In Person: Ramli Sarip

TALKING to Ramli Sarip is like going through audio excerpts of the history of Malaysian rock ‘n’ roll.
Really, listening to him saying things like, “You know something, before Sweet Charity, we were known as the Clash. Honestly, I don’t quite like the name Sweet Charity, it sounded a bit tame. I thought of naming the band Barbwire then.”
It’s enough to make any local music enthusiast drool.
As a matter of fact, the longer you talk to him about his journey in local rock over the last 35 years, the more fascinating it gets.
Well, whether he likes the name Sweet Charity or not, we are pretty sure that Ramli has nothing much to complain.
Without Sweet Charity, he might not be who he is today, Papa Rock to many, a rocker gone mellow to his detractors, while to others, he is a living legend.
However you perceive him, 52 year-old Ramli says he is merely a messenger of songs.
“I convey what I feel in my songs and give life to songs that I feel were given to me by a higher force,” he said in a humble tone.
A bit too humble we’d say, especially for someone who has contributed a lot to the local music industry. Don’t you think so, Abang Ramli, we asked him?
“I don’t think it’s fair for me to say what I’ve contributed to the society. It’s up to the people out there to gauge,” he responded.
Well, trust us, many of us acknowledge and appreciate what he has done. For instance, he was recently given the honour to become the only rocker to perform at Istana Budaya for two successive nights. Both were sold-out shows, in case you didn’t know.
And recently, to commemorate his 35th year in the music industry, Warner Music Malaysia released Ruh Zaman, a double-disc ‘best of’ compilation featuring songs hand-picked by Ramli himself. The set comes with a booklet featuring his biography and never-before-seen pictures.
To make it even special, Ramli even took the time to write down the historical background of each song at the time it was recorded. The set also features four duets – Kita Insan Biasa (featuring Shima), Kumiliki Bayanganmu (featuring
Francesca Peter), Bersenda & Sama Rasa (featuring Kopratasa) and Syair Laila Majnun (featuring Jamal Abdillah) – again chosen by Ramli Sarip himself and given a new breath of life.
“It’s a very special album for me. At the same time it felt a bit strange. I feel like I’ve only started my career (laughs). There are so
many things that I’ve yet to do and have to do,” he said.
While we wait for what Ramli has to offer in the future, for now, we are more interested in things that he has done because it’s something that needs to be documented.

“I was an athlete suffering from adrenaline overload,” he laughed, recalling what drew him to rock in the first place. I needed an outlet to release all the pent-up energy.
“One more thing that played a pivotal role was this musical documentary, Woodstock – 3 Days of Love & Music. It was banned in Singapore, but I was lucky enough to be able to watch it. It had a huge impact on me, not the free love and drugs that came along with it, but the message of peace it tried to convey.”
Like any teenager lucky enough to somehow experience Woodstock then, the next thing to do was to form a band.
“It’s normal. That’s what happened when you combine a hyper teenager with Woodstock, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles,” he said.

Sweet Charity Circa 1969

Together with a couple of friends, Rahman Sarbani, Wahid, Joe Salim, Rosli Mohalim, Syed Hassan and Ahmad Jaafar, Ramli formed Sweet Charity.
One of the first songs the band played in the studio was Tommy James & the Shondell’s Mony Mony and the McCoys’ Hang on Sloopy.
“At that time, becoming popular recording artistes never came across our minds. We just wanted to be in a band and rock our brains out,” he recalled.
“Some more, we were playing rock music and we figured that no one would want to offer us a record deal,” he recalled.
For the next eight years, the band played at weddings, birthday parties and beach parties.
In 1979, the band was offered a record deal by Warner Music and was sent to the studio to work on its debut album.
Ramli has a lot of memories about that.
“It was a bit intimidating for us initially. We basically had no idea how to work in a studio.
“However, we had this advantage; thanks to years of gigging we were very tight musically. That made the recording process much easier.”
Having overcome that, the band faced another problem – none of the sound engineers available then knew how to record a rock album!
“We had this sound engineer, if I’m not mistaken, his name was Mr Chan. When we wanted to use the distortion, he would ask us questions like, ‘Why the sound is so dirty?’ or ‘Is dirty sound a trend now?’ He was amused by our sound while we were amazed that he didn’t know about distortion,” he said with a smile.
When it was released later that year, the self-titled album went on to sell more than 25,000 copies.
Sweet Charity proved that rock music, which many thought was for people with no moral values, actually had a rather large following.
Still there were a few who felt that the album was blasphemous.
“It’s understandable. Before Sweet Charity came out, there were no local rock albums in the market. When the album was released it was a cultural shock.
“Critics said that we were championing budaya kuning. The way I see it, we were only playing music. There are lot of styles of music and ours happened to be rock,” Ramli said.
Because of the lack of understanding about what rock music is about, some of the media people even wrote that Ramli was not fit to be a singer because he had a coarse voice.
Though the album gave the band its first hit, Teratai and went down well with local rock enthusiasts, it made little impact in the mainstream.
Only when its second album, Pelarian, was released the following year did the band become a household name thanks to its cover version of Ebiet G Ade’s Kamelia.
In the next five years, the band released four studio albums – Sejuta Wajah in 1981; Penunggu in 1982; Batu in 1983; Berita Gempa in 1985 and a best of compilation, Sweet Charity Koleksi in 1984.
Songs like Sejuta Wajah, Jangan Lama-Lama, Perjalanan, Datang dan Pergi and Berita Gempa became nationwide hits.
Meanwhile lesser ‘commercial’ songs like Penunggu for instance, became very popular among the rockers. It even became one of the most-covered songs at battle of the bands competitions.
While working on Berita Gempa, Ramli was at the same time working on his debut solo album – a move that had everyone talking about the future of Sweet Charity.
“Our music was becoming a bit stagnant. I wanted us to explore ourselves as individuals, find our strengths and gain new experiences. Each member had his own strong points,” he said about his decision then.
Ramli said it was something that he really had to do.
“I realised Sweet Charity was really big at that point of time, but personally I need to make the transition. It’s important. If I didn’t go solo, we might not hear songs like Bukan Kerana Nama, Doa Buat Kekasih and so forth,” he said.
However, he didn’t get things his way easily though. First, he had to convince Warner Music to give him the green light to record a solo album.
“When I first told them that I want to record a solo album, the label was a bit reluctant. I had to convince them it was going to work. After all, at that point, very few frontmen have come out with solo albums.”
At the end of it, not only did he manage to convince Warner to record the album, he was also given the opportunity to produce it himself.
“It was such an experience for me,” he recalled.
“I was playing at a club in Johor Baru. Every night after my show ended, a friend of mine would give me a lift on his motorbike and send me to the studio.
“I also didn’t want to use any help from my bandmates because I want to have my own distinctive sound and style. Yes, Wan Ahmad, the Sweet Charity guitarist was on it but he played bass.
“It was also a feat for me to be able to record the whole album in only 98 hours. Normally at that time people would record an album in 150 to 200 hours.
“It was probably because I felt l needed to convince the record label by showing all was under control when I went into the studio,” he said.
When Ramli’s self-titled debut album was released – strangely enough, it was released at the same time as Sweet Charity’s last studio album Berita Gempa – it sold more than 25,000 copies and erased all the doubts Warner had.
Ramli, however, was not amused.
“For me, it’s not something that I can really be happy about. I don’t know for sure why people bought the album.
“Was it because of Ramli Sarip’s music or was it because of me being the vocalist for Sweet Charity?

RAMLI SARIP: "I'm just a messenger of songs"

“I only felt that the fans have accepted me as Ramli Sarip only after Bukan Kerana Nama became a hit,” he said.
After releasing two more solo albums – Perjalanan Hidup in 1987 and Istilah in 1988 – Ramli decided to leave Sweet Charity and concentrate on his solo career.
“We feel empty. We feel like we can’t move without him,” commented the band’s guitarist Rosli Mohalim.
“We feel completely lost. He was our leader. Wherever he went and whatever he did, we just followed. He was our strength and we admired his great discipline,” added drummer Rahman Sarbani.
“Many bands at the time did not see the situation as I saw it,” mused Ramli.
“In Europe, when a band reaches a certain level, the individuals do what they want, but the band stays. Mick Jagger went solo, so did Keith Richards. But Rolling Stones are still together in the 21st Century.
“Plus, the situation in the music industry was quite bad, and it was rather pointless for the band to go on.
“So I suggested that we freeze the band, go solo and make a comeback in three or four years’ time,” commented Ramli on his decision.
However, apart from one or two special live performances, the band has never actually made an official comeback.
“Honestly, it would be great if the band could get back together. However, for me, if Sweet Charity were to make a comeback, it has to be our first and last.
The band has to keep on going after that.
“I don’t want it to be a seasonal thing. I don’t like the idea of reforming because the band is hot again and disband for the second time when albums are not selling and the interest fades away.
“That’s not fair and it clearly shows that the band have no confidence in themselves,” he said.
While Sweet Charity made its way into the Malaysian Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Ramli went on to explore new ground as a solo artiste. Finally after years of soul-searching, Ramli finally found what he really wants.
On his seventh studio album, Syair Timur in 1997, Ramli revealed the more philosophical and spiritual side of him. Something he described as rock timur. “I’ve gone full circle. Before I was drawn to rock music, my first taste of music was ghazal and dondang sayang. I think the passion I had for both made me what I am now,” he said.

1979 Sweet Charity Sweet Charity
1980 Sweet Charity Pelarian
1981 Sweet Charity Sejuta Wajah
1982 Sweet Charity Penunggu
1983 Sweet Charity Batu
1984 Sweet Charity Koleksi
1985 Sweet Charity Berita Gempa
1985 Ramli Sarip Ramli Sarip
1986 Ramli Sarip Bukan Kerana Nama
1987 Ramli Sarip Perjalanan Hidup
1988 Ramli Sarip Istilah
1988 Ramli Sarip Sweet Charity Pilihan Terbaik
1989 Ramli Sarip Seni & Suara 79-89
1989 Ramli Sarip Warisan
1991 Ramli Sarip Rentak Hidup
1993 Ramli Sarip Ziarah Seni (Box Set)
1996 Ramli Sarip Sweet Charity Live Reunion Konsert Sejuta Wajah
1997 Ramli Sarip Syair Timur
2002 Ramli Sarip Kalam Kesturi

* Originally published in The Malay Mail on Sept 12, 2005