Traditional Malaysian Music and Dance

Malaysia is so diverse and so many cultures have mixed together, creating something spectacular! Here you can get to know more about Malaysian traditional art in music and dances!

Malay Music


Malaysia has two traditional orchestras: the gamelan and the nobat. Originally from Indonesia, the gamelan is a traditional orchestra that plays ethereal lilting melodies.

Rebana Ubi

In the days of ancient Malay kingdoms, the resounding rhythmic beats of giant rebana ubi drums conveyed various messages from warnings of danger to wedding announcements. Later, they were used as musical instruments in assortment of social performances.


Arguably the most Malay traditional instrument, the kompang is widely used in a variety of social occasions such as National Day parades, official functions, and weddings. Similar to the tambourine but without the jingling metal discs, this hand drum is most commonly played in large ensembles, where various rhythmic composite patterns are produced by overlapping multiple layers of different rhythms.


Brought to Malaysia by Persian and Middle Eastern traders, the gambus or Arabian oud is played in a variety of styles in Malay folk music, primarily as the lead instrument in Ghazal music. Carefully crafted with combinations of different woods, this instrument produces a gentle tone that is similar to that of the harpsichord.


The sape is the traditional flute of the Orang Ulu community or upriver people of Sarawak. A woodcarving masterpiece with colorful motifs, the sape is made by hollowing a length of wood. Once played solely during healing ceremonies within longhouse, it gradually became a social instrument of entertainment. Typically, its thematic music is used to accompany dances such as the Ngajat and Daru Julud.

Malay Dance

Malay Mak Yong

Originated from Patani in Southern Thailand, Mak Yong was conceived to entertain female royalty, queens, and princesses, when their man were away at war.

Kuda Kepang

Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance brought to the state of Johor by Javanese immigrants. Dramatizing the tales of victorious Islamic Holy wars, dancers sit astride mock horses moving to the hypnotic beats of a percussion ensemble.


Islamic influence on Malaysian traditional dance is perhaps most evident in Zapin, a popular dance in the state of Johor. Introduced by Muslim missionaries from the Middle East, the original dance was performed to Islamic devotional chanting to spread knowledge about the history of the Islamic civilization.


Malaysia`s most popular traditional dance is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. Performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humor, the Jogjet has its origins in Portuguese folk dance, which was introduced to Melaka during the era of the spice trade.

Tarian Lilin

Also known as Candle Dance, it is performed by women who do delicate dance while balancing candles in small dishes.


One of the oldest Malay traditions and a deadly martial art, Silar is also a danceable art form. With its flowery body movements, a Silat performance is spellbinding and intriguing.

Chinese Lion Dance

Usually performed during the Chinese New Year festival, Lion Dance is energetic and entertaining. According to the legend, in ancient times, the lion was the only animal that could ward off a mythological creature known as Nian that terrorized China. The dance is almost always performed to the beat of the tagu, the Chinese drum, and the clanging of cymbals.

Dragon Dance

The dragon is a mythical creature that represents supernatural power, goodness, fertility, vigilance, and dignity in Chinese culture. Typically performed to usher in the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Dance is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the year to come. Usually requiring a team of over 60 people.

Indian Bharata Natayam

This classical Indian dance is poetry in motion. Based on ancient Indian epics, this highly intense and dramatic dance form uses over 100 dance steps and gestures. As mastery requires many years of practice, some children begin learning the dance format the age of five.


Bhangra is lively folk music and dance form of the Sikh community. Originally a harvest dance, it is now part of many social celebrations such as weddings and New Year festivities. Typically centered around romantic themes with singing and dancing driven by heavy beats of the dhol, a double-barreled drum, the bhangra is engagingly entertaining.

Sabah & Sarawak Ngajat

The Warrior Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak`s Iban people. This dance is usually performed during Gawai Kenyalang or “Hornbill Festival”. Reputedly the most fearsome of Sarawak`s headhunters, the tribe`s victorious warriors were traditionally celebrated in this elaborate festival.

Datun Julud

The Hornbill Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak’s Kenyah women. Created by a Kenyah prince called Nyik Selong to symbolize happiness and gratitude, it was once performed during communal celebrations that greeted warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual celebrations that marked the end of each rice harvest season. Performed by a solo woman dancer to the sounds of the sape.


Sumazau is a traditional dance of Sabah`s Kadazan people. Usually performed at religious ceremonies and social events, it is traditionally used to honor spirits for bountiful paddy harvests ward off evil spirits and cure illnesses. Male and female dancers perform this steady hypnotic dance with soft and slow movements imitating birds in a fight.

/Information taken from KL Guide. First Free Travel Guide in Malaysia/


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