Menyusun tari, alah tari, sembah diberi Assembling the dance, o dance, I offer my salute
Cergas tangkas, alah sayang, gerak dan geri Fit and fast, o love, the movements go
Menjunjung tinggi, amboi tinggi, seni sejati In high regard I hold, o my how high, the pure arts
Pusaka asli, alah asli, hai ibu pertiwi True heritage, o true, o motherland
Berlenggang gaya, alah gaya, gerak wanita The swaying style, o style, of a woman’s moves
Dengan tari, alah sayang, tualang tiga With the dance, o love, of the three tualang trees
Menjunjung tinggi, amboi tinggi, seni budaya In high regard I hold, o my how high, the arts
Dikenang bangsa, alah bangsa, hai sepanjang masa Cherished by my country, o country, o til the end of time
Langkah serentak, alah sajak, sama bergerak Steps in rhythm, o poetry, together in motion
Sigak gaya, alah sayang, pendekar puteri The banishing styles, o love, of the warrior princesses
Bertepuk tangan, amboi tangan, tanda berani Hands a-clap clap, o hand, a gesture of bravery
Tiada gentar, alah sayang, hai membela diri Fearless, o love, in defending oneself
Tari Tualang Tiga (Dance of the Three Tualang Trees) is probably as close as you can get to a Malay war dance, in a culture more known for its charming grace and gentle sways. Based on the lyrics, the song and dance is performed to psych up fighters before an impending battle, although what is interesting is that, while it’s very common for the all-female dancers to channel feelings of brute force and intimidation to inspire courage in the audience, the song seems to also allude to an all-female battle crew.
The tualang is a giant tree found in the thick old-growth rainforests in Malaysia. I’m not entirely sure why the dance is named after the tree; it could be due to the sturdy wood structure, so tough that it’s actually not favoured by the timber industry, or more plausibly, the tragic legend of a palace handmaiden named Hitam Manis (Sweetly Dark). Hitam Manis fell in love with the prince, but alas, they could not marry because she was a commoner. The Sultan got word of the affair and was furious that his prince could fall in love with a commoner. Hitam Manis and her fellow maidens were forced to flee the palace, and as she was escaping, a metal spear pierced her heart. She and her maidens turned into bees and flew away. It is said that the bees which inhabit the tualang tree are descendants of Hitam Manis, and til this day, during the elaborate ritual of the tualang-honey hunting, no metal instrument is used to retrieve the honey, in deference to the suffering of the handmaiden.
This song features a rather common attribute of Malay folk songs whereby there is an interjecting phrase mid-sentence, for example:
“menjunjung tinggi, amboi tinggi, seni sejati”
I’ve included two videos of the song, the first is the original deftly choreographed by the legendary Malaysian artiste the late Normadiah, while the latter is a version by songstress Siti Nurhaliza at a television awards ceremony (the actual song starts at 3:05). The two videos differ quite markedly in the tone and spirit of the song. I personally think the original version captures more closely the essence of the song, because it was sung and danced with a stern resoluteness and just the right dose of intoxicating charm that can be useful in dominating an enemy (it is after all a sort of war dance). In Siti Nurhaliza’s version, we witness that unmistakeably rich and harmonious voice that has made her the most popular modern Malaysian artiste, although I think, it is this same allure and richness that renders her version less fierce and intimidating than what it is intended to be.