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Dikir barat is a musical form, native to the Malay Peninsula, that involves singing in groups—often in a competitive setting—and almost always without instrumental accompaniment. While it is uncertain whether dikir barat originated in Thailandmarker or Malaysiamarker, the Malaysian government today actively promotes it as an important part of the Malaysian national culture.


Dikir barat is typically performed by groups of ten to fifteen members, though there is no actual set size, even in competitive environments. A group usually sits cross-legged on a platform, sometimes surrounded by the audience. Where the dikir barat is performed competitively, the two competing groups will both be on the stage at the same time.

In a typical dikir barat performance, the group will perform two segments. The first is led by the tok juara, who is often the person in charge of the musical training of the group. This first segment usually contains the more complex musical arrangements, and will likely feature the awok-awok (chorus) singing in unison with the tok juara, as well as responsorial segments of singing, similar to what the tukang karut does with the awok-awok, later in the performance. Though musically more complex than what will follow, the first segment is seen as the "low-key" segment of the performance.

The creative leader of a dikir barat group is the tukang karut. The tukang karut is usually a former tok juara who was promoted for his talent in creating spontaneous lyrics, for it is his ability to do this that establishes the reputation of the dikir barat group. Leading the awok-awok during the second and concluding segment of the performance, the tukang karut sings pantuns—most of which are likely original and improvised on the occasion of the performance, but some which may be known to the audience. (Pantuns are an oral poetry form indigenous to the Malay region, and are not exclusive to the dikir barat.) That the dikir barat uses pantuns does not mean that it is a performance of poetry. The tukang karut is expected to compose lyrics that touch upon life, like any poet, but he can also address social issues, legal matters, animal lifestyles, government regulations, and human foibles. The tone can be satirical, sarcastic, or simply humorous, but above all it is expected that it be clever. The tukang karut makes up and sings lyrics on the topic of the performance (which may be pre-established or simply the choice of the tukang karut), and the awok-awok sings the same lyrics back to him. During the performance, members of the awok-awok clap and perform rhythmic body movements, which bring energy to the performance.

Historically, dikir barat performances have been all-male. However, in recent years, especially with groups based in urban areas, female performers are beginning to appear.

While most musical instruments are excluded from dikir barat, some groups to employ percussion instruments, including the rebana, maracas, or a shallow gong.


In a competitive performance, the two opposing dikir barat groups both sit on the stage platform at the same time. The performance is as musical as a non-competitive performance, but the competitive dikir barat is also, according to one observer, “a duel of wits”. The tukang karut from one group will throw out a topic or question, singing it to the awok-awok, who will sing it back to him. At this time the opposing dikir barat group’s tukang karut must reply with an answer more clever than the original question, and after the second awok-awok sings it back, the first tukang karut must take the dialogue another step higher. Essentially, what transpires is a type of lyrical debate, but instead of scoring technical debate points, tukang karuts who regularly produce well-created retorts will win audience laughter, affection, and admiration.

Originally, dikir barat was limited to competition between neighboring villages,but in the 20th century, as its popularity began to spread (aided by the ability to record performances), it became a national phenomenon. Today, dikir barat competitions have become wildly popular across Malaysia, and each year there are national champions crowned, not only for the dikir barat groups as a whole, but there also are national champion in the categories of tukang karuts and tok juara. Top tukang karuts are famous and popular, much like rock stars in the West.

The government of Malaysia now officially sponsors dikir barat as a major element of national culture, and has experienced substantial success in spreading its popularity. In order to facilitate its spread, in 2006, then-Minister of Information Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin said he would encourage the development of English language dikir barat, as English is the most widely spoken second-language in the former British colony, and could thus be shared by more citizens. The national competitions in Malaysia have been broadcast on radio since 1993, and on television since 2006.


Dikir barat is considered to be an important part of many celebratory occasions in Malaysia,including harvests, weddings, and circumcisions. But increasingly, as it becomes a form of national entertainment, no occasion is needed at all for a dikir barat, other than the performance itself.

Origins and spread

Sources are divided on whether dikir barat originated in southern Thailand or the Malaysian province of Kelantanmarker, which borders Thailand, or even from a wedding dance shared by both the Thais and the Kelantanese.

Today, dikir barat has spread to the end of the Malay Peninsula, having reached Singaporemarker, by some accounts, in the mid-1980s, where it is also being promoted by at least one government agency.

In 2007, a Malaysian student organization at Penn State Universitymarker, in the United Statesmarker, included a dikir barat performance as part of a traditional Malaysian wedding being held on campus.


  1. Malaysian Ministry of Information Portal. "National Dikir Barat Competition To Be Expanded Next Year", 2006. Retrieved on 2009-01-30.
  2. The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk and Syncretic Traditions, authored by Patricia Ann Matusky and edited by Sooi Beng Tan, Ashgate Publishing, 2003, ISBN 9780754608318 (p.356-359) [1]
  3. Musical Malaysia [2] Retrieved on 2009-01-30.
  4. The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk and Syncretic Traditions, authored by Patricia Ann Matusky and edited by Sooi Beng Tan, Ashgate Publishing, 2003, ISBN 9780754608318 (p.356)
  5. Sabah; "Dikir Barat With The ‘Endoro’ Touch", by Bernama; retrieved on 2009-01-30.
  6. "I" of the Storm; The Many-Splendored Appeal of Dikir Barat, retrieved on 2009-01-30
  7. Patun: The Romance and the Laughter of the Archipelago; retrieved 2009-01-30
  8. The magic touch of dikir barat
  9. Dikir Barat; retrieved on 2009-01-30
  10. National Youth Council (Singapore) Singapore Dikir Barat Federation; retrieved on 2009-01-30
  11. The Daily Collegian "Malaysian wedding shows tradition, style" 2007-03-05; retrieved 2009-01-30

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