R is for Rebab

by Rose Gan

This colourful rebab is a stringed instrument more than eighty years old, part of the gamelan orchestra of the court of Kelantan that accompanied traditional wayang performances. In the same vitrine there are also examples of Kelantanese wayang kulit figures. A rebab is similar to the medieval lute. It originated in the Middle East by the eighth century CE, if not much earlier, where it is widespread in many regions.  From the Arab world, this early instrument travelled both east and west along Islamic trade routes, In Europe, the rebab was the ancestor of the lute, the rebec, and ultimately the guitar, having been introduced in Spain during the medieval Islamic period. In each region, the rebab developed its own particular characteristics.

Rebab at Gallery B

Left to right:
Medieval rebab player c 1250. Image credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Medieval rebab by unknown artist from 13th century. Image credit: https://miguelmorateorganologia.wordpress.com/introduccion-a-los-cordofonos-compuestos-o-familia-de-los-laudes/
Persian rebab player. Image credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/436708495107772315/

The rebab reached South East Asia with the coming of Islam to Sumatra, Java and the Peninsula, and bears marked similarities to the early Persian version. It is a singularly difficult instrument to play because it has neither fingerboard nor fret, and its bow is loosely strung, unlike the taut bow of the violin. It also has a limited range of little more than one octave. In a gamelan orchestra, the rebab acts as an ornamentation to the basic melody, but it also has a function as the main accompaniment in other cultural traditions of the peninsular East coast, particularly Main Puteri, Mak Yong and Tarek Selampit.

K.P.H. Notoprojo, Javanese rebab player. Image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In South East Asia, the rebab has a distinctive and unique shape, indicating that it evolved significantly from its earliest Arabic origins. Traditionally, the structure of the rebab represents a stylised human form with triangular crowned head (kecopong), long thin neck (leher) and a round body resting on a spiked foot (kaki).   The head is adorned with a brightly painted pucuk rebung motif (bamboo shoot), a typical design found on batik and songket textiles; the top is oddly stupa-like, which may be a throwback to decorative forms of an earlier time. Three pegs (pemulas) can be observed on the upper part of the neck; these are the tuning pegs connected to the strings that are sometimes referred to as ‘ears’ (telinga).  In Java the rebab has two strings, but in Kelantan it has three.

Malay Rebab. Background Image credit: Asza, https://www.asza.com/graphics/Gallery/irebabMalay.jpeg; annotations by Rose Gan.

The body, here hidden beneath a decorative fringing, was originally made of a coconut shell and later wood, with a piece of buffalo intestine or bladder stretched tightly over the front face.  Fabric is used to cover the back.  There is a small moveable bridge on the body. A ball of beeswax (susu), attached near the bridge, mutes the sound reverberations. A wooden foot (known as the spike) protrudes at the base; rebabs of this type are sometimes known as ‘spike fiddles’ in English. The rebab is played upright (like a cello), and is secured on the ground by the ‘foot’.  The bow was originally strung with coconut fibres, but now nylon is used; the strings are coated with resin to smoothen the intricate bowing. The South East Asian rebab may also have been influenced by the Chinese erhu, a similar two-stringed spiked fiddle of very ancient origin; its sound is similar.

Main Puteri was an ancient healing tradition of Kelantan conducted by a bomoh (shaman), involving trances and other ritualistic practises accompanied by the rebab. There was a time when it was even performed in hospitals on the East coast to ensure a safe recovery!   Tarek Selampit, a traditional story telling form in Kelantan, was also accompanied by the rebab. Mak Yong, however, is perhaps one of the most notable Kelantanese traditions connected to the rebab. An ancient dance and drama theatre performed in Kelantan and the Pattani region of southern Thailand, the heyday of Mak Yong was in the 19th- early 20th centuries, although its roots probably stretch back to a much earlier time. The tales performed in Mak Yong theatre reflect very ancient myths and legends, many with roots in the Hindu-Buddhist past. In fact, some believe that Mak Yong may even have originally represented the rice goddess Dewi Sri. During a performance, the rebab is the main instrument that accompanies the dancers, singers and the spoken word, although the orchestra also includes drums and percussion. Today Mak Yong is no longer performed in Kelantan but performances are sometimes held at ASWARA (The National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) and Istana Budaya (The National Theatre).


Hood Salleh (Vol. Ed.). (2006). The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia Volume 12: Peoples and Traditions. Archipelago Press.

Fiddling Around UK websitehttp://www.fiddlingaround.co.uk/med/Med+mid%20frame.html

JMM. (2014) Koleksi Museum Negara. OMR Press Sdn Bhd.

Matusky, Patricia. (2015). Malaysian Journal of Performing and Visual Arts Vol I:  Mak Yong Music of Malaysia: Negotiating Complex Musical Content Within Periodicity. University of Malaya.

Syed Ahmad Jamal (Vol. Ed.). (2007). The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia Volume 14: Crafts and the Visual Arts. Archipelago Press.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

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