Memoirs – Peace Corps

Peace Corps – Malaysian Musical Experiences

Joe Howard

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaya from 1963-1965.  Soon after my arrival, on September 16, 1963, Malaya became Malaysia and was formed when the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah (formerly British North Borneo), and Sarawak joined together to form a new nation. The formation of Malaysia was a result of the Malaysia Agreement signed between the United Kingdom, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore.  However, Singapore was expelled from the federation in August 1965 and became an independent country.

I had a Master’s in Library Science and a Bachelors in Music Education, both from the University of Oklahoma.  Upon arrival in Malaya, I found out that I was being assigned with Alice Lage (another librarian) as librarians at the University of Malaya Library.  A few days later I was invited to tea at the USIS Librarian’s house and was greeted with “Oh, you’re the one who is to teach music at Malayan Teachers College”.  I was flabbergasted.

That same night, we were invited to another party at which time I cornered one of the Peace Corps staff and asked him about the rumor.  He not only told me about the 2nd job teaching music but about a 3rd job at Victoria Institution (VI) – a very fine local high school.  I managed to talk them out of the VI job which left me with only 2 full time jobs.

At the University of Malaya Library, I was assigned to head public services.

My assignment at Maktab Perguruan Bahasa/ Malayian Teachers College (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 had not taught music in about 10 years.  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).  He was a terrible musician.

In the meantime, I had been learning, by rote, Malay and Indonesian folk songs 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 for the University of Malaya.

Sjafi, an Indonesian, was educated in the Netherlands and had returned to Sumatra to join the rebellion against Sukarno.  Sjafi happened the be in Singapore trying to make contact with the US CIA 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 one of two of my flat mates.

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.  I bought a cheap recorder which helped a great deal.  Eventually I collected 33 songs.

My main challenge was to prepare senior music majors for the British music exam.  A major part of the exam was to write a chorale in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.  MTC had never had a student to pass this test.  I was determined that this year would be different.  I taught them how to write it in the style of and following the rules that Bach used.  Examples:  use mostly tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords, and never write parallel 5ths.  Also, avoid the supertonic, mediant and leading tone chords.  All passed with over 90 percent – except for one who made in the 80’s.

Bach would probably not have been thrilled; however, I was!

Besides teaching music majors’ 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.  Of the several songs I taught them at that first rehearsal was Suliram.  At the end, I said goodbye and thanked them.  No one moved.  A small voice in the back asked “can we sing Suliram again?

It was wonderful to get that kind of immediate response, one you can get through conducting music.  Algebra teachers don’t get that immediate response.

We appeared in several concerts at the college.

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 song, but the guests asked for more.  We sang two more songs.  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 copy these three songs all over again.



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.

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 was a wonderful experience, so much so that the teachers wanted to come back in the evenings to sing.  Perhaps it was because they had nothing else to do?

In 1963 I was visited by Koh Tong Bak and a few other former Scouts from Victoria Institution (VI), 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 VI 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 VI 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 collect 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.



Since 1965, I have hoped that someday I would publish these songs.  Now, over 50 years later, I prepared them for publication on mt 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.