On The Trail of Malaysian Music

This was originally published in the pages of The Malay Mail on March 25, 2005.


MALAYSIANS, in general, don’t really appreciate music. There, I’ve said it and I’m not about to take it back.
Judging from buying trends and the kind of music that we have been subjected to – all too formulaic and mundane – one sometimes wonders why we even bother.
Those in the music industry – damn I hate the word industry as it represents most of the thing that I hate – have been asking themselves the same questions – again and again.
“What is wrong with the Malaysian music industry, why is it no longer exciting?”
In fact, things are so bad, for the industry that it has reached a stage where the best way to overcome all the problems is to “kill’ the whole industry, and start all over again from scratch. That bad and I seriously couldn’t care less, especially when more and more savvy bands and entrepreneurs have been emerging of late.
Now, we are not saying that nothing is being done to re-ignite the growth of the music industry.
As it is, a number of projects have been initiated to jump-start the interest in Malaysian music.
For instance, credit should be given to Airtime Management and Programming (AMP) for coming out with Xfresh FM (now XFM after yours truly joined), the only station that plays 100 percent Malaysian music, read; songs that are, more often than not, by unknowns or not played at all on other stations.
We are also familiar with stories about the more adventurous individuals who run labels that are proactive in trying out new ideas, as well as artistes who are daring enough to fight for what they believe in – people who strive for musical integrity more than commercial viability.
Still, what’s the point, when all these efforts fall on deaf ears and closed minds?
For instance, Butterfingers made a very good album in Selamat Tinggal Dunia, an album viewed by many as ‘credibility and commercial suicide’, as it was recorded entirely in Bahasa Malaysia.
The band’s reason for recording the album?
Untuk memartabatkan muzik Malaysia,” guitarist Loque said during an interview on Astro’s Muzik@Ria. Did anyone take notice? Not quite.
Another band, Sevencollar T-shirt, produced a genre-defining album with its second project, Drones, but sadly, it has so far only been bought by less than 2,000 people.
Not that the music by both bands is too `kasar’ (harsh), or too advanced for our Malaysian ears (how dare we underestimate the `up-to-date’ musical tastes of Malaysians eh?) It’s just that we might have lost the ability, or rather, the willingness to even try to appreciate good music.
This could be the best answer that all record execs have been looking for. The ‘target’ audience is simply not listening.
The blame, however, should not be put solely on the audience because the truth is that not many of us are brought up to properly understand or appreciate the true value of music.
Most of us are not really taught about how important music is to us – culturally, economically and historically.
Generally, in Malaysia, music is purely seen as `free entertainment’. It’s frivolous, and at times, `glamorous’.
More often than not, music (and the people in it) have been regarded as ‘socially damaging’ and `the source of all evil’. Malaysians are, to a certain extent, still governed by that `Kassim Selamat stigma’, where musicians are regarded as not quite the pillars of society.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m are not saying that music needs to be intellectualised. We are merely saying that it should be documented so that it would be better appreciated.
Our music is our cultural heritage – be it popular or traditional music. Yes, purists may dismiss the importance of Malaysian popular music, claiming that it’s too frivolous to be taken seriously, but then again, it is part of our history.
No matter how funny a certain period is, and how weird the music from that period sounds, there’s no denying that everything that takes place is part of society’s revolution and evolution.
As long as a certain piece is penned, played, recorded, marketed and heard even by only one living soul in Malaysia, it is still part of our heritage and deserves to be documented.
Currently, what we know about Malaysian music is basically hearsay and more often than not, distorted.
Nothing concrete. Nothing factual. Apart from the late Tan Sri P Ramlee and the late Sudirman Arshad, that is.
Just try to look for any information on Kassim Selamat and the Swallows or Search or SYJ, you might just get to a dead end.
Official information about how these bands started out, how many albums they’ve released and what made them so important in our history as well as their role in the development of Malaysian popular music, cannot be found anywhere.
Not many people have access to such information, and unless we see any effort taken in salvaging the historical remnants of these trailblazers, all these names will just fade away.
Yes, these acts will go down as legends. Legends for what? Unless there’s someone out there who is willing to document or chronicle the movement of Malaysian popular music, no one will truly know why.
The lack of knowledge would only breed ignorance, and that’s exactly what’s happening now.
Malaysians know more about Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Elliott Smith, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Phoenix, Mono, The Beatles, Queen, Nirvana, Converge and many more imported names.
Even boybands like New Kids on The Block, Menudo, Backstreet Boys, `N Sync, Westlife, Take That and many more have their respective place in history.
They are known for their music (good or bad) and information on them can be found in various publications, books and recordings.
In Malaysia’s case, music is like a passing fad. No back-up whatsoever. Try and find all the original recordings of songs that have made it to the charts in the past three decades, and you might just get frustrated.
Our performers, musicians and singers seem to be so disposable. Superstars today, nasi goreng seller tomorrow. If they got a bit more adventurous than trying their hand at selling insurance or venturing into some direct-selling scheme, they might just hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Drug abuse and trafficking, wife battery, domestic violence, caught in the middle of Jawi raids are but among the many `juicy stories’ that keep their names alive.
Their music? Well, no matter how good it was at any point, it will be secondary at best.
In Malaysia, beyond their radio hits, artiste get more attention for their good looks and personal lives.
Sad, but true. We take our creative music people for granted. In the long run, nothing is taken seriously and the vicious cycle continues.
As long as we don’t have a proper education system that could put a little bit more emphasis on music that, in turn, would perhaps sprinkle a little bit of respect on those who choose it as a career, the industry won’t have anything to cling on to.
Well, here are some suggestions that could give a little more `face’ to the industry:

BELIEVE it. We don’t have a properly catalogued archive on Malaysian music! Currently, the only place that has the biggest collection of local music would be RTM’s music library. Still, it is not accessible to the public. Wouldn’t it be great if those with the financial and logistical strength get together and start archiving all the recorded materials, newspaper and magazine cuttings, Press releases and what not?
There are people who have been collecting EPs, LPs, music cartridges, cassettes and CDs by Malaysian artistes from the `50s up to today, and we are pretty sure that these people would be more than happy to lend a helping hand. Even if they can’t give the original copies, we can always make duplicates in digital format. So, the next time you are curious about how Mike Ibrahim and the Nite Walkers sounded like, you could always head down to the archive and get a taste.

I have always been fascinated by All Media Guide’s online database chain – All Music Guide, All Movie Guide and All Game Guide. Currently the world’s largest and most comprehensive information database, all its three sites cover both in-print and out-of-print music, movie and video game titles, including reviews, biographies, ratings, images, titles, credits, essays and thousands of descriptive categories.
Currently, we do have similar local web sites but they mostly focus on the independent music scene. There’s Guapedia, but it hasn’t been updated since I can’t even remember when? No, they are not as comprehensive either.
Just pay a visit to allmusic.com and imagine how interesting it would be to have a similar website that covers Malaysian music, right from the beginning until today.

JUST in case you’re in the dark, reissues are basically back-catalogue albums that are being released again. This means albums that were released before CDs came into existence or long-out-of-print albums re-released in CD format.
So, in our case, we have a lot! Last year, after a long wait, we finally got to see quite a number of reissues from our local labels. Universal Music Malaysia reissued a string of albums by artistes under the Iramanada Musical Industries (IMI) like M Daud Kilau, A Ramlie and Ahmadi Hassan when it bought over all the rights in June last year. The company then reissued Search’s first three albums, Cinta Buatan Malaysia, Langit dan Bumi and Mentari Merah Diufuk Timur for the first time ever on CD format.
EMI reissued Ekamatra’s debut album Satu Persinggahan Irama while Warner Music, in the meantime, re-released all Lefthanded’s and Sweet Charity’s albums.
The best series of reissues so far would definitely come from Gold Video Land (formerly known as Pusat Muzikal Intan), a very small independent label based in Cheras.
The label re-released a compilation of songs by the legendary Kassim Selamat and the Swallows and a couple of other nearly forgotten artistes from the late `50s and `60s!
Though these albums are basically being reproduced into CD format without any additional bonus tracks of demos, `live’ performance or rare tracks or notable liner notes, it is still a good start.
As for the box set, it may be too early and costly for it to be introduced here. BMG Music did try to do something through the Search Terunggul compilation – with an extensive booklet that includes rare pictures and a detailed biography of the band. The box set also contains carefully-selected songs that truly capture the essence of Search. Power Records also did the same by putting out Wings’ Terunggul recently.

Look for a book on Malaysian music and you won’t find any! So far, there’s only one book that somehow touches Malaysian popular music, entitled Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia – and it’s not even written by a Malaysian!
We have a lot of aspiring and talented writers who want to write books like Ann Rice or Noam Chomsky but we lack writers who would want to write big time music chronicles like Lester Bangs, Jim DeRogatis, Greil Marcus, Jon Savage, Richie Unterberger, Jeff Chang and Barney Hoskyns.These are music journalists/critics who have chosen the difficult path to write about music, a subject that requires consistency, patience and passion.
What is there to write about Malaysian music? How about a book on the heydays of Malaysian rock during the `80s or Nga Lompak A Go Go: The Unknown Legends of Malaysian Rock `n’ Roll? That should be a good start