Transcultural Lullabies: Rohingya and Malay folksongs

Rohingya poet Mayyu Ali and Malaysian artist Sharon Chin collaborate in this meaningful project that looks at Rohingya and Malay lullabies and folksongs. The pairings of songs, which are narrated and sung orally, are further unified with a patterned artwork by Sharon Chin, which for Sharon acts as “one small bridge for the immeasurable distance and pain between our peoples.”

Says Mayyu: “These are Rohingya lullabies and folksongs that have been passing from one generation to another through oral tradition in my community. Rohingya written form of language has been lost in face of the wars in the ancient Arakan, the aggression wars during British colonial era and now Myanmar’s state-sponsored genocidal policies against Rohingya people. However, my people have been maintaining the beauty of our culture and tradition by their souls. For me, this project means revival and solidarity, especially pairing with Malay folksongs.”

The following Rohingya lullabies and folk songs are sung by Rohingya in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. Since Rohingya language is diverse, these lullabies and folk songs could be sung in different terms and verses based in different townships across Arakan, today’s Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Rohingyar Sálon (Rohingya Dishes) & Ikan Kekek (Sea Fish)

Mayyu: This is an ancient Rohingya folk song about Rohingya traditional dishes. Fíça and olwa are the two freshwater fishes found in the rivers and creeks in Arakan. Almost every Rohingya like these little fishes. ‘Musaa’ is a Rohingya traditional rice package, made of banana leaves. Sometimes, Rohingya who live in Rangoon (today’s Yangon) order package of olwa-fish curry from Arakan.

Sharon: Kekek and gelama are two kinds of sea fish, commonly known as pony fish and croaker fish in English. Mak means mom. However, ‘ilai-ilai’ and ‘iloi-iloi’ are a mystery to me. A comment online suggests that ‘ilai’ is Hokkien and ‘iloi’ is Hakka meaning ‘come’. Hokkien and Hakka are Chinese dialects. This makes sense as many Chinese migrants settled in Malaysia. It also fits the meaning of other lines in the the song. In fact, the name for gelama fish in Hokkien and Teochew dialects is ‘Gu La Ma’. It’s a pleasure to consider the possibility that Chinese dialects were incorporated into this traditional Malay folk song.


Taa Taa (Clap Clap) & Lagu Tiga Kupang (Three Coins Song)

Mayyu: In Arakan, Rohingya parents and grandparents use to sing ‘Taa Taa’ to make the baby fall into sleep. ‘Nana’ in this poem refers to the maternal grandfather and ‘Nani’ to maternal grandmother. In Rohingya culture, the bride is always taken to the home of groom’s parents during the wedding. Thus, the home of maternal grandparent is the sweetest for their children to visit. 

Sharon: I asked Mayyu if I should draw swiftlets carrying Arakan coins. He said a parrot was better, so this is a vernal hanging parrot (Loriculus vernalis), common across India and some parts of Southeast Asia.




Dán Doloa (Grind Rice) & Lenggang Lenggang Kangkung (Sway, Kangkung, Sway)

Mayyu: This is a popular Rohingya lullaby. ‘Kergwá’ is a fruit, type of Melia Azedarach, which grows in the riverbanks and seashores in tropical regions. In Arakan, before the advent of modern machinery, Rohingya used ‘Doloin’, a traditional rice-grinder made of wood and bamboo to grind rice. Sometimes, Rohingya children sing this lullaby while playing together.

Sharon: ‘Kangkung’ is water amaranth, a common vegetable that grows easily in wet places. ‘Menyabung’ (root: ‘sabung’) means to fight or battle, often referring to cock fighting where gambling might be involved.




Dokin or Aalu (Potatoes in the South) & Tu Bulan Tu Bintang (The Moon, The Stars)

Mayyu: This Rohingya folk song is a comparison. ‘Dokin’ or ‘Doin’, meaning ‘the south’, refers to the townships in southern Arakan. ‘Aalu’ in this song is for potato, not for sweet potato. Even though we use ‘aalu gula’ for potato, the original composer skips ‘gula’ for rhyming. Once upon a time, the potatoes in townships of the southern Arakan such as Kyawktaw, Minbya, Sittwe and Myauk-U were as innumerable as the stars in the sky, the harvests in field and the sand in the ocean.

Sharon: This is a flirting song with hidden innuendos. ‘Tumbuk kalang’ refers to pounding rice, but also the sounds of a folk rhythm played by knocking wood, to celebrate the harvest, especially in the state of Negeri Sembilan. When I was searching for this song, the material indicates its origin is the state of Pahang. ‘Tungku’ means a stone surface where the kitchen stove is placed, but it’s also the honorific for a prince. Hence the double meaning in this line.

This pattern is about abundance in the earth and sky, and between people. I have a working theory about land and migrants: I see how my garden accepts all kinds of seeds and allows them to grow. If I say I’m of this land,  have to follow its example of generosity and hospitality. This is the principle of belonging. It’s so much more than a legal document.


Jiva (Jivan) (Life) & Nenek Si Bongkok Tiga (Old Granny Three Humps)


Mayyu: ‘Jiva’ in the title of this folk song is ‘Jivan’ in Rohingya for ‘life’. The term ‘Jiva’ is found in poetry of Shah Alaol, one of the most ancient Arakanese Muslim poets. This poem talks about the phases of a human’s life, how it changes based on age.

Sharon: This is a song sung during a game. ‘Granny’ will be in the middle of a circle, blindfolded and carrying a cane. Whoever gets tapped by the cane will become Granny.

The Rohingya rhyme is solemn and deep, while the Malaysian song is a catching game, but they go together somehow.




Sharon: These are pretty pictures of lullabies and folksongs, but this project comes from a place of shame –  the shame we bear collectively in our treatment of refugees. In a teaching video, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about how Singapore and Malaysia pushed back Vietnamese boat people in 1978. I wasn’t alive then. But I was alive when we did the same to the Rohingya people in 2015, 2019 and 2020. Alive also when the Acehnese fishermen defied policy and rescued hundreds of them from death in June.

Shame is not always a bad thing. We have to face the truth of who we are, of what is done in our name when we say: saya anak bangsa Malaysia.

Mayyu: In the face of this pandemic, there is a fresh wave of discrimination against my fellow Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. The Malaysian government has pushed back the boats of Rohingya who have tried to reach their shores. The government already announced that they would not receive more Rohingya in their country. Through this project, I want to bring the attention of Malay people on Rohingya refugees in their country, to see them as human beings and embrace the light of humanity.

I want the world to see us as people. We have our own culture and tradition. The fuller Rohingya story is about much more than our collective suffering at the hands of Myanmar’s military. We are a people with resilience, strength, resourcefulness, we seek our dignity and meaning in our daily lives, just as others do. The creation of arts and reviving Rohingya culture and tradition is an important medium, though we also affirm our rights, heritage and identity.

Mayyu Ali is a Rohingya poet currently living in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. He is the author of the books Exodus and The Blossom. Sharon Chin is an artist based in Port Dickson, Malaysia. With special thanks to Zedeck Siew.

This article is supported by Splice Lights On.

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About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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