.
The collar employs a special technique of hand-stitching called tulang belut or ‘eel’s spine’.
The slit of the collar is fastened by a singular button or kancing.
The slit of the collar is fastened by a singular button or kancing.
In Johor the kain samping or kain dagang is an ornate cloth wrapped around the waist and typically worn underneath the shirt.
In Johor the kain samping or kain dagang is an ornate cloth wrapped around the waist and typically worn underneath the shirt.
The kancing or button often boasts semi-precious or precious stones.
The kancing or button often boasts semi-precious or precious stones.