By Daryl Goh
TWENTY years ago, if you had asked budding singer-songwriter M. Nasir about the prospect of him being one of the country's true music heroes or perhaps even a living legend, he would have blushed, dismissed the question and thought nothing of the influential position he would be in today.
This young man might have gone on to great heights in the Malay music circles. But Nasir as a person, remains uncomfortable in the spotlight and never fails to play down his revered persona.
Fact is he doesn't feel all that different about that same question (about fame) after all these years of success.
"Say to the sages that, for lovers, ecstasy is the only guide, thought can never point the way," -- Omar Khayyam (Iranian philosopher/poet/astronomer)
"You know what? I enjoy music. It's as simple as that," said Nasir modestly.
Myth-building is optional since Nasir stands tall in the Malaysian music industry in his own right. The Singaporean-born, now naturalised Malaysian's celebrated work is the toast of the local scene and he is regarded as the backbone for modern Malay music. For statistics, Nasir has 657 tunes and counting to his credit with pop artistes like Search, Wings, Hattan, Amy, Alleycats, Khadijah Ibrahim, Awie, Jamal Abdillah and others charting success.
Yet the entertainment field is too narrow a confine for Nasir's artistic stretch. Music students submit theses on the aesthetic value of his compositions, websites have weekly discussions on where Nasir's work is headed next and the music scene is always consumed by a high level expectancy whenever a new M. Nasir record hits the stores. Even politicians seek him as a valued propaganda asset but the well-grounded man continues to remain elusive in the vote-baiting game.
Music is his radar
When it comes to his true passion, M. Nasir is a pure fireball, and the flames are rising high on his new effort `Phoenix Bangkit', regarded by many industry observers as the rebirth of Malay cool.
It's difficult being M. Nasir. Some feel that sanity or insanity must hold up the genius factor. Which ever way the cerebral pendulum swings, Nasir's story is one where music and only music counts the most. When it comes to his true passion, Nasir is a pure fireball--and the flames are rising high on his new effort Phoenix Bangkit, regarded by many industry observers as the rebirth of Malay cool.
After recording kinks and delays, Phoenix Bangkit as an album, seems worth the wait. It marks Nasir's debut on Warner Music (M) since the artiste switched labels early last year--ending an illustrious 12-year career spell at BMG Malaysia. The dramatic move does mean Nasir is pressing for a committed label to work on his international profile and support his artistic endeavour.
On Phoenix Bangkit, the progressive material is within touching distance of an international standard. It's a dawn of a dynamic new Malay sound, but it's also simply Nasir being himself.
"The only predictable thing about M. Nasir is his ability to surprise listeners with fresh sounds. This is a good album, it's conceptual in tone with the Middle Eastern slant. But all the five-star ratings does not deflect the fact that Nasir is still behind in the world beat scene. But he's headed in the right direction," said Saniboey Mohd Ismail, Malay music critic, who remains guarded over the hype on Phoenix Bangkit.
Caution is good but the praise was forthcoming.
About two-and-half years ago, Nasir was in the midst of a career crisis after the death of his wife Junainah Johari, so the father of five withdrew from public view and began to write new music which was born from the events that shook him to the core.
Eventually, Nasir found his footing, and last year's marriage to actress Marlia Musa was the first sign of a career revival to come. The man began making music to stretch public perception of his talents even further than did the three wide-ranging efforts (Solo, Saudagar Mimpi and Canggong Mendonan) made from 1989 to 1995. He even re-interpreted his own compositions done by other artistes on the mellow Sri Kandi Cintaku (1999).
Canggong Mendonan reached a commercial peak of 125,000 units, but the BMG swansong effort, Sri Kandi Cintaku, recorded the lowest possible sales for an M. Nasir album--25,000 units.
No distance left to run?
The question in mind was whether Nasir was ready to break his own mould and risk it all by challenging listening tastes.
He forms a smile when asked about the phoenix metaphor.
"My music is very open to interpretation. If you hit the surface, you get the simple meaning but if you start delving deeper, there's so much more than meets the eye."
The singer-songwriter feels good talking about his first album of new material which shapes up more as a dynamic progression of the award-winning Canggong Mendonan (1995) and the lost BMG sessions in 1998. Two unreleased tracks, Walid and Dalam, have been included in Nasir's recent BMG compilation Prahara Seni Abadi.
Musician pal Hattan noted: "M. Nasir is critical of his music and takes time to develop it. You can always recognise the effort in his work and I don't think there is any other Malay artiste out there blessed with such natural class and creative vision."
Nasir's struggles to elevate the Malay music idiom into something worthy of world acclaim are well-documented. His Nusantara revelations are the cynosure of the media again but as an artiste can he nudge Malay music up the world beat rankings?
"It's possible that Phoenix Bangkit can go further. My hope is to see the album head that far (on the world beat circuit).
"Warner has the job to package and market it. My job is to make the best music I can possibly make at this point in time, after that it's a question of exposure," added Nasir.
The intense-looking Cancerian who turns 44 on July 4, is recharged and oozing confidence. Press rounds are the main activity at the Luncai Emas office in Bandar Baru Sungai Buloh, Selangor--a twin-shoplot which is M. Nasir base with management, publishing, booking lines and the Studio Ronggeng recording room behind its hallowed doors.
In Luncai Emas, Nasir is comfortable in his creative surroundings and to explore the man's persona, a sensible proposition given is to be always informed about his music.
Once he strikes the right mood, Nasir can be a conversational and humorous person with sharp answers punctuated by thoughtful pauses. But like most eccentric musicians, Nasir hardly lets out more than the necessary in an interview.
But if you dig deeper, you'll be surprised at the man's life outside music. He's a keen animal lover (has four goats as pets), he's an occasional golfer (a strong 24), reads Sufi history for breakfast, an Al Pacino fan, he can relate to Manchester United of the ol' George Best era and laces up his shooting boots for kick-abouts at the Bandar Baru Sungai Buloh community field.
As the title suggests, Nasir is leaving the old and scoring new highs on Phoenix Bangkit, an artistic statement drawing on his impressions of Quranic verses, Malay folklore, Indian epics, Indonesian traditional music and personal meditations on mortality. The finely-crafted album also exudes a distinctive Arabic aroma with percussive folk settings that focus on a surging rhythmic flow and poetic pulse.
"The challenges of making a Malay album is not exciting anymore for someone like Nasir. Here's an artiste who must feel that he's done it all and for such a creative mind, he needs to break new ground. The time is ripe with Phoenix Bangkit _ he is in the right mental and professional frame of mind to give his music the push outside Malaysia," said Aziz Bakar, former BMG managing director, and close friend.
But home is where the Nasir hits are. The world awaits. Raikan Cinta, the first single, sees Nasir soaked under the fountain of faith celebrating the parable of Siti Hajar and Prophet Ismail in the desert before Mecca was founded.
The internal cadence of Nasir's new work is most infectious and the excitement seems to be attracting a broader fanbase. The album has shifted over 15,000 in two weeks and Raikan Cinta is locked on A-list rotation on popular Malay radio station ERA.
Rudy Ramawy, Warner Music (M) managing director noted: "Young Malays are waking up to this Arabic/Middle Eastern-based music. Nasir's profile will start drawing in a new generation of listeners to this sound. This man is a rich talent and he has enough of a pop edge to get the masses responding.
"There is no need to re-establish Nasir's career, it's all about redefining his music to make it relevant to today's listeners. A crossover audience is waiting to be captured and we are looking to take this music to the clubs," he added.
It's early days, but the radical revision of Nasir's music in dance clubs like Movement and Flux is an enticing prospect.
"Today, many world beat musicians are gaining further expressive ideas by fusing ethnic elements with dance rhythms. Music as a social art form must progress and relate itself to a different audience in order to be appreciated," said Nasir.
In the light of world beat-meets-dance collaborations like Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan/Massive Attack, Cheb Mami/Nitin Sawhney and Ananda Shankar/State of Bengal, Warner Music is warming up to the idea of presenting club mixes of the current M. Nasir single.
Ramawy doesn't deny that a club nod on some of the tracks on Phoenix Bangkit would be a well-informed step when the album is canvassed in world beat markets like Japan, Australia and Europe.
For this album, long-time guitarist Nan recalled that Nasir sent in a draft which suggested a rootsy Malay sound uniting tradition and today's music technology.
" Nasir's music is very hard to define in Malay terms but it's basically acoustic natured. We had more options to experiment with 48-tracks along with loops and synths. We set the music with Pro-Tools, Cubase and brought in a Mackintosh G-4 for Studio Ronggeng. The boss has technology now," said Nan.
With Nasir as producer and principal songwriter, Phoenix Bangkit's ability to beguile, confuse and delight is apparent. Apart from an elaborate range of strings during the sessions, room was made for long-missed music-maker Roslan Aziz, a hefty traditional rhythm section, Bandung-based musicians and even a children's choir from Sungai Congkak, Ulu Langat, Selangor.
Many of the other musicians who worked with Nasir were back for these sessions. If anything, this record represents Nasir framing up a wide-screen world beat sound with the accessibility of pop--without sacrificing the signature social commentary and philosophical bent displayed on previous albums.
Like all local artistes, Nasir is about to see just how far he can go, in hopes that one day he might reach a state of S.M. Salim-like music enlightenment. This man has humour.
The common denomination is to speak of Phoenix Bangkit as a Malay album. But there's no reason why it cannot stand alongside something from world beat players like Rachid Taha, Khaled or Abed Azrie. Did you have problems holding the tunes together considering the amount of cultural adaptation involved?
Firstly, I don't think much of the local album tag, it's just for categorisation. On the other hand, I didn't want to make this out as an international album either. If you tune yourself in that way, it's difficult to sell when you're really a local artiste. Those world beat musicians mentioned are already established. If I were to make a difference, I strongly feel that the root music has to come from this part of the world.
I didn't have much trouble with the song structures since I could visualise this music. What's apparent on this album is the emphasis on energy. I had to work on a more aggressive Malay sound since this album seeks to heighten the visual and aural experience. Well, basically as a lover of music, I had many choices of rhythm to work it. I tried to use zapin, but the fast and infectious joget is like a runaway train and worked better as the main rhythm on Phoenix Bangkit. The joget hails from North African origins ... you know, the use of the triplet rhythm. The gypsies then took this rhythmic form to Spain and Portugal. That's partly how joget was reintroduced to this part of the world ... that's history.
Malay music has got to be more fun to record. To take it forward you need a danceable rhythm. You might know Irama Malaysia, but there's something different between the work that I do and that genre ... the arrangements, the lyrics and attitude.
The quest to build a dynamic music genre to also reflect the mood of modern Malaysian society is a possible reality. But there seems to be very little that allows for the freedom of expression but this album goes one step further in that it cannot be defined in a simple description.
In truth, it's hard to put your finger on what young Malaysia is thinking. But I'm sure something is cooking and the music has to suit the times. Sometimes people up there (authority) can't see what's going on in their minds, that's a today thing too.
But I work with my music. Music is the scale and the rhythm, that's the basics. I realised that in many parts of the world, people are into dance music ... not techno but more of a fusion of syncopated rhythm and ethnic influences. The energy is dance, it's a unifying force. The sound has to be today's sound, but it also has to be my sound. I've taken 20 years to get this far, from aspiring musician to someone (some) people want to bring down. It's the music business, I face the challenges but what I'm trying to achieve with the music is something personal. I just have to do my thing, I need to do art ...
A local artiste capable of producing depth in his sound is rare. But as a well-read person ready to explore the richness of Nusantara rhythms and to elevate the Malay language as a distinctive art form, it must be frustrating when faced with the masses who simply tak faham (don't understand) the music.
A lot of times, I accept the fact that people don't understand my music. It's a Malaysian thing ... at one time, we were all taught to think laterally, what happened to that?
Most of the words I've written, the truth is they're easily understood. I believe that the Malay language is so rich and philosophical, so I use such words. The layman, when it comes to understanding the music, they don't want to work. I have problems when people say "your songs are nice, maybe you should promote it to the non-Malays." To me, it's far more difficult promoting them to the Malays than the non-Malays. At least, they (non-Malays) try to understand the music, even when they can't relate to the lyrics which come in poetic form. It's not easy to understand poetry, but I believe that this is my art, and I do it.
With my work, I always feel that I haven't achieved a level of perfection, I'm never finished with what I aimed to do. But like any artiste who has put hard work in a recording, I do get a sense of fulfilment seeing an album being accepted.
It's always difficult standing up for your art.
The strange thing is that Malay music fans can accept the English idiom. I might be wrong, but Malay students who love modern music, they can relate to the English language, but not the higher Malay language.
I can follow the market type Malay, because I make music. Some of the songs will be catchy tunes in a world beat sense, so gradually they will get into the lyrics. What is so tak faham about the music if you're not willing to give it a chance in the first place? But I have my advantage, I have followers who understand my music, through these followers will come other followers and that's how I see my music getting across.
I'm not bothered about the music being so difficult to do ... when I believe in something, I just go ahead and pursue it.
Some Quran-inspired tunes on Phoenix Bangkit like Raikan Cinta and Sahabat Gua affirm moderation and a preference for the essence of religion rather than its external influence. It does seem like you're a proponent of rationality when it comes to the point of exchange between religion and spirituality.
Do people think I'm rational? I'm not too conscious about this. I write music with the understanding that it should be universal. It should have common ground with as many people as possible. I think I've achieved that certain level of rationality. I'm not preachy, that's part of my way. I can't tell you why I believe in something in a particular sort of way. That's me. This method is already inside me and that's the way I approach music.
In Phoenix Bangkit, you have built further the use of more percussive elements. The Sudanese influence on Dah Lagu Tu! and Oh! Anak is a distinctive change from the harder rhythmic stuff. A touch of jai-i-pong from Bandung is apparent on those songs. What attracted you to recording this traditional music form?
You know jai-i-pong if you've heard the song Kuda Hitam. I used the jai-i-pong style because I've always loved it. It sounds like reggae with the single gendang Sunda (drum) player and seruling (flute) melodies set to syncopated structures. It's also the only, strong original rhythm from the Nusantara going back to the Hindu/Buddhist period. The keroncong derives its form from the jai-i-pong rhythm.
I find it the most authentic rhythm we have from this part of the world. The rest, they are influenced by Middle Eastern or Indian music. But jai-i-pong has a very recognisable rhythm, maybe, a little bit Indian. At the moment, I'm working on new material and there is more jai-i-pong to come.
The songs sound like simple fun but references to Jalaluddin Rumi's Whirling Dervish Sufi sect on Bila Rumi Menari, the great war from Mahabrata in Langgam Pak Dogo and the barbed political overtone on Dah Lagu Tu!is typical M. Nasir in his element.
Actually, the underlying currents on this album is the celebration of love. But there's room to philosophise as well as finding an entertaining rhythm to work the music. Langgam Pak Dogo is done in a very Kelantanese scale with Siamese, Indian and Arab influences. I used court jesters to tell this very heavy story about a person who is very unsure of himself and he is going to war. The backdrop is the war between the Pandawas and Kurawas (from Mahabrata) with an underlying message that tells us to be careful about power and jealousy.
Dah Lagu Tu! can be read in many ways, but the song is basically about takdir (fate) and Bila Rumi Menari is not a story but rather a protagonist listening to the words of Jalalludin Rumi and losing himself in the beautiful rhythm of Sufi verses.
At this moment in time being M. Nasir is a highly enviable position. Have you come to a stage where you know what you stand for?
Not really (laughs). There's so many things I look at, even to the point of market demands. And there's the cultural demands--what do we demand from our culture, what do we want from modernisation, what is the definition of being a modern Malaysian artiste ... it's so easy to get confused and lost.
I'm grateful being where I am. It's nice to feel like an artiste who has reached a point where individual self can be put aside in order to concentrate solely on the music form itself.
I've made music entertaining for the people. That's done. Now, it's time to emphasise on the road ahead for this music. I can't look back, it's going to lead the way from now on. I have to let go of the rails and let art take over.
*thanks Mr Razlizam for this backdated news.