Scoring Tradition, Making Nation: Zubir Said’s Traditionalised Film Music for Dang Anom
The Malay-language films produced by the Cathay-Keris Studio in 1950s to 1960s Singapore were known for their ‘traditional’ narratives based on Malay folklore and legends set in the pre-colonial Malay world. Made during a period of nation-making in the region, these films used musical accompaniment that had to be culturally-rooted in the music of the Malay Peninsula while expressing the region’s aspirations for postcolonial independence. Interestingly, this task was undertaken prominently by the film composer, Zubir Said, who was not a citizen of Malay-majority Malaysia. Instead, he was commemorated as a national icon of Singapore, in which Malays form a minority. This paper aims to unravel the paradoxical process of ‘traditionalising’ national culture in a period of cosmopolitan postcoloniality in the Malay world. Through an intertextual study of his biography and film score analysed against the history of Malay nationalism, this article unravels the ‘traditionalised’ Malay musical aesthetic established through the musical compositions of Zubir Said in historically-themed Malay films. The article analyses the use of musical motifs and styles in Zubir Said’s music for Hussein Hanniff’s Dang Anom (1962). The juxtaposition of an aesthetically-traditional film score against the film’s anti-feudal narrative results in a critique of archaic notions of tradition that articulates a subversive message of ethical modernity, freedom and self-determination. In conclusion, this intertextual analysis of film, music and history reveals how the melodic construction or scoring of musical tradition on the silver-screen was concomitant with the postcolonial aspirations and contradictions of nation-making in the Malay world.