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MALAYSIANS KINI | Ramli Mahmud is an unassuming man. Like many villagers in Perlis, the 61-year-old rice farmer was dressed simply in a sarong and T-shirt when Malaysiakini met him two weeks ago at his home in Kampung Pokok Sena, Chuping.

Speaking with a thick northern accent, Ramli is fond of telling gut-busting jokes as he entertains his guests, while smoking traditional cigarettes rolled with nipah palm leaves.

But despite his modesty, Ramli is an important man in the traditional arts scene.

He is the last in a long line of storytellers dubbed Awang Batil, an art form that dates back hundreds of years.

As Awang Batil, the storytellers regale crowds with tales - called ‘hei’ - which are filled with both laughter and sadness, while beating on the batil or brass pot drum.

The act is interspersed with musical performances, traditionally played with a flute.

“We tell stories first. If we are bored than we stop and play a song,” Ramli said.

The name comes from the mythical character Awang, a social outcast who grew to be accepted by his people by playing on a batil

Awang had learned to play the batil from a magical white elephant - who was responsible for creating a puddle which led to Awang’s miraculous conception when his mother drank from it....

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