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TLDR: The long and short of the gambus

An introduction to the stringed instrument and its music in Singapore


Published: 22 Dec 2023

Time taken : >15mins

#1 | Origins of the gambus

As early as the 9th century, Persian and Arab Muslim traders and missionaries brought the barbat, qanbus and oud to the Malay Archipelago. The presence of these instruments led to a long history of the oud or more commonly known as the gambus, within traditional Malay music. Read on to trace the evolution of the stringed instrument until it was brought over to the Malay Archipelago. 

Intangible Cultural Heritage: In Conversation with Zubir Abdullah

Zubir Abdullah shares about his incredible journey with the gambus. Not only is he a full-time composer, he is also a producer and an arts ambassador who has been practising and promoting traditional Malay music for over 30 years.

This video is produced by Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage conversation series which shines a spotlight on the remarkable talents who shape our cultural landscape. Reproduced with permission from MHC.

#2 | The instrument and its music

The gambus is the lead melodic instrument in the Malay musical forms, zapin and ghazal. The gambus is also used in these performing arts forms in the Malay world: tarian hamdolok, masri, inang and orkes gambus (gambus orchestra).

i. Types of gambus in the Malay Archipelago

There are two different types of gambus used in the Malay Archipelago, including Singapore: the Gambus Hadramaut, commonly known as Gambus Arab, and the Gambus Melayu which has similarities with the qanbus from Yemen.

Both Gambus Arab and Gambus Melayu can interchangeably be played in zapin and ghazal. However, they are not both used at the same time due to their different sound quality. Either can be simply referred to as gambus.


Compare the sound quality of the Gambus Arab and Gambus Melayu. In Singapore, Gambus Arab is largely preferred for its tonal quality and range.

ii. Gambus in zapin music

In zapin, the gambus is accompanied by the marwas (two-sided hand drum), violin, accordion, rebana ubi, seruling (reed flute) and tenawak (gong). Zapin begins with the improvisation of the oud or gambus and closes with a contrasting rhythmic pattern called kopak.

Zapin is recognizable by its Arabian influence.

iii. Gambus in ghazal music

The ghazal is usually linked to romance. It is sung in poetic quatrains. The vocalist will first start singing a line before the ensemble plays the melody. For the ghazal, the gambus is accompanied by the harmonium, violin, guitar, tabla (pair of Indian drums), tambourines and maracas. 

Ghazal is identified by its Indian musical characteristics.

#3 | Deciphering the building blocks

How is a Gambus Arab played? Why is it fretless? What is a maqam and why is it important to a gambus musician to learn the different maqams? Read on.

i. Tuning the Gambus Arab

The Gambus Arab has five double strings and one low single string. It is tuned to C, two Fs, two As, two Ds, two Gs and two Cs. All the strings are tuned to perfect 4ths except for the F to the A which is a major third.

ii. How it is played

The instrument is played with a plectrum, or a pick called the risha. Risha means feather as the original plectrum was most likely an eagle’s quill. However, these days, the plectrum is made of bamboo or wood. The instrument is also held nearly horizontal across the chest of the performer who plucks the strings.

iii. Why is it fretless?

Frets are thin strips of material, usually metal, inserted laterally along the neck or fretboard of an instrument. The gambus is fretless to allow the musician to improvise over the melodies by sliding easily on the strings to make the song they are playing more interesting. It is also fretless to allow the player to easily play all of the varieties of maqam.

iv. Feeling the maqams

Maqam means scale in Arabic music. The maqams are grouped under different categories based on the mood that they evoke. This can be traced to the North Indian philosophy of raga (mode or maqam). Each raga is associated with a specific time and mood.

Here are some of the more popular maqams and their corresponding emotions:

1. Maqam Nahawand: Drama, emotional extremes

2. Maqam Ajam: Joy, positivity

3. Maqam Rast: Pride, power

4. Maqam Kurd: Freedom, romance, gentleness

5. Maqam Saba: Sadness, pain

Credit: SGOudists

Did you know?

Zapin not only refers to the music style but it also refers to the dance form that the music accompanies. Zapin consists of three sections: the taksim, the main dance and the wainab. Usually, zapin performances begin with the taksim, a gambus solo. The gambus is played improvisationally for the taksim. Zapin music is moderately fast with an upbeat tempo. Watch how a gambus musician puts together all the elements of playing the instrument to play a taksim zapin

#4 | The who's who

Find out about the people that have and are still playing a big part in furthering gambus music in Singapore.

Zubir Abdullah (b. 1965)

Zubir Abdullah is a music composer, singer, songwriter and producer. He is an ambassador for traditional Malay music and is known as Singapore’s first recorded gambus musician. His interest in music sparked while he was growing up at Onraet Road Police Quarters where he was exposed to different types of music. He started his music career in 1983 when a friend paid him $80 to create three minus ones tracks of nasyid (religious) songs. Since then, he went on to work across musical genres and performed with artists such as Noraniza Idris, Anita Sarawak, Art Fazil, Kit Chan, and more. He has played and is influenced by many different music genres but identifies himself as a traditional Malay musician.

When he first started out, he received his formal music education from Abel Gun who was a senior musician at Radio Television Singapura (RTS). This was part of the then Member of Parliament Dr Ahmad Mattar’s effort in providing free music lessons to his constituency at Brickworks Community Centre. Subsequently, Zubir Abdullah was guided to play the gambus by Nasir Abdullah when he joined his ghazal group, Kumpulan Mutiara Ghazal. When asked why he chose the gambus, he said Nasir Abdullah assigned the instrument to him to play because he could play it better.

Zubir Abdullah is a multi-instrumentalist but chooses the gambus as his first love. Through his music, he hopes to share about local history and memories. However, his zapin songs have been embraced by many musicians in the Malay world regardless if they are Singaporean or not. His songs are loved for their evocative lyrics, exceptional songwriting and for their ability to capture the Malay spirit.

Azrin Abdullah (b. 1976)

Azrin Abdullah started learning the acoustic guitar at the age of six. He gave his first musical performance when he was nine and never looked back since.

In 1999, Azrin began his love affair with the gambus. He was tasked to learn the instrument when he was part of the music wing of Persatuan Kemuning, led by Salleh Buang. He then continued learning as part of his endeavour to master traditional Malay music.

Back then, to master the gambus meant to learn from the maestros in Egypt. However, due to limited resources, this was not possible for him. Therefore, he learnt on his own by listening to cassettes found at Tower Records, and later on, from YouTube. He also looked towards other gambus musicians from the region such as Malaysians Fadzil Ahmad (also known as Malaysian King of Gambus) and Raja Zulkarnain, and the late Fahad Munif from Indonesia for guidance and inspiration.

In 2014, Azrin was sponsored by the National Arts Council to pursue an advanced course at the National Conservatory of Arts in Kuala Lumpur to further his knowledge of the gambus. After completing the course, he went on to produce the first Singapore Gambus Conference, which was held at the Malay Heritage Centre from 25-30 October 2016 in conjunction with the Malay Culture Festival. The well-attended event saw speakers and gambus enthusiasts from Singapore and around the world gather to share their knowledge of the instrument.

His early challenges in learning how to play the gambus motivated him to advocate and create accessible opportunities for new players and enthusiasts to learn the instrument. This, as well as the success of the 2016 Singapore Gambus Conference spurred Azrin to form the Singapore Oudists (SGOudists), an online oud community that provides local oud players from all walks of life with a platform to get together and share techniques and playing styles.

Azrin is currently the President of Oudists Association of Singapore.


Of Passion and Expression, Azrin Abdullah’s original composition with the gambus that was first created between 2003-2004.

Gambus Elektronica, a contemporary musical collaboration between Azrin Abdullah and Safuan Johari.


The idea to build Singapore's very own oud community was conceived right after the 1st Singapore Gambus Conference, which was held from 25th to 30th October 2016 at the Malay Heritage Centre. It was an event which celebrated and revisited the important role of the gambus in the context of Malay traditional music. Henceforth, Singapore Oudists was born.

Members of Singapore Oudists have been invited to perform in corporate events held by National Arts Council, Christian Dior, Singapore Police Force, Malay Heritage Centre, Rediffusion Singapore and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

This oud community hopes to be a platform where local oud players would be able to get together and share knowledge, information, techniques and playing styles of this exotic instrument, regardless of music genres or ethnicities.

Keep an eye out: Izzat Adnan

Izzat Adnan, who has been trained from an early age of 14 years old by the late gambus maestro Fahad Munif has been lauded to be the next gambus musician to watch out for in Singapore. 

Beyond the shores of Singapore

Other than these Singaporean artists and group, find out about two artists from Malaysia who are changing the sound and look of the gambus.

Kamal Sabran

Kamal Sabran is an artist-academic-researcher. He is also the co-founder of the Space Gambus Experiment, an experimental music/sound art collective.

Fauziah Suhaili (Fauziah Gambus)

Fauziah Suhaili or as she’s more widely known, Fauziah Gambus is the only professional female gambus musician in the Malay world.

#5 | Iconic works

1. Zapin Telok Blangah by Zubir Abdullah

2. Zapin Gemersik Ombak by Sri Mahligai

3. Pantun Budi by S.M. Salim


Contributed by:

Fezhah Maznan

Fezhah Maznan is a creative producer and performance dramaturg. Part of her work centres around creating opportunities for new development and presentation of Malay arts and artists in Singapore and abroad.


Zubir Abdullah, Azrin Abdullah & Kheir Yasin

The writer would like to acknowledge her deepest gratitude to Zubir Abdullah, Azrin Abdullah as well as Kheir Yasin from SGOudists for their time and generosity in piecing together the unwritten history of gambus musicians and legacy in Singapore.


1. Intangible Cultural Heritage: Zapin 
2. Intangible Cultural Heritage: Traditional Malay Music
3. Orkes Gambus
4. The Gambus (lutes) of the Malay world: Its Origins and Significance in Zapin Music by Larry Hilarian
5. SEADance: Exploring Dance in South East Asia: Malay
6. Introducing: The Arabic Oud
7. MaqamWorld: An online resource dedicated to teaching the Arabic Maqam modal system, which is the foundation of traditional Arabic music.

TLDR: The Long and Short of...
Discover the essence of different traditional art forms in Singapore. Delve into the practices and cultural significance of each unique form, its practitioners, and the stories behind them.
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