Syeh Kilang: The Guardian of Gayo Culture


For the Gayo people of Central Aceh, Didong is more than just entertainment; it’s a deeply ingrained cultural tradition. This captivating art form, which includes music and the recitation of poems by a skilled performer known as a Ceh, serves as a vessel for religious teachings, moral values, and community relationships. Syeh Kilang, also known as Abdullah, is a name synonymous with the revitalization and preservation of this treasured tradition.

Born in Tanoh Gayo in 1929, Syeh Kilang was a multifaceted artist whose contributions spanned traditional and modern Gayo art forms. His versatility extended to music composition, playing various instruments, sewing, painting, and even photography. Known for his melodious voice and agile delivery, Syeh Kilang became a master of Ceh Didong, captivating audiences with performances that were both profound and entertaining.

Didong performances often feature humorous lyrics, yet they consistently revolve around important themes such as religious teachings and community values. Different sounds, such as Tuk, Denang, Guk, and Jangin, enhance the emotional depth of the performance. Syeh Kilang’s profound knowledge of cultural customs and his innovative spirit allowed him to breathe new life into this traditional art form.

Syeh Kilang’s journey into music began after completing his education at Vervolg School and Perguruan Persatuan Murid-murid (PPM), where he learned to play the violin, saxophone, and guitar. Between 1937 and 1942, he joined the Ale Bunge group and began actively preserving Didong, initially limited to religious events. Under his influence, Didong expanded its reach to include cultural ceremonies such as weddings and harvest festivals.

As a storyteller, Syeh Kilang enriched the Didong tradition with beautiful and meaningful songs and poems, accompanied by modern musical arrangements. Some of his popular works include “Diang-diang Manang-manang” (1959), “Kayu Medang Sengit” (1968), “Bunge Kemang” (1974), “Ringkeli Bintang” (1980), and “Bagah Tagisa” (1985). His performances were always highly anticipated, and his stage presence left a lasting impression on audiences.

In addition to his vocal talents, Syeh Kilang was a pioneer in introducing changes to Didong performances. He replaced traditional handclapping with the use of small pillows, making the performances more vibrant and engaging. This innovation helped Didong become even more embedded in Gayo culture, blending literature, vocal performance, and dance into a theatrical reflection of Gayo traditions.

Syeh Kilang’s contributions extended beyond the stage. He played a crucial role in the overall cultural landscape of Central Aceh. At the Second Aceh Cultural Week in Banda Aceh in 1972 and again at the Third Aceh Cultural Week in 1980, Central Aceh Regency, buoyed by his efforts, won the overall championship. His legacy was further cemented in 2011, when Didong, along with other Gayo cultural expressions, was designated as an intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Syeh Kilang’s talents were not confined to traditional instruments. He was a collector of various musical instruments, including the violin, piano, saxophone, guitar, and traditional Gayo instruments like Gegedem (drum) and Repa’i (tambourine). In 1987, he created an innovative musical instrument called Gerantung, made from bamboo or wood for buffaloes, which received national recognition.

Aside from his musical endeavors, Syeh Kilang was also an accomplished painter and photographer. His works often depicted the natural beauty and cultural richness of Gayo, making him the first indigenous Gayo photographer in 1953. Despite financial challenges due to the communal nature of Gayo society, his photographic works had a significant impact on the community.

Syeh Kilang’s legacy in Gayo music and culture is profound. His contributions to cultural achievements and the musical heritage of the Gayo people continue to be celebrated even after his death on June 3, 1990. Through his innovations and dedication, Syeh Kilang ensured that the art of Didong remains a vibrant and cherished part of Gayo cultural identity, embodying values of family, cooperation, and resilience.