The phenomenon that was Pop Yeh Yeh

One of the biggest setback of being the entertainment editor of The Malay Mail, was not having the luxury of time. I can’t go and interview my favourite subject, I cant really sit down and write like how I want to write, bla… bla… bla… However, I was blessed, and sometimes cursed to have a group of young writers reporting to me. I pity them for having to work for an asshole like me. One of the cruelest things I did was to assign, Chew Wan Ying, a Chinese-educated girl from Muar to interview, Dato’ A Rahman Hassan. Below are the outcome [I am proud of her by the way, for this]


TO be honest – by this, I mean, REAL honest – thrilled was not exactly the word to describe how I felt when I was assigned to interview Datuk A Rahman Hassan.

For starters, well, Malay music was never my beat and the fact that I don’t know s**t about that era and the music that triggered and defined that era, doesn’t help either. All I know – through researching and asking around about my subject of interview – is that he’s one of the pioneers of Pop Yeh Yeh, a local music genre which took the region by storm in the 60’s.

Our very own Elvis? Hmm, interesting.   It wasn’t exactly an easy task to get hold of the man thanks to the seemingly never-ending photo shoots surrounding him following the announcement of Konsert Pop Yeh Yeh Suatu Evolusi.

So finally, there we were, sitting in a corner at the lobby of Hotel Adamson. The man sitting in front of me was a picture of serenity.   With a cigarette dangling between his fingers, he started to chronicle in a slow, calm tone, the rise and development of Pop Yeh Yeh.   One thing is for sure, the man is different from the veterans who can’t help but keep on reminiscing about the good old days.

For the uninitiated, Pop Yeh Yeh was inspired by Western rock and roll bands, particularly The Beatles. The genre soon gained a huge following in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

“Strictly speaking, the era began in 1964 and the hype lasted till the late 60s. By 1969, the trend started fading,” recalled A Rahman.

The term Pop Yeh Yeh was derived from a line from The Beatles hit, She Loves You, `she loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah’.   The singer traces the roots of the genre back to Suzanna. Sang by M Osman in 1964, it is widely considered as the first Pop Yeh Yeh song.

“He’s known as Raja Pop Yeh Yeh. Back in those days, albums came in the form of EPs, which normally contained four songs each. The artiste’s name was printed on the EP instead of the album title.

“The recording session was an one-run thing. One error and you would have to start all over again.   Even the songs back then were short. “A song normally lasted for like, two or at most, three minutes. Tengah syiok then habis,” he recalled with a smile.  Short as they were, these songs were the key factors that would make or break an artiste.

”]“Basically, if you got the right song, you would go up. Last time, there used to be a programme called Lagu Pujaan Minggu Ini. Hosted by the first Malay DJ MIA (Mohd Ismail Abdullah), it was aired on Radio Singapore and was a weekly chart sort of thing.   “If your song hits number one on Lagu Pujaan Minggu Ini, then you know that you’re gonna be big.”

Returning to the present, I ask him what he thinks about the current music scene?

“One thing that strikes me is how everything is so sophisticated and advanced. You can get all the facilities that you need. It seems that there should be no reason why an artiste can’t be big.

“However, there’s no denying the fact that, even though everything is great, at the same time, competition has heightened, too. This is also why you see many artistes nowadays having to work really hard in order to make it big in the industry.”

Let’s shift our attention back to Orkes Nirwana, the band fronted by A Rahman.

On Mar 25, 1965, a common passion for music brought Johorians A Rahman (frontman), Datin Azizah bt Mohamad (vocalist), E Elias (bassist), B Badrun (guitarist), A Rozie Ashari (tambourine player) and M Radzi Jamil (drummer) together to form Orkes Nirwana.

The term kugiran is short for Kumpulan Gitar Rancak, which refers to a band consisting of a vocalist, a lead guitarist, a bassist, a rhythm-guitarist, a keyboardist and a drummer. It was coined by subtitling officer, Daud Abdul Rahman.   Though heavily influenced by Western music, the collective insisted on a Malay band name.

“This is because we sang in Malay and our audiences were mainly Malay,” explained A Rahman.

”]Over the years, the collective had launched eight EPs and brought us hits like Tak Mengapa, Hanya Untukmu, Semoga Berjaya, Perpaduan Hidup and Kerana Fitnah.   The band’s reference points back then were from the West: The Rolling Stones, Peacemakers, The Beatles, as well as The Shadows and Cliff Richard.

“These were the acts that were really big at the time. However, we tried to create our own style and infuse more local elements into it.”   Though the genre died down in the late 60s, it experienced a resurgence in popularity later, which was very evident during the Malam Himpunan 60-an which was held in 1985 at Stadium Negara.

Orkes Nirwana remains active until today and A Rahman was last seen performing at a tsunami concert in Johor Baru, three years ago.   It is a widely acknowledged truth that the local music scene lacks proper documentation of its origins and development.   And this had always been something that many local music critics – (including one extremely passionate entertainment editor at The Malay Mail) – sighed over.   It’s apparent that A Rahman has spent time thinking about this too.   And who better to do this if not the man himself?

“I intend to write more about the beginnings of the local music scene in a book. Of course this requires a lot of research. You know, back then, there were thousands of kugiran. It would be great to be able to make a record of these. I still remember many of these bands, as well as the very first songs they sang. It would be interesting to document the origin and the hardships that these early artistes went through during their times.

“I have already started on this and, hopefully, I can finish it within the next two years,” he concluded.

* Originally published in The Malay Mail on Aug 21, 2007