Back to Roots?

I was a rookie critic as well as a music snob who sees no “values” in “mainstream artiste.” One day, my editor, Sheryl Stothard, challenged me to interview this dude, who people lauded as a sifu. It wasn’t easy.

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Modern-day laksamana melayu M Nasir tells Adly Syairi Ramly why urban music is not Malaysian, rock is pop, we’re all still colonised and he’s the only one who gets it

THE silence is unnerving. I’m sitting in front of M Nasir like a kid in the headmaster’s office. The man is clad casually in a checked shirt and jeans, calmly sipping water as he flips through the back issues of TONE he ‘confiscated’ from me.

We’re in a meeting room at the office of his new label Warner Music, having migrated there from BMG Music in 1998. He says nothing for a few minutes. Then he comes across the issue with the Blink 182 cover.

“Ha!” he retorts, with a shadow of a smile, “This is what my son wants to be.”

He looks up and breaks into laughter. It seems like an ice-breaker. But I’m not fooled.

After all, TONE stands for almost everything M Nasir doesn’t – and I am there as a representative of that throwaway ‘urban’ (read: Malaysian music in English) culture he holds in disdain.

What is it that’s so compelling about the man who’s inspired such strong feelings from opposite sides of the spectrum?

Many think he’s a genius and many more hate his guts – but few people are indifferent to M Nasir. His tendency to speak his mind openly has, at times, affronted many in an industry notorious for scoring points through whispered insinuation and indirect hints.

Yet he makes no apologies. When Berita Televideo took him to task on this in a 1994 interview, he disdainfully dismissed his detractors: “It’s up to them. Some people misinterpret my comments due to their lack of knowledge.” Even when his allegedly dismissive question “Siapa Mahathir?” earned a short-lived ban from (then) Information Minister Tok Mat in early 1996, there was no apology. RTM quietly rescinded the ban after that.

He’s also the one Malay ‘artiste’ (the vernacular tabloids hold in God-like awe), with superlatives like “Sifu”, “Guru” and “Cendekiawan Seni” (artistic sage) plied on him over the last decade.

As an elder statesman of the Malay music scene, M Nasir is peerless, in every sense of the word.

There exists no equivalent among his peers.

Is the singer-songwriter-producer-musician genius of M Nasir as remarkable as it’s made out to be? Or is it just that the rest of the Malay songwriters, producers, singers and bands today are too mediocre to match?

It’s a point the man himself repeats to anyone who cares to ask. In a previous interview with TONE, he noted the fundamental problem faced by Malay music today: “We are lacking in passion for music. The composers are not interested in building a scene. They’re interested in making hit songs for hits singers, like Siti Nurhaliza. They say that they need to cari makan, but I think they’re too obsessed with cari makan.” [TONE, September 2000]

Yet, he still chooses to remain within a scene infected by mediocrity rather than opt for options outside it, whether within the “urban” sphere or in the international scene.

Since he started out in the industry, M Nasir’s been obsessed with his quest to establish the definitive Malaysian sound. And he doesn’t think that the answers can be found outside the realm of Malay music.

I bring up examples of urban bands like Butterfingers and Too Phat, who have included traditional elements in their recent work, but he’s not impressed.

“What these bands are doing are like what Aerosmith did when they infused some Arabic riffs in their songs,” he tells me. “Adding certain elements to a rock song still makes it a rock song. The same with traditional Malay music. You may add to it foreign elements, but it’s still Malay music, based on its roots.”

He even takes to task any claim that the urban music of today is “Malaysian”: “Peter Gabriel uses a lot of Arabic and African elements in his music but he never calls it Arabic or African music. Instead, he calls it ‘world beat’. It’s still British pop music.”

To reinforce his point, he throws in a subversive question: “If you want to go to America to sell your album, what represents you? Malay culture … or Malaysia?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer, but continues: “What bands who record English albums are doing is joining the game. I’m going against it. They can still break internationally. But they represent Malaysia…not Malaysian music.”

From M Nasir’s purist viewpoint, Malaysian music can only be Malay music. It’s a question of roots. He explains that just as a rock song is driven by the roots of rock music (which is foreign), Malaysian music can only be music that’s driven by traditional Malay roots.

“We are basically colonised,” he declares.

“That’s why we don’t have the ability to develop our own music. For instance, when the Beatles were big, everyone wanted to form a band with guitars and drums. Why not use gendangs instead?” He continues with a cynical smirk: “Because if you do, then the  Melayu-ness becomes dominant in the music and it’s not ‘cool’ anymore.”

He expresses regret that Malaysians apparently can’t see the origins of music they listen to. “They think that P Ramlee’s pop is ‘Malaysian’, when in fact, its roots are in Latin music.”

He also has a gripe with Malaysian bands today that have no interest in playing Irama Malaysia because, allegedly, it’s not “rugged” enough.

“Why? Because you are Westernised.”

As he pauses to take another sip from his drink, I realise with a sinking heart that my first suspicions are confirmed. I am in the headmaster’s office…

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TO UNDERSTAND M Nasir the Myth, one has to first consider M Nasir, the man. He claims that while growing up in Singapore in the 60s and 70s, he wasn’t much of a music enthusiast, preferring instead to dabble in art.

“Being a painter was my first ambition,” he recalls. While his friends were going “gaga about music”, he had difficulties connecting. “I just couldn’t consume all that hype and ‘coolness’ about music.”

In 1975, the young Mohamad Nasir packed his bags, leaving suburban life in Bukit Panjang for the Nanyang Fine Arts Academy to pursue his dream of being a painter. Yet sometime in between then till 1979, when his composition ‘Senandung Semalam’ for the Alleycats became a hit, M Nasir managed to make the leap into music.

M Nasir describes the move as being “only natural” to his “Malay” artistic bent.

However, it’d be more correct to credit his older brother for his early music education.

“My older brother would always come back from the city with these albums by Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin,” he recollects. So while his friends were jumping about to pop yeh yeh, M Nasir got his grounding with the best of rock.

“I was never exposed to music lesser than these so-called legendary bands,” he smirks, running his hand through his hair.

It is ironic that while his first musical influences were these rock greats, M Nasir is so derisive about rock today. “If people ask me what rock is, I’d say it’s actually pop music. You can add whatever to it, but at the end of the day, it’s still pop. It’s what the listeners want,” he says, dismissively.

The young M Nasir progressed from rock to the fusion jazz of Chuck Mangione and the disco of the Bee Gees. But he maintains that he’s always been dubious about contemporary Western trends.

“People are not interested in local traditional music like Zapin, Inang and Masri. They always want things that happen instantly, contemporary stuff. They don’t learn much.”

With the advantage of living with a composer-arranger housemate called Wan Ibrahim, M Nasir started off in the Malaysian music business performing at talentimes before moving on to composing.

His big break came when Polygram’s Eric Yeah was looking for a lyricist to work on rock group the Alleycats’ album.

“When the Alleycats were recording, I invited M Nasir to come to the studio to help singer Loga on his lyrical delivery. M Nasir just managed to turn songs around magically,” recollects Yeah, before adding, with a laugh: “M Nasir…I’m the one who discovered him.”

Soon, Yeah got the composer to try out singing as well. In 1981, the album Untuk Pencinta Seni/Pelukis, by one Mohamad MN’ was released. “It was a major flop,” laughs Nasir, remembering his debut.

But he moved on to form Kembara, a socially-conscious Malay folk singing quintet, inspired by a Japanese folk-pop group called Alice. Other members of the band were Abby Ali (now a Malay drama actor), Abby’s brother Eddie, S Sahlan (now turned composer) and A Ali.

“I tried to infuse southern rock elements by Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash, with a bit of pop, into the Kembara mix,” he recalls. However, the two brothers Abby and Eddie wanted an R&B infusion. Since they couldn’t resolve this, the brothers quit in the midst of recording their debut.

As a trio, Kembara went on to release six studio albums from their self-titled debut in 1981 right up to 1986’s Lagu-Lagu Filem, achieving respectable sales of 25,000-30,000 each. By late 1985 though, the trio had disbanded.

“We were getting outdated,” says M Nasir, when asked the reasons for the break-up.

Kembara were not alone. By the mid-80s, other pioneering bands like the Alleycats, Sweet Charity and the Blues Gang were sinking into obscurity within a scene that was hungry for change.

So, M Nasir, Kembara frontman, morphed into M Nasir, uber-producer, making his mark by unleashing a young band called Search on Malaysia. With their distorted guitar rock, they echoed the new wave of British heavy metal groups like Def Leppard. Search captured the imagination of 80s Malay youth with their M Nasir-penned hits like Balada Muzik Jalanan and Isi dan Kulit from their debut Cinta Buatan Malaysia. By the time the follow-up – Langit dan Bumi – was released in 1986, Search were unstoppable and M Nasir became the most sought-after producer in Malay music.

At this stage of our interview, M Nasir starts laughing uncontrollably, remembering the ensuing hype. “Everyone – from those with their mom’s curtains wrapped around them … ” he pauses to catch his breath from laughing so hard, before continuing: “… was trying to jump on the bandwagon.”

So, instead of driving the bandwagon, M Nasir hopped off for a spot of reinvention.

In 1989, he released the album SOLO, under his present name, which raised many eyebrows then for its ground-breaking originality. He shunned the folk of Kembara and the riffs of Search for a fusion of Western instrumentation (guitars, bass and drums) and the traditional Malay elements of Asli, Zapin and Jaipong. This new music – with the exhilarating sounds of gamelan, angklung and gendang – quickly found a name: Balada Nusantara (from the term referring to the Malay archipelago), and everyone, from makciks to kids, drove SOLO past the 65,000 sales mark.

Saudagar Mimpi followed in 1992, repeating the same appeal and impact on listeners. But it was his third album three years later that sealed his mythic status in the Malaysian music scene.

When Canggung Mendonan was released in 1995, it hit Malaysia with the force of a tidal wave, riding on the hit song ‘Mentera Semerah Padi’ that struck a chord embedded deep in the slumbering collective consciousness of resurgent Malay pride and ascendancy. It went on to dominate just about every Malay music awards ceremony imaginable, selling over 120,000 copies. And just as he was at the peak of critical acclaim, M Nasir retreated.

For the next six years, he went into ‘hiding’ at his Ronggeng Studio in Sungai Buloh, on a self-imposed hibernation/rejuvenation time-out. During this time, he still managed to produce and act in his second film, Merah, release his greatest hits compilation, M Nasir Terbaik, and re-record hit compositions previously written for other singers.

The hibernation period was extended when tragedy struck and M Nasir lost his wife Junainah Johari to illness in August 1998, leaving him alone with his five kids.

By the time the new millennium dawned, M Nasir had ended his 10-year relationship with BMG Music, moved to Warner and married actress Marlia Musa. By 2001, his fourth album was ready, aptly titled Phoenix Bangkit, and Malaysia braced itself for M Nasir again.

“When I left BMG, I had decided that I wasn’t going to do Western music anymore.

I wanted to do something from the nusantara, with flutes, traditional rhythms and drums,” he says about the creation of Phoenix Bangkit, arguably the most important effort in his quest to date. “I wouldn’t say that Phoenix Bangkit is 100 percent Malay, as it has more Eastern elements than my previous albums.” He then declares proudly: “But you won’t find a single rock rhythm in it.”

A quick dissection of Phoenix Bangkit reveals a strong Middle-eastern influence, with the supportive role of the nusantara vibe in the form of Javanese and Kelantanese folk elements. There is also some Western influence, manifested in the bass and the French vibe in ‘Masirah’, the album’s second single.

A journalist friend of mine offers his interpretation: “This album is way better than any of his previous work. But compared to the rest of the world beat scene, his music is still pop. Still, he’s getting there…”

M Nasir unapologetically calls his new album “elitist”. “If you release a ‘hardcore’ world beat album, you will only get ‘hardcore’ listeners to buy it, and it will become elitist music. I think my music is in that category, especially here in Malaysia.”

Since the album’s release in July, it’s shifted more than 35,000 copies, no mean feat in light of sluggish sales in today’s retail music market. Either my journalist friend’s ‘pop’ take on Phoenix Bangkit is correct or the ranks of ‘elitist’ world beat listeners in Malaysia have expanded substantially.

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ELITIST OR NOT, much of the ‘M Nasir: the Sifu’ myth stems from his own unshakeable self-assuredness, especially in his belief that he is different from the rest of the Malay music industry in which he lives, breathes and thrives. And even as he rails on about “restoring pride in Malay music”, he is as quick to dismiss efforts of others.

“There are efforts taken by the government to [restore pride in Malay music], but sometimes, individuals misuse their authority,” he points out. “For instance, sometimes we don’t send the appropriate artists to represent Malaysia at international music competitions.”

He also smilingly dismisses the music labels. “Record labels don’t really create.

They only monitor what’s changing on the streets to determine what will work and sell.”

He goes on to add that the “really exciting things” are actually happening at street level.

So, would he then acknowledge the ‘Westernised’ urban scene thriving at street level in Malaysia and ‘exciting’ the youth of today?

My question is met with a piercing stare as he pauses to take another sip of his drink (which I realise now is as much a delaying prop as it is a thirst-quencher).

“Some bands, when they make music, they only think of the urban listeners. They don’t know that the market is way bigger than that,” he retorts, before breaking into scornful laughter. ‘When they perform in front of 3,000 people, they think it’s the world!”

On that note, ‘detention class’ is over. I leave, thanking him profusely, even while the inherent contradictions of his elitism versus mass market, Malay versus Malaysian and rock versus pop postulations swirl about in the air above us. And I leave it at that. This is M Nasir, after all. I should be grateful that I still want to listen to punk rock after this …

* Originally published in TONE Magazine, Nov 2001 issue.

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