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Malay Culture

Bakaba, the Minangkabau Oral Literary Performance

Rebab (barabab) play, an element in kaba performance

Bakaba (berkaba) is a performance of kaba, which is an oral literary tradition developed in Malayo-Minangkabau society, West Sumatra. The tales in kaba are generally known among the people of Minangkabau (later will be referred as Minang) and have been passed on for generations.

1. Prologue

The word kaba is etymologically derived from the Arabic khabar (singular noun) or akhbaruun (plural noun). Khabar means news, story, or message. Kaba can also be likened to historical tale (hikayat) in Malay literature (especially, classic Indonesian literature). In general, the kaba does not tell the origin of a custom but rather, an ideal life based on a certain set of customary laws. Kaba is various universal concepts combined in accordance with Minang tradition (Taufik Abdullah, 2009: 118).

As stated by I.D.Dt. Tumanggung (1982:9), the structure of kaba is similar with that of pantun in Sundanese literature, i.e. written in rhythmic language, except that it is prosaic and then categorized as lyrical prose or rhythmic prose. The lyrical prose has a distinctive characteristic in its style, which is its sentence pattern that contains phrases with relatively constant number of syllables. Sentences in kaba are short and usually containing eight to twelve syllables. It is this very consistence that makes it possible to produce rhythms in kaba performance.

Kaba writers are generally anonym with few exceptions for some renowned figures, such as Sultan Pangaduan, Sjamsuddin St. Rahardjo Endah, and Selasih. The anonymity of their creators makes kaba belong to the society rather than individual person, especially as the stories are folktales, which are stories well-known for the people in general (Edwar Jamaris, 2002:78).

Kaba is of the consoling kind of literature. The stories are amusing and advice-giving at the same time. The traditional oral literature usually tells stories about someone who goes abroad and suffers in the new land yet ends up happy. The plot is rarely complicated, mostly single plot that flows forward (Edward Jamaris, 2002:78). Basically, Minang prosaic literary works can be called kaba as long as it tells a tragicomedy with the compulsory “living abroad” elements in the story. It is also possible that a kaba is based on someone’s biography (Suryadi, ed., 1993:3).

Edwar Jamaris in his book Pengantar Sastra Rakyat Minangkabau (2002:79) distinguishes kaba into two categories, namely old kaba and new kaba. Junus (in Edward Jamaris, 2002:79) states that there are two kinds of kaba, classic and non-classic.

Edwar Jamaris also elucidates the characteristics of both old and new kaba. Old kaba a) tell stories about power grab involving two parties, one of which is “outsider” (yet of an established family), that b) are believed to have happened in a distant past with the crown prince having a supernatural power. Old kaba are passed on either verbally or in form of a manuscript. Some examples of old kaba are Kaba Cindua Mato, Kaba si Untuang Sudah, Kaba Magek Manandin, Kaba Malin Deman dengan Puti Bungsu, Kaba Rambun Pamenan, and Kaba si Umbuik Mudo.

The other kind, the new kaba, is mostly passed on in form of a manuscript. Some examples are Kaba si Rambun Jalua, Kaba Siti Fatimah, Kaba Rang Mudo Salendang Dunia, Kaba Karantau Madang di Hulu, and Kaba Siti Jamilah dengan Tuanku Lareh Simawang. New kaba tell about the life of common people with all the problems, sufferings, and tragedies.

Nowadays, many kaba stories are known not only in Minang societies, but also in almost all areas throughout Indonesia thanks to electronic media. The acceptance of kaba in societies other than Minang shows that kaba contains universal values.

2. Kaba Performance (Bakaba)

Being an oral literature, kaba are spread out through performances, called Bakaba. In the performances, a tukang kaba (storyteller) will tell kaba story in intonation accompanied by traditional musical instruments intervened with songs. The instruments usually used are kecapi, saluang, rabab (rebab), pupuik, talempong, safety matches, and others.

In relation to the story narration, there are two persons in charge, namely kaba writer and tukang kaba. Tukang kaba is a term of address for kaba storyteller. A tukang kaba could also be the writer although not common. On the contrary, kaba writer present stories through writing (Syamsuddin Udin and Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa, 1987:16). The word “tukang” is a Minang term that bears the sense of “professionalism”, for instance, tukang rabab (rabab player in rabab pesisir and rabab pariaman performances), tukang selawat (selawat reciter in selawat dulang performances), and so on (Suryadi, ed., 1993:4).

Bakaba varies from one place to another. It adds up to the uniqueness and diversity of kaba performance. Classification and naming of bakaba is based on the musical instruments used and the title of the kaba. For example, if the instrument used is rabab, the performance will be called barabab (berebab). The followings are some names of bakaba based on the musical instruments, the area of origin, and the title of kaba.

  • Sijabang—Suryadi (1993:3) wrote sijobang—is a kaba Nan Tongga Magek Jabang performance with the accompaniment of kecapi (string instrument). This is the kind of Payakumbuh, its surroundings, and Lima Puluh Kota Regency. This bakaba usually presents only one kaba.
  • Basimalin, which is originated from Payakumbuh or precisely around Tarantang Harau, is a kaba Malin Deman performance. Like Sijabang, this performance only tells one kaba.
  • Baikayaik and Rebab Pariaman is a kind of bakaba from Padang Pariaman Regency.
  • Rebab Pesisir Selatan is a kind of bakaba from Pesisir Selatan Regency. This performance features musical accompaniment played with rabab. One example of this kind is Rebab Pesisir Selatan Malin Kundang.
  • Dendang Pauah, is a kind of bakaba from Pauah and surroundings, which covers the eastern border of Padang City. Dendang Pauah makes use of saluang musical instrument in the performance (Edwar Jamaris, 2002:127) and (Suryadi, ed., 1993:3).

Bakaba are commonly held at night. If the story cannot be finished in that night, the performance will be continued in the following night. However, in situation that does not allow for two-night performance, the tukang kaba will shorten the story by taking the most important parts to tell in a single night.

The oral literary performance is held in certain events, such as wedding, traditional feast, or village feast. The performance is carried out outdoor on a stage or just by sitting on the ground. The tukang kaba is not usually alone. There will be one man or two playing music. However, a tukang kaba can stage the performance alone. He will chant the story while playing music. This is common in Rebab Pesisir Selatan performances.

A. Elements of Bakaba

Some important elements that have to be featured in a bakaba (Syamsuddin Udin, ed., 1996:9) are as follows.

  • Tukang kaba

Tukang kaba tell kaba folklore stories or make up their own. It is the writing ability that makes a tukang kaba special. They make new stories to keep up with the advance of time and to keep the audience away from boredom.

According to their ability to tell stories and create stories, there are three ranks of tukang kaba (Syamsuddin Udin, ed., 1993:10).

      • Tukang kaba who tell stories with their knowledge

This kind of tukang kaba is usually a beginner. He will tell kaba based on what he knows. People will understand and enjoy what he tells, but not with a deep impression of it.

      • Tukang kaba who tell stories with their feeling

Tukang kaba of this rank are better than the aforementioned. Before telling a story, they will master and try to get its meanings first. Once he completely understands the story, he will then tell it to the people. Commonly, people will enjoy their story and get enlightened in some ways. However, this kind of tukang kaba often has some problems with the plot.

      • Tukang kaba who tell stories with their mind, feeling, and prayers

This third rank comprises those who have mastered bakaba. They will tell stories in full and total comprehension and concentration. Their mind will guide them throughout the performance. The stories will be enjoyable and meaningful for their audiences.

  • Kaba (story told in intonation)
  • Accompanying music. The sounds of rabab, violin, kecapi, or saluang are all accompanying music to help building atmosphere while a story is being told.

Besides three things above, there is another important element, i.e. the audience. The people who attend a bakaba enthusiastically are good for the performance. On the contrary, if the audiences are making noises all the time, they can ruin the show because the tukang kaba may lose concentration. Likewise, if the audiences are silent and unresponsive, the performance will just go on plainly and therefore be not enjoyable. Some people to jazz up the atmosphere are often needed. They are called Sipatuang Sirah. They are those who know the plot of the story and will give responses to the tukang kaba.

B. Accompanying Music

As mentioned before, there are some traditional Minang musical instruments used in bakaba. Here, two of the instruments will be described. They are rabab (Syamsuddin Udin, ed., 1993) and saluang (Suryadi, ed., 1993).

a. Rabab

The rabab is a bowed string instrument originated from Minangkabau. This instrument is played usually at night to express the player’s anxiety. In accompanying kaba, rabab can create a deep sad atmosphere. Its sound, despite the story is happy, will always give the sense of poignance. A rebab consists of some parts as follows:

  • Body

Rabab bodies are made of big and old coconut shells cut into halves vertically. To make a rabab body, a thicker half of a coconut shell is used. A hole of 1-2 cm diameter is then made on the shell to make it sounds loudly. The open part of the shell is covered with cow skin.

  • Neck

The neck of a rabab is made of bamboo and attached on the coconut shell. Three strings are set on the neck from end to end.

  • Bow

The bow is made of rattan and a ribbon of horsehair strung between its ends. There is a handle on one end of the bow.

To play a rabab, the player should sit legs-crossed. The rabab is in front of him and positioned between his calves and aslant to his left side. Then, he should begin fiddling the strings from right to left and vice versa. A rabab player will only fiddle two strings at a time, with other strings plucked occasionally.

Over the time, the bakaba music accompaniment changed. Modern instruments began to be used in kaba performances. Since 1920s, violins gradually complemented or even replaced rabab. The current violin makers generally used to make rabab. Despite changing the performance in some ways, this addition in fact enriches the bakaba.

b. Saluang

Saluang is a Minangkabau music instrument, often used in bakaba. The instrument is played by blowing. Saluang is made of bamboo, which in Minangkabau language is called talang. According to Minang people, the best bamboos for a saluang are those usually used to make a drying rack or bamboos found adrift on a river.

Saluang are different from seruling (bamboo flute) despite some resemblances. The difference is mainly in how to play them. Saluang is blown on the upper end. As for seruling, it is played by blowing the hole near one of the end. When played, seruling are positioned horizontal while saluang are vertical.

3. Values in Kaba and Bakaba

As a literary work, despite being oral, kaba contains values. Intrinsically, kaba represents certain messages, advices, and metaphors. Below, some values of the literary performance are described in categories. 

a. Education

Kaba has been part of Minang society for a very long time. It is then understandable that subtly, kaba stories and the values they convey have to a certain extent formed the mind and character of the people. Some stories even contain values that are more universal. Kaba Malin Kundang, for instance, implicitly tells people to have respects for their parents. This message is not only relevant for Minangkabau people, but also in other parts of Indonesia.

Stories in kaba can also set an example for character building. Many characters in kaba stories are determined, patient, strong, and hard working, hence exemplary. As for the bad guys, they can serve as an example of what not to do.

There are different messages in different kaba stories. Even the newly created by tukang kaba have ones. If Kaba Malin Kundang tells a story of a boy who treats his mother badly, Kaba Cinduo Mato presents a heroic story of the character.

b. Social

There are many social values in bakaba as an event where families, friends, relatives, and people gather. This event can set a place where people can establish or strengthen their social bond with each other.

In bakaba, it is apparent how Minang people practice kato nan ampek. Kato nan ampek is a manner of how one should speak to another. This is a form of respect. There are four manners of speech in kato nan ampek, namely kato mendaki, which is how to speak to older people; kato menurun, how to speak to younger people, kato mendatar, how to speak to people of the same age; and kato melereng, how to speak to people that should be respected such as prominent figures, in-laws, and religious leaders.

Bakaba, besides kato nan ampek, could also teach how a leader should lead, how people should treat others, and how people should live together in a society. In this matter, kaba does not only a source of values for common people, but also for leaders.

c. Culture

Whether or not people realize, kaba has rendered invaluable contribution to Indonesian literature, both the traditional and the modern. It is undeniable that the emergence of men of letters and literary works in the country began from people’s traditions, in which there are stories passed on for generations through verbal methods. Therefore, it is important that people start to pay more attention to oral literature or else those works will run out of enthusiasts.

d. Tradition

The kaba is an invaluable traditional asset that flourishes in the middle of a society. The stories have long been told in Minangkabau. One can even say that kaba and Minang society are inseparable.

Preserving and developing kaba and bakaba, therefore, are parts of conserving tradition. It can be done by holding more bakaba and providing a space for kaba in the mass media. Giving the tukang kaba opportunities to perform is the least thing to do. However, this always depends on the good will of the government and the people themselves.

4. Epilogue

Kaba is one of Malay cultural assets. Stories told in bakaba have been passed on for generations. Therefore, it is important to preserve this invaluable cultural heritage.

(Mujibur Rohman/bdy/04/08-10)

Translation: Reza Daffi

Translator’s note

Pantun: is a Malay poetic form, originated as a traditional oral form of expression (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantun).

Source of Photos: http://suprizal-tanjung.blogspot.com


Edwar Jamaris, 2002. Pengantar Sastra Rakyat Minangkabau. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

I.D. Dt Tumanggung, 1982. Kaba Rang Mudo Salendang Dunia. Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Proyek Penerbitan Buku Sastra Indonesia dan Daerah.

Suryadi, ed., 1993. Dendang Pauah, Cerita Orang Lubuk Sikaping. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Syamsuddin Udin, ed., 1996. Rebab Pesisir Selatan, Malin Kundang. Second Edition. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Syamsuddin Udin dan Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa, 1987. Struktur Kaba Minangkabau, Jakarta: Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa, Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan.

Taufik Abdullah, 2009. “Beberapa Catatan Tentang Kaba Cindua Mato: Satu Contoh Sastera Tradisional Minangkabau", in Jurnal Terjemahan Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, 1.

Fe, 2008. “Rabab1, Seni Tradisi dari Pesisir Selatan“ [Online] Available on http://purikata.blogspot.com [Downloaded on 23 August 2010]

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