Malaysian/Indonesian Folk Songs

            All the songs included here were collected by me between 1963 and 1965, when I was an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaya (later Malaysia).  I was in the fourth group of volunteers assigned to Malaysia.

            I had a Masters in Library Science and a Bachelors in Music Education, both from the University of Oklahoma.  In Kuala Lumpur, I was assigned to the University of Malaya Library in charge of public services.  In addition, for six months, I was Lecturer in Music at the city’s Maktab Perguruan Bahasa (Malayan Teachers’ College).  


Ruth Daroesman

            I learned all these songs by rote, mostly from Ruth Daroesman and Sjafiroeddin (Sjafi).  Often, we would get together and sing with Sjafi playing the guitar.  Ruth, an American who had married an Indonesian, spent many years in Indonesia until, after her divorce, she moved to Kuala Lumpur to edit a Malay journal.  Later she moved with her family Suzie, Perry and Peggy to Australia where she worked at the Australian National University.[1]  Through her I met Sjafi, who was educated in the Netherlands and had returned to Sumatra to join the rebellion against Sukarno.  Sjafi happened the be in Singapore when the rebels surrendered.  Unable to return to Sumatra, he eventually found work with a publishing company in Kuala Lumpur translating Bahasa Melayu texts into English.  He later became my flat-mate.  

            Ruth, Sjafi, and I sang these songs often at parties given by friends.  Since no record existed at the time of either the music or the texts of the songs, I undertook to transcribe them. This task was hard for me, since I had neither perfect nor relative pitch.  Use of a cheap recorder helped a great deal.

            My assignment at Maktab Perguruan Bahasa (MTC) was to teach general music for six months while the regular instructor, Mr. Ashcroft, a British expatriate, was in England on home leave.  I observed several of Mr. Ashcroft’s classes and was appalled that college-aged students were being taught such songs as Old Black Joe (with the words changed to Good Old Joe) and Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall (also with different words).

            So besides teaching these students general music, I started a choir as an extracurricular project.  For materials, I arranged many of my transcriptions of Malay/Indonesian songs for multiple voices.  In the absence of photocopy machines, I wrote out multiple manuscript copies of the songs for the singers to use during rehearsals and performances. 

            Other performances followed the première at MTC.  Several months after my music course ended, MTC’s Principal, Mr. Lee, contacted me to say that the King and Queen, along with the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Chief Education Adviser and other officials, were coming for a tour of the College and asked if I would return to demonstrate my class singing a Malay song.  We were supposed to sing only one, but the guests asked for more.  We sang two more.  Before they left, Her Majesty asked for a copy of the music.  To my horror, every member of the choir ran up to her and presented her with their copies.  None were saved.  I had no choice but to transcribe these three songs all over again.  As a result of this performance before royalty, I was asked to conduct workshops for about a hundred teachers at a training camp in northwestern Malaysia, near Ipoh, early in 1964.

This picture appeared in the December 1963 edition of the Malayan Times with the following caption: Their Majesties, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisri Agong visited the Specialist Teachers’ Training Institute, yesterday.  . . . Here Their Majesties are seen looking at a demonstration conducted by the music lecturer, Mr. J. Howard.

            In 1963 I was visited by Koh Tong Bak and a few other former Scouts from Victoria Institution (V.I.), an elite boys’ secondary school in Kuala Lumpur considered to be one of the best non-residential schools in Malaysia.  The Scouts’ idea was to create a V.I. Scout Choir that would broaden the students’ experiences and provide another outlet for their energies.  I couldn’t resist this opportunity, which turned out to be one of the most rewarding things that I did during my 21 months in Malaysia.  We gave a concert of Malay songs at V.I. and appeared on TV Malaysia and on Radio Malaysia.

            Also, for several months, I directed a choir at Bukit Nanas Convent School in Kuala Lumpur, until the regular teacher returned from a sabbatical in England.

About the Songs

            I have endeavored to include only folk songs that I learned and have, to my knowledge, not included any popular songs – those that are composed.

             I have made no effort to standardize the spelling of the lyrics of the songs collected here.  Malaysia and Indonesia have sought to adopt common spellings.  In the past, Bahasa Indonesia was spelled according to Dutch orthographic conventions, and Bahasa Melayu, was spelled following British conventions.  One will find both conventions in these transcriptions.

            Many of these songs use the poetic form known as pantun, consisting of four lines rhyming a b a b.  Every line should contain between eight and twelve syllables.  The first and second lines sometimes appear completely disconnected in meaning from the third and fourth, but there is almost invariably a link of some sort, as in this example:

Dari mana datang-nya lintah?
Dari sawa turun ka-kali
Dari mana datang-nya chinta?
Dari mata turun ka-hati.
From where comes the leech?
From the rice field he returns to the river.
From where does love come?
From the eyes it descends to the heart.

About the Transcriptions

            Since 1965, I have hoped that someday I would publish these songs.  Now, some 54 years later, I have prepared them for publication on this website.  Publication has been made possible by the use of fabulous software named Finale, through which one can digitize musical scores.  However, Finale is expensive.  These scores are in the free, truncated version, Finale NotePad, which lacks certain professional features.  For this reason, the second and subsequent verses of lyrics are presented outside the scores, rather than together with the first verse of the song, and flats are indicated by a lower-case letter b instead of the usual symbol for flat.  One gets what one pays for.


            In addition to Ruth and Sjafi, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Minar Rony, a wonderfully helpful colleague who worked for me at the Library of Congress.  She helped with the lyrics – both in Bahasa Indonesia and in Batak, which is spoken by several closely related ethnic groups of north-central Sumatra.

Terms of Use

            The author of this work hereby waives all claim of copyright, economic and moral, in this work and immediately places it in the public domain for use in any manner whatsoever without attribution or notice to me.

[1] The Ruth Daroesman Endowment was established in 2013 in memory of Ruth Daroesman by Ruth’s family and friends.  The aim of the grant is to assist students of the Australian National University (ANU) who are engaged in postgraduate study of Asia and the Pacific, with special emphasis on Indonesia.  This opportunity is available for post-graduate students studying at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.