Sabtu, Ogos 02, 2008

Profile: Taking traditional music to new heights

taken from The New Straits Times 2 August 2008

Artiste M. Nasir believes traditional melodies need to grow and evolve,

TALKING to M. Nasir -- one of Malaysia's most respected artistes -- is like talking to an old friend. He gesticulates animatedly when explaining his ideas and thoughts. He is philosophical and intellectual, but at the same time very down to earth.

It is little wonder that the local music industry calls the singer-songwriter-actor sifu, which means master in Mandarin, for creating music which represents an evolution of traditional Malay tunes for a new generation of listeners.

At the recent 2008 International Conference on Performing Arts as Creative Industries in Asia held at University of Malaya (UM), M. Nasir was named as one of the best examples of local artistes bringing traditional music to the masses in a paper titled The Evolution of Malay Traditional Music: Challenges and Adaptation by UM lecturer Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim.

"M. Nasir combines elements of traditional and pop music to create contemporary melodies. He makes wonderful music for modern listeners while promoting an interest in traditional music and arts," says Mohd Nasir.
The social scientist believes that change in any community, including in music, is inevitable. He considers the initiative taken by M. Nasir to be an important step forward for Malaysian society.

For M. Nasir, efforts to introduce people to traditional sounds are crucial to the music industry.

"For a long time, traditional music had been relegated to kampung people. Modern urban listeners were enamoured with Western contemporary songs rather than local music, much less traditional tunes. I needed to change that mindset," says M. Nasir.

When he wrote and released Mustika, the single took the local music scene by storm. Mustika is traditional, but at the same time contemporary.

"At the time I was thinking about identity and our roots. What is our identity as a race, as a nation? Where are we heading as a race, as a culture? What is the direction of our arts and heritage? All of these things were on my mind."

M. Nasir explored the Malay psyche and researched the history of the region and its people. He was not looking to make a hit; he wanted to express his soul.

"I have gone past the allure of glamour or wanting to be big. I wanted to make something closer to my heart."

Buoyed by the success of Mustika, he resolved to pursue a new direction. This resulted in Phoenix Bangkit, his seventh solo album, a few years later.

He regards Phoenix Bangkit as one of his best works in traditional fusion to date. In the album, he not only presented a fresh update on local traditional sounds, but also added Middle Eastern elements to them.

To Singapore-born M. Nasir, indigenous tunes need to grow and evolve. It can mature without losing the purity of its nature.

"Traditional music is like a strong root, and from it, we have many branches of music. These branches will not destroy the root but they will make it stronger," he says alluding to the example of American country music.

To Americans, country music is their kampung music but a heritage they are proud of.

"Today, country music has grown into many branches -- country pop and country rock -- and they are all deeply rooted in country music. The melodies survive alongside new hybrids.

"The same goes for blues, reggae and rock. For instance, there are many branches of rock. In the Eighties, it was glam-rock and metal, and in the Nineties, it was alternative rock. These developments are composites and they have a strong root in the original blues-based rock. Why can't our traditional tunes evolve in the same way?"

M. Nasir cites legendary P. Ramlee as the first local artiste to create traditional fusion music.

"P. Ramlee took traditional sounds and created new music with them. The difference was, at the time, the songs were for entertainment. Questions of identity, race and politics were not as important then as they are now."

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation Principal Research Fellow Dr Wan Zawawi Ibrahim points out that although M. Nasir's traditional fusion music is more known among the Malaysian public, there have been similar efforts by other composers such as Manan Ngah, Pak Ngah and Ramli Sarip.

"Manan has been doing this much longer. He has been experimenting with mixing elements of traditional music with popular tunes through his works with Francessca Peters and later, Sheqal, says the anthropologist and singer-composer.

"Pak Ngah's works on Siti Nurhaliza's traditional themed albums are also good examples. They are not pure traditional music, but many elements of traditional music mixed with pop."

Ramli Sarip also incorporated more traditional and Middle Eastern influences in his recent folk-rock songs.

"These artistes are producing an amalgam of traditional music. But M. Nasir's was a breakthrough," says Wan Zawawi who believes that these efforts have opened parents' eyes to the local art and entertainment scenes.

"M. Nasir and Siti Nurhaliza are good role models for the creative industry."

The economic benefits of being an artiste in Malaysia are also changing parents' perception about careers in the creative industry. Parents are more open to their children venturing into the entertainment world. They know their offspring can earn a good living as artistes.

These new developments are good for the industry but M. Nasir believes in continuously improving it.

"Currently, the industry focuses on entertainment. People just want entertainment. Cultural identity is not a priority," says M. Nasir.

"I want to create our own music that reflects our identity and struggle as a people, raises our intellectual level and explores spirituality. We must have taste. I am not into silly entertainment."

He hopes that the younger generations will better appreciate their culture and traditional music.

"This is the journey of our people, which shaped us. We need to support traditional tunes and help them advance.

"We must be subtle; we must be creative in arranging music so it doesn't sound out of place. That is how we make something that is artistic into a commercial hit."

Facing all these obstacles is nothing new to M. Nasir. Although the recent loss of his close friend and collaborator Rosli Khamis (better known as Loloq) still saddens him, he is determined to continue his artistic sojourn.

"My aim is to take our music to the highest level," he adds.

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