The Gambus Melayu is a lute-like stringed instrument found in Central and South Sumatra, Indonesia. It can be played alone to accompany singing, or in instrumental ensembles to accompany dances in Muslim homes and community celebrations. It brings a strong association with Muslim identity to the Malay world. – (Prof. Roger R. Vetter – Javanese music scholar).
The fairy tale
Once upon a time, there was a 14 years old Sabah girl who used to watch her grandfather play the gambus. She was so attracted by that sound that the more she listened to it, the more curiosity and the desire to cuddle that wooden object and to try to extract sounds from it grew in her. But her grandfather was jealous of his instrument and he didn’t even allow her to touch it. Moreover, she was a girl, and no female had ever played an instrument in Sabah before. It was not going to happen with his gambus.
Mind you, that stubborn little girl would not resign so easily, and when her grandfather eventually abandoned himself to his well-deserved sleep, she secretly got hold of the instrument. She then went into a nearby forest and tried to pull notes and harmonies out of the strings of that piece of wood.
It is a smiling Fauziah who tells this story to the audience during one of the workshops held in Kuching as part of the Rainforest World Music Festival 2022. Her veiled face frames a sweet smile, and she does not seem to be seized by any emotion as she abandons herself to memories. She does however manage to convey emotions to those who are listening to her: to her colleagues, who are also part of this all-female workshop, who listen, amused, amazed and incredulous to what almost seems like a fairy tale; to her audience, who listens in silence to this beautiful story, only to give in to an applause when Fauziah stops narrating, caresses her gambus and lets its notes take over; and finally to me, a wanderer in search of good stories to document.
Oh, you want to know how her story ends, right? I almost forgot…
Night after night, forest after forest, sleeping grandfather after sleeping grandfather, the little girl grew up and her music improved. At some point the girl realized that she was progressing fast and she felt the need to test herself, to compare herself with other musicians or apprentices. Until one fine day the opportunity presented itself in the form of a musical competition but, alas, as was to be expected in a traditionalist region like Sabah, open to males only.
What to do? There had to be a way out. But yes, of course! Easy! Showing up at the competition with a man’s name and dressed in men’s clothes, without the veil and with short hair covered by a male headdress, that would do the trick! And so it was: she registered using a male name, Fauziah, which she still uses today, and that’s how it started.
Unfortunately, Murphy is always lurking with his law that falls on you like a judgement, so rest assured that if something can go wrong, it will. And something did go wrong because our girl or, better, our boy, did win the contest but her grandfather was present when the winner was announced. When he recognised his granddaughter and realized the situation, he first cast icy glances at the girl and then, either out of necessity or swollen with pride, he took the stage, publicly announcing that this boy was actually his granddaughter.
If Orpheus, with the sound of the lyre, had tamed even Charon, the ferryman of souls, Fauziah, with the sound of her gambus, tamed her grandfather and had the green light to start a brilliant career, one that crowned her for several years as the only woman capable of playing the gambus in Sabah.
Fauziah at the RWMF
All this, as previously mentioned, was told by Fauziah in a confident English during a workshop before an almost enraptured audience. “So what. What’s so peculiar about it?”, you may say. Nothing, except that Fauziah had been learning English for less than a year, encouraged by a friend who had stressed the importance of speaking Shakespeare’s language when she found herself on a stage.
Stubborn to the end, this little girl who is now 34 years old and she is no longer a girl. Far from it: Fauziah is a beautiful woman, and the blue veil she wears and which has long since ceased to cover, with timeless prohibitions, the prejudices and artistic skills of the women of Borneo, acts as a frame to a pretty face illuminated by a beautiful smile that, when it shows, it enchants people.
Fauziah Binti Suhaili, who naturally chose Fauziah Gambus as her stage name, was born on November 6, 1988, and after her first competition she started a fairly intense artistic path that saw her from graduating in Musical Arts at the Academy of Arts, Culture and National Heritage, to then continuing with her career as a singer, musician, composer and lyricist and, more recently, to a song taken from her second album which was shortlisted among the top five songs for the Best Ethnic Pop category at the 21st Music Industry Awards (AIM21).
Fully aware that the local music is generally not followed by young people, Fauziah tries to carry on continue upon a musical path that, by applying various fresher and more pleasant elements and rhythms, can make young people more interested in listening to traditional music. All this without renouncing her first love: the gambus. And from the warm welcome she received on the Kuching stage, it is quite clear that the stubborn girl is still winning her challenge.
Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)