Reviving art of verbal sparring

In the 1990s, a form of spontaneous verbal sparring called dikir spontan was all the rage in dikir barat competitions.

Dikir barat is a type of choral singing which is accompanied by clapping actions, choreography and percussion music. "Spontan" is spontaneous in Malay.

Rifa'ah Ridzuwanulhakim Abdol Shukor, who is part of Dendang Mutiara, the oldest active dikir barat group in Singapore, says: "It's similar to freestyle rap. It requires a lot of skill - you have to rhyme, be up to date with your general knowledge and be able to throw your opponent off."

The 33-year-old, who is married with two children, adds: "Dikir spontan used to be popular in the 1990s in dikir barat competitions, but then it died out because our group kept winning and people became afraid of competing."

Dendang Mutiara, which was founded in 1989, hopes to revive this lost art through Dikir Battle, a friendly competition that takes place on Aug 7 at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. The performance is free.

Members of Dendang Mutiara performing dikir barat. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ESPLANADE

There are two leaders in a dikir barat group - the tok juara who leads the group in the first half of the set and the tukang karut, the creative lead who often inserts elements of humour and spontaneity in the second half.

Dikir spontan is a battle led by the tukang karut.

For Dikir Battle, four tukang karut from different groups will compete onstage for two sets lasting 45 minutes each.

The competing tukang karut will be given five themes about a week before the show.

However, they will still need to think on their feet to respond to challenges from the competitors.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Outdoor Theatre

    WHEN: Aug 7, 7.30 and 8.45pm


The tok juara and awok-awok (the chorus members) will be from Dendang Mutiara.

The battle will involve established tukang karut from the past, such as 45-year-old Djohan Abdul Rahman from dikir barat group Andika Kencana - he was a prominent player in the scene in the early 2000s and was also known for playing Bobo in the 1980s Malaylanguage children's series, Aksi Mat Yoyo - as well as newer ones, such as 33-year-old Nazri Zaini from the group Durbar Dua.

Ruslighani Iskandar Abdol Shukor, 43, Rifa'ah's older brother, is one of the tukang karut. The brothers were in the 1990s Malay pop group, 2D.

For Rifa'ah, Dikir Battle is a way to showcase a unique part of Malay culture and heritage.

He says: "We want to show how dikir barat can be a platform where you can channel creativity. It is an art form in itself."

Nabilah Said

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'Reviving art of verbal sparring'. Print Edition | Subscribe