Bajau and Bajau Laut Populations in Sabah, Malaysia

Bajau and Bajau Laut Populations in Sabah, Malaysia

The Bajau and Bajau Laut populations make up the second largest indigenous group in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. The majority of Bajau in Sabah have become sedentary, living in houses inland or on the islands. Traditionally the Bajau Laut (normally referred to as sea gypsies) were one of the major maritime communities of South-East Asia. Living on seagoing boats, they migrated between the islands of the southern Philippines, eastern Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Today, while most have abandoned the seafaring lifestyle, a few still live as their ancestors did - on handmade boats migrating from island to island.

For the Bajau Laut, dance is an important part of their culture and is often used in healing rituals or celebrations such as weddings. Unaccompanied by song or lyrics, the myths and legends of the seafaring people are conveyed via the dance movements. For instance, the tarirai, performed to the beat of a traditional musical ensemble - made up of nine small kettle gongs, three hanging gongs and two double-headed drums - and the dancers' wooden castanets tell the story of seafarers out on a jaunt to look for seashells. While on their trip, they encounter a strange animal. The steps of the dance depict the evasive actions they take.

The limbaian, meanwhile, is a dance originally performed for healing, usually every three months during the full moon. It's performed by three or four couples and is characterized by graceful, rotating wrist movements. The tabawan also has its origins in healing rituals and is described as lakkas-lakkas (fast) because it's performed at a frantic pace towards the end of a healing ritual.

Mesmerizing as these dances are, the danger of their extinction is very real. Only a few still perform the dance and with the young leaving the villages to seek their fortune in the cities, these traditional steps are in danger of being lost forever. Music from other cultures, are also a threat.

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