The cultural and artistic heritage of Brunei is supported by several public institutions such as the Royal Regalia Building, Brunei History Center, and the Arts and Handicraft Center. Brunei has a rich past which the government does an excellent job of promoting and maintaining. This nation was once renowned for its boat making, weaving, basketry, silversmith and bronze tooling skills. The Malay influence is quite evident in the traditional musical instruments, weaponry, decorative items and games of Brunei.
When Islam was introduced, it dramatically changed the cultural landscape of Brunei. The distinctly Islamic art forms and cultural priorities brought a whole new element to the nation’s indigenous heritage. Brunei’s mosques are works of art in themselves, offering many examples of Islamic art that are rarely seen outside the Arabic world. Ceremonial items, intricate mosaics and gilded copies of the Koran can be viewed at several monuments around Brunei.
Brunei has a unique fusion of Islamic and Asian culture which appears in its traditional arts and crafts. The country has dozens of handicraft shops which offer a comprehensive selection of the many items produced in the country. Textiles are one of the most impressive crafts made here. The exquisite gold and silver-threaded textiles known as jong sarat, and collectable antique textiles called kain tenunan are popular purchases.
In addition to the wonderful traditional clothes and weavings is a wide range of items made from silver and brass. Traditional daggers called kris are very popular souvenirs, as are the gongs and basketry made by hand from pandan leaves. The shopping centers in Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait and Seria offer the best selection of handicrafts. The capital’s Tamu night market is another great place to find everything from fruits and spices to antiques and cloth. These traditional outdoor market’s small stalls offer some local color to go with your shopping.
There are also plenty of modern shops such as those located in the nation’s largest shopping mall on jalan McArthur in the capital. Malls like this are full of large department stores, as well as specialty shops catering to visitors. Souvenirs and handicrafts can also be bought here, but the experience and price of the outdoor markets is always more interesting.
Music and dance
Brunei is not particularly known for its traditional music and dance, but there are a few folk songs and dances which have survived. One example is the adai-adai, a work song usually sung by groups of fishermen while they fish. Malay folk music is more dominant in modern Brunei, often played by professional musicians at special celebrations such as weddings. Responsive singing is a major aspect of this style of music, best exemplified in the song Alus Jua Dindang, where the groom flatters his new wife and declares his undying love. The Brunei Music Society has been preserving classical music in Brunei since 1972.
The local Malay population is best known for their jipin dance. This popular dance is performed by six men and women, and backed by traditional instruments such as the dombak, rebana and gambus dan biola. Gongs such as the guling tangan and smaller duck gongs are also popular instruments. There are a number of Kedayan folk dances which can occasionally be seen at special events. The benari is one of the most popular, typically performed during local festivals by three men and three women.
Aduk-aduk is another ceremonial dance performed by the Kedayan at special occasions such as the end of the harvest season. In this dance, the dancers wear a traditional warrior’s outfit of red and black clothing and move to the beat of the traditional Malay martial art known as silat. Numerous percussion instruments such as drums and coconut shells accompany this dance.
The Language and Literature Bureau is the country’s main ministry in charge of the promotion and development of literature and folklore. This office produces a series of textbooks in both English and Malay for use by students. The most popular form of traditional writing is a form of poetry called sajak. Although a handful of local authors have become well known in the literary world, Brunei is not very prolific. The nation’s most famous piece of traditional literature is the epic poem Sya’ir Awang Simawn, which tells the story of a cultural hero.
Brunei has, however, been the setting for a few modern novels by Western authors. Dan Brown’s novel Armageddon takes place mainly in Brunei and details a fictional attack on the nation by the group of Islamic fundamentalists. Another famous story featuring Brunei is Devil of a State by Anthony Burgess. In this novel, the building of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin’s mosque in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is a major theme.
Sculpture in Brunei takes on a more utilitarian role than an aesthetic one. The people of Brunei have a long tradition as excellent craftsmen using bronze and silver to create adornments and functional items such as bowls, tools and the like. To help preserve this heritage of metalwork, the Brunei Arts and Handicraft Training Center was established in 1975 to revive and promote the nation’s dying tradition of crafts, including metalwork. The opening of this center is still considered a landmark in the history of development of Brunei’s arts and handicrafts. In addition to training youths in the art of sculpting, the center also helps facilitate the sale of their crafts.