Star Two takes you back to the shining moments in our nation’s rich musical past.
By N. RAMA LOHAN
THE memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician,” said the late great jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Likewise, Malaysians can celebrate 50 years of good music since the country’s independence in 1957; we have every reason to be proud of what home-grown talents have achieved over the years.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the most famous actor-singer was P. Ramlee, a multi-talented man who starred in most of the blockbuster movies. He acted alongside the leading ladies of the era, like Saloma (left) and cut most of the hit albums.
Much of that domestically nurtured class can be traced back to the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee, the great singer, songwriter, actor, scriptwriter, director and producer. He single-handedly gave the entertainment scene an identity by introducing musical styles which straddled the best of East and West.
The history of modern Malaysian music cannot be told without highlighting P. Ramlee’s contributions, in terms of sound and style.
He got the ball rolling but numerous artistes helped shape our music scene into what it is today, and every contribution has been woven into the fabric of our proud musical heritage.
While both sides of the Atlantic were caught up with the birth of rock ’n’ roll, P. Ramlee led the pack on our shores, melding his sensibilities of jazz and Western pop with a generous serving of asli styles. But no tune in his repertoire was complete without a smattering of Hindi melodies.
It was in the early 60s that Saloma, P. Ramlee’s wife and Malaysia’s first sweetheart, serenaded the listening public with her sensuous voice and coy sense of humour. She became the yardstick that all female entertainers were judged by.
At this time Malay pop bands were carving a niche for themselves as well, and Singaporean acts The Swallows, The Siglap Five and The Travellers all proved worthy proponents of the new kugiran (which stands for “kumpulan gitar rancak” or uptempo guitar bands) movement while Malaysian candidates in this genre like The Teruna Ria, The Jayhawkers, D’Fictions heightened the public’s interest.
None of this would have come to pass if not for M. Osman’s pop yeh yeh classic Suzanna, which effectively paved the way for the Malay bands of the time. Pop yeh yeh, like the rest of what was going on musically here, was derived from The Beatles (She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah).
The infiltration of Indonesian bands in the latter part of the 1960s brought an abrupt end to the kugiran movement, despite Radio Televisyen Malaysia’s (RTM) championing of local talent instead of Indonesian bands. It was perhaps a case of too little too late, but the music industry continued to survive with the slow and steady appearance of music production studios on Malaysian soil, with EMI laying claim as the first.
Life Records and Hup Hup Records also began to make their presence felt during this time when artistes like Sanisah Huri and Rafeah Buang began to rise.
Some may remember the 70s best for giving birth to the illustrious careers of Sharifah Aini and the debonair Dhamy Jagjit aka DJ Dave.
It was in the early part of this decade that Sharifah Aini blossomed into a superstar in tandem with the growth of the Malay recording industry.
1970s: This was the age of the solo artiste and Sharifah Aini (right) certainly ranked as one of the country’s best with her grace and style. She paved the way for the careers of DJ Dave, Dahlan Zainuddin, Aman Shah, Uji Rashid, Khatijah Ibrahim and Noor Kumalasari, leading up to Malaysia’s quintessential performer – Sudirman.
Kassim Masdor (a member of P.Ramlee’s posse, which also included A.R Tompel), discovered her after she won the Radio and Television Singapore talent time with her performance of Seri Dewi Malam in 1968, when she was just 13. But it was the legendary composer Ahmad Nawab’s songwriting prowess in the movie Hapuslah Airmata Mu – in which she starred alongside Indonesian star Broery Marantika – that turned her into a No.1 act and household name.
DJ Dave, a former cowherd and school bus driver, though struggling with Bahasa Malaysia, secured a deal with Life Records and hit it big with the song Ku Tak Ingin Menangis, before moving to EMI, where his career flourished. This boom of singers provided a platform for fellow artistes like Dahlan Zainuddin, Datuk Daud Kilau (who can forget his anthemic Gila Judi) and Latiff Ibrahim.
Better recording techniques and musical instruments gave rise to a new sound. Though locally recorded Malay music was predominantly based on reinterpretations of Hindi and Western songs, elements of R&B and funk were slowly creeping in.
RTM played an integral role in promoting music artistes and through competitions like Bintang RTM and Bakat TV, many found themselves experiencing greater exposure than radio had offered.
While Malay tunes dominated the airwaves, local music fans were also turning to bands that sang in English, many of which fervently waved the rock banner. It was the time when The Falcons, The Strollers, The Revolvers, The Teenage Hunters, The Grim Preachers, The Brown Black Blues and Ash Wednesday ruled the club circuit.
Venues like the Dewan Tunku Chancellor, Univerisiti Malaya, and Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka enabled them to reach out to urban audiences. And when these bands were drawn out of the loop because of their “hippie sensibilities”, Tomorrow disco, Glass Bubble, The Tin Mine and The Regent Club all opened their doors to this new movement.
The burgeoning disco scene would soon sound the death knell for these bands and their continued reluctance to sing in Bahasa Malaysia saw them losing favour ... but the fittest survived. Compromises were made and the band that seemed to benefit from its ability to bend back was Carefree (which will always be remembered for its timeless Belaian Jiwa), encouraged by its then manager Mike Bernie Chin.
Chin’s hunch that the national language would eventually have greater significance in the music scene proved right and soon the likes of The Revolvers (renowned for its classic Perpisahan) and The Discovery followed.
The band that seemed destined for the greatest success singing in Bahasa Malaysia hailed from Penang. Alleycats arrived on the scene in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the most successful Malaysian acts of all time, easily earning household status along the way. The band transcended racial and cultural barriers and had the Malay, Chinese and Indian population singing along to all-time favourites like Sampaikanlah Salam and Andainya Aku through the 1980s.
For those about to rock ...
Next to the late P. Ramlee, no artiste gave Malaysian music the class it needed quite like the late Sudirman Haji Arshad. His was the quintessential tale of kampung boy making it big. And his is a story of firsts – he was the first artiste to have a song (the Michael Veerapan-penned One Thousand Million Smiles) penetrate the British music market.
There was even a time in the 1980s when the diminutive performer was regarded as Asia’s number one, a title earned after he beat both Anita Sarawak and Leslie Cheung in the Asian Popular Music Awards in 1989 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
1980s: Alleycats (above) perfectly embodied the true spirit of “muhibbah” with its multi-racial makeup, which appealed to the various ethnic groups of Malaysia. Rock music took on a harder edge later in the decade. While it remained a male domain, Ella proved that women could rock too ... and she did it with a style that’s allowed her to retain her title as Malaysia’s “ratu rock” to this day.
Every Hari Raya, when Malaysians returned to their hometowns, they drove to the tune of the qualified lawyer’s timeless Balik Kampung. Always echoing in the memories of many Malaysians is his landmark concert on Jalan Chow Kit when traffic was brought to a standstill by this anak Malaysia’s spectacular performance.
Perhaps one of the most enduring voices from the Malay music scene is Jamal Abdillah’s. Like Sudirman, a fellow winner of Bintang RTM, Jamal sang his way into the hearts of Malaysians through hits like Derita Cinta and Perpisahan Tanpa Relamu and he has released over 20 albums to date, with his career showing no signs of abating.
Also making its presence felt at this time was the hard rock movement, inspired largely by the success of papa rock Ramli Sarip’s Sweet Charity. Much of this new genre’s sound and style was adopted from similar movements in Britain and the United States.
Patched and flared jeans of the hippie era were traded in for leotards and “drainpipe” jeans while big hair seemed almost mandatory. Search, led by the indomitable Amy and the Awie-fronted Wings were the Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple equivalents of the local music industry.
These rock titans, along with Lefthanded, May, Rusty Blade, Bumiputera Rockers, Iklim and their ilk, enjoyed mainstream success and dominated local music charts, a reign which lasted more than a decade. It was almost impossible for local music fans not to know the choruses for Search’s Isabella and Wings’ Sejati during this time.
Women were not be left out of the rock circle and no female artiste embraced the rock idiom the way Ella (and the Boys) did. For a brief period, Shima took the rock mantle from her, but Ella has since remained the pre-eminent “ratu rock”.
The two artistes who pushed the envelope of Malaysian recorded music owed their success to the genius of one man – Roslan Aziz. He single-handedly kickstarted the illustrious careers of the nation’s darling Sheila Majid and the already popular Headwind frontman, Zainal Abidin.
In 1990, Sheila Majid performed before 14,000 fans at Stadium Negara, in Kuala Lumpur; just a week earlier, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine only managed half that number. Her tribute to the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee, Legenda, exposed the listening public to a new take on R&B and jazz.
and preservation of Earth in the 90s.
Roslan struck gold again by taking Zainal away from his rock roots and encouraging him to explore world music, which the singer did superbly with the intricately arranged Hijau, a collection of songs featuring ethnic, kampung-styled melodies with contemporary arrangements. The former rocker made it cool to sing about conservation and preservation of Earth.
Francissca Peter also brought an air of sophistication to pop music and, along with her indispensable collaborator Royston Sta Maria, provided a breath of fresh air. Although she began her career early in the 1980s, releasing albums in Bahasa Malaysia, she successfully made a transition with an English album aptly titled Now’s the Time. Many also remember her as the voice behind nation-championing To Know Malaysia.
The same decade also saw the rise of numerous songwriters and arrangers, including M. Nasir, Manan Ngah, Jenny Chin and Mac Chew. Many hits of the day had the input of these behind-the-scenes individuals, though M. Nasir struck out on his own as a successful solo artiste as well.
Further from home, singer Aishah was doing the nation proud with her band, The Fan Club, in New Zealand. It was surreal for Malaysian fans to see a Malaysian singer fronting a Kiwi band and being featured in foreign music charts, but Aishah did just that with her hits Call Me and Paradise.
1990s: Butterfingers, regarded as the benchmark for Malaysian modern rock, boasted a consistent career and took the mainstream on their own terms with the critical accolades and massive fan-base.
The 1990s started with a bang as Malaysia was kept in the regional (and even global) limelight when four Malaysian boys made waves around Wollongong University in New South Wales, Australia, as Cromok – a powerhouse act that embraced the best of thrash metal teachings. The band achieved the amazing feat of selling 70,000 copies of its debut Image of Purity without any airplay. Apparently, Cromok is the only Malaysian band to ever be featured in British rock magazine Kerrang!
Though the grunge revolution had the world of rock in a stranglehold in the early 1990s, Malaysia had its own ideas. Cashing in on the success of the boy band concept championed by New Kids on the Block in the United States, 4U2C was born.
The band lasted five short years but lead singer AC established himself as a heartthrob in that time and kept (mainly) female audiences around the country enthralled with ballads like Fiona, 2BD1 and Love 2 C U. Like New Kids on the Block, it seemed that 4U2C didn’t get the timing right as the boy band phenomenon really took off well into the 1990s.
However, brothers Norman, Yusri and Edry definitely struck while the iron was hot. Backed by a desire to make music on their own terms (R&B and hip-hop, in their case), the siblings – collectively recognised as KRU – had the cash registers at EMI ringing when they rolled in the bucks with hits like Awas and Fanatik.
Exemplary on their part was the fact that they recognised the music industry as being simply that – an industry. And before their use-by-date had expired, the brothers branched out and decided to retain their profile with their own label, KRU Records, producing other acts as well.
Also making waves was an up-and-coming talent, Ning Baizura, a sassy R&B-schooled singer who vaunted incredible vocal prowess, not unlike Mariah Carey. She announced her arrival in the local music scene by winning Malaysia’s version of the Grammy Awards, Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM).
Where sheer vocal ability was concerned, Ning could never be beaten and though she’s chosen to ply various routes in the music realm, going from R&B to more ethnic-styled tunes, she remains one of the most accomplished finds of the music industry.
Rock still looked to be in full bloom, though, and OAG (Old Automatic Garbage) was part of the boom that kept rock in the public domain throughout this decade. With its self-titled debut album and super smash single 60s TV, OAG peddled a sound that had one foot in the past and the other in the present, or as the band described it, “60s crunchy pop fuzz”. The band sold 75,000 copies of its debut, which is staggering by today’s standard considering that it was an all-English album.
Malaysia’s answer to Nirvana, Butterfingers, championed the underground music cause and illustrated that there was plenty of talent in the local scene waiting to be harnessed. The band’s classic album, Transcendence, proved that rock music in the country had way more class than it was given credit for.
Bands like Seven Collar T-shirt, along with Love Me Butch, jumped into the slipstream, gaining a solid following and eventually broke out on their own as significant forces in the face of new rock. Then pop went religious ...
Suddenly Nasyid bands – led by Raihan – were all the rage. This was not a musical style limited to certain communities of the listening public, but commercially-marketed music at its ... well, most commercial. Raihan spurred the birth of others like Nowseeheart, Rabanni and Ikhwan.
The 1990s will perhaps be best remembered for the all-conquering queen of Malaysian pop, Datuk Siti Nurhaliza. Her command over the attention of rural and urban listeners was unquestionable. A significant part of Siti’s appeal is that she’s a village girl who embraced everything that’s good and wholesome about her humble upbringing, yet she was able to make it big, a tale similar to that of Sudirman’s.
And like the former lawyer, she has enjoyed long-term dominance in the Malay music scene and almost every step of the way, her audience has waited with bated breath for her next move.
Turn of the century
Hip hop and rap hit the big time as the new millennium was ushered in, and Too Phat became the greatest purveyors of this musical trend. The rock crowd seemed just as intent on integrating the sounds of hip hop into their music, which is where Pop Shuvit took its cue from, and the band’s pinnacle was its highly successful tour of Japan.
Today, TV is playing its biggest role in getting music across. The seeds for this were sown close to the new millennium. This is the age of the reality show. Left, right, centre ... it’s all reality shows. Heck, there was even a movie in which the lead character’s entire life was a reality show.
2000s: Pop Shuvit has outgrown the rap-rock genre and it is now recognised as an evolving force in the rock scene. The band has emerged as the model young Malaysian rock outfit with top shelf recordings, business acumen and an ambitious drive to break into foreign markets.
Along with the technology of the day (courtesy of the cellphone), viewers are now allowed to dictate the fate of their favourite contestants in singing/performing competitions via SMS. Taking its cue from foreign talent-based reality shows, Akademi Fantasia, Malaysian Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Ikon and similarly-conceptualised reality shows have become the prime-time entertainment of the day. Singers like Jaclyn Victor and Mawi have become household names overnight.
Supplementing these highly-addictive programmes are the band equivalents like Blast Off and Rock Unite, both of which have given the band scene a much needed shot in the arm, what with the discouraging number of available venues to perform.
Music and technology continue to operate hand in hand at the moment and conventional retail store marketing is slowly becoming a less desirable option what with the downloading phenomenon.
Malaysia has remained in touching distance of what the commercial music industry has been doing around the world. And celebrating our 50th year, we can at least smile reassuringly at the thought that we’ve given the arts its due recognition in our little corner of the world.