Monday, September 23, 2019

Overview of the Malaysian music scene since the 1970s (repost)

Below is a September 2013 email questionnaire sent by Marco Ferrarese, a PhD student, punk-rock guitarist & travel writer residing in Penang, who requested my input, to be included in his dissertation on the evolution of various musical genres in Malaysia...
Marco Ferrarese monkeying around as a freelancce cultural anthropologist

1) You have been exposed to Malaysian alternative culture and music since the '70s. Can you tell me something about that scene and its development in the early years? I know about kugiran bands, pop yeh-yeh and the likes... but how did Western music arrive in Malaysia? Do you remember some of the ways it did (i.e, radio, television etc.), and how it impacted you as a young man? Why people loved the budaya kuning so much as to try to reproduce it?
Actually, as far back as I can recall, Western music was already a major influence among urbanized Malayans. My dad told me he played saxophone & drums in a ragtime combo in the 1930s. As a kid growing up in the 1950s, I remember my parents – both Anglophonic & middle-class 2nd generation urban Chinese – had a collection of 78 rpm lacquer discs (later replaced by 45 & 33 rpm vinyl records) mostly consisting of 1940s & 1950s orchestral hits by the likes of Victor Silvester, Norrie Paramor, Percy Faith & Xavier Cugat. My dad wasn’t into black musicians or he might have also collected records by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington.
In the early 1960s my classmates exposed me to radio hits by groups like Cliff Richard & The Shadows, Blue Diamonds, Pat Boone, Elvis Presley & Ricky Nelson. I recall buying only a few of these singles, as I didn’t really go for pop music. For some reason I preferred Broadway musicals (especially more adventurous ones like “West Side Story”) & movie soundtrack albums (specifically epics like “Ben Hur” or “Exodus” or “Cleopatra”)… till the Beatles showed up & convinced me there was intelligent life on the radio.
A Peace Corps Volunteer named Duncan Catling was assigned to my small-town high school when I was 14 and he introduced me to neo-classical symphonic works like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” & George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” So you see, my musical upbringing was hardly typical but the fact that it was entirely Western rather than Eastern reflects the fact that my parents were English-speaking (for the most part) & had absolutely no interest in Chinese history or culture – or for that matter any other Asian culture, which they probably deemed “inferior” or “antiquated.”
2) How did Malaysian youth react to Western music in the 1970s? Were these behaviors about to change drastically a few years later, when Malaysia became increasingly Islamicized in the 1980s?

The Beatles & psychedelic rock made an enormous impact on me as a teenager. This was an era when marijuana became a popular recreational sensory stimulant throughout the world; followed by more powerful utopiates like LSD & psilocybin. With dramatically enhanced awareness & swiftly mutating neural circuitry came the appreciation & ingestion of this brave new music as an evolutionary agent. It was undoubtedly a trigger for accelerated synaptic growth leading to an entirely different perspective on life, reality, everything.
Compared to consciousness-altering, life-changing groups like The Doors, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, the saccharine, predictable, entirely prosaic local radio hits favored by Malay, Chinese or Tamil speaking households seemed like a couple of centuries past their expiry date.
So in the mid-1970s it was common to see Malaysian bands doing cover versions of more accessible Western rock groups like Santana, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Bob Marley & Bob Dylan. The reason Western music grabbed the youths’ attention was simply because it carried more immediate excitement than traditional Asian music. The youth of Malaysia were looking for powerful evolutionary stimulants, too young as they were to wallow in cultural nostalgia & country music.
The insidious influence of Ayatollahism that crept into Malaysia in the mid-1980s didn’t really impact on those already hip to mutant or alternative culture – but it certainly squashed all possibility of exciting, innovative, liberating music ever getting played on the radio. Kids in the rural areas, trying to break free from stultifying tradition, were drawn to the angry, rebellious sound of punk, metal & trash – and soon found themselves finger-wagged & persecuted by officialdom.
The more docile ones became lulled by maudlin mainstream Malay pop music which poses no threat to the power structure. Islamization merely had the effect of depriving Malaysian music-lovers of ever getting to see sexy or radical acts on stage. Access to underground music, however, remained largely uncontrolled, though mostly confined to niche audiences.
3) You have described Heavy Metal kutus in your book Adoi!, but you didn't mention punks. How did these two subcultures interact in KL in the 70s and 80s? Is there any peculiarity in their behaviors that you consider more authentic, in the sense of reproducing/imitating or reinventing the music they borrowed from the West?
Adoi! was written in 1988, just as punk & new wave acts like Sid Vicious & Boomtown Rats were beginning to influence Joe Kidd’s generation. My loyalty still lay pretty much with the psychedelic, exploratory music of the late 1960s & mid-1970s. I found punk, metal & trash too angry, too aggressive for my taste. By 1971, in fact, I was already father to two girls and preoccupied with earning money & maintaining a family. I was more inclined to listen to Dave Brubeck, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Sun Ra, John Coltrane & Keith Jarrett.
Malaysian heavy metal band Nuclear Strikes 
Amy,  lead singer with popular metal band Search
The rise of the underground punk/metal/trash scene in Malaysia can be interpreted as a covert rebellion against the mundane materialism of Mahathir’s shallow Vision 2020. True, the anger felt by Malaysian youth wasn’t quite as intense or extreme - or self-destructive - as examples from the industrialized West – nevertheless, it was an authentic gut reaction to the systematic dehumanization that accompanies industrial development. In that sense, I would say it was as “authentic” as the punk/metal/trash movement in the West.
The Heavy Metal crowd favored long hair, tight jeans & Scorpion-flavored sentimental rock ballads, while the Punks were into Mohicans, piercings & noise. I don’t recall seeing these subcultures interacting. It was as if they inhabited different dimensions, orbital paths rarely if ever intersecting. It may be oversimplifying things to say that the Heavy Metal crowd was more into just being sexy (Amy of Search used to transform into a satyr on stage, making his female fans cream their panties); while the Punks embraced anarchy & leftist ideals as a political statement.
KD Possum & The Flying Fox in 1979 (l-R): Antares, Ping, Shamala Devi, Nashville Slim,
Rob Stuebing, Lightnin' Fooch & John Davis

4) What about KD Possum & The Flying Fox, the first and only Malaysian bluegrass band? How did you get involved in this project, and how do you consider it in terms of its musical authenticity? After all, there was an American performer, among Malaysians... but bluegrass in Malaysia, well, it sounds quite peculiar.
In 1976 I found myself auditioning for a local production of “West Side Story.”  That experience gave me a taste for performing, so I immediately agreed when a former Peace Corps Volunteer named Rob Stuebing invited me to join the bluegrass group he was forming with a banjo-player colleague named John Davis. All I could play at first was the blues harp (at one time I owned 17 of them). Subsequently I contributed a bit of mandolin, backing vocals & eventually began writing my own songs. To me, it was simply a chance to make music with a bunch of good friends & have some fun. It didn’t cross my mind that a Malaysian bluegrass band was anything “peculiar.” Hilarious, perhaps, but as a group we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. I didn’t actually like country music, what more hillbilly songs – but it was a good foundation to learn how to create music, starting with the roots.
KD Possum & The Flying Fox was a truly Malaysian phenomenon in that at its height we had 2 Americans on guitar, dobro & banjo, 1 Indian vocalist, 1 Malay bassist/vocalist & 3-4 Chinese members on harp, mandolin, autoharp, kazoo & backing vocals – and we attracted equally diverse audiences. We may even qualify as the first Malaysian band to release a live album (Out of the Woods, 1982). As to whether our brand of bluegrass was authentic – well, Rob & John sounded like Appalachian hillbillies & our bassist Lat went by the name Nashville Slim. That’s authentic enough for me.
5) After this band and your personal decision to move into nature, you have recorded a lot of what can be categorized as "world music". Was this an evolution of your tastes, a conscious decision dictated by the circumstances, or did you just decide to perform more "authentic" Malaysian music?

Akar Umbi in August 1995 (clockwise from left): Antares, Stanley Nickam, Philip Boyle Jr,
Rafique Rashid, John Hagedorn, Nai Anak Lahai, Minah Angong, Xiong Lee 

Malaysia, truth be told, is a political artifice. There is no authentic “Malaysian” culture or identity – apart from the titillating blend of all the cultural influences to be found here, whether Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Burmese, Cambodian, Arab, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch or British.

Minah Angong, Temuan ceremonial singer 
The work Rafique Rashid & I did with the Temuan ceremonial singer Minah Angong (whose niece I later married) arose spontaneously after hearing her sing at a drunken party. We were astonished by the soulful quality & shamanic power of her voice. Tried dropping her a capella voice on top of an instrumental piece we had recorded – and it worked marvelously, this “ethnic-trance fusion” experiment that became known as Akar Umbi - after our celebrated performance in September 1994 at the Shah Alam Stadium before an audience of 42,000 plus a nationwide live TV broadcast.

The universal appeal of Minah Angong’s medicine songs was a surprise to all of us, especially her. She couldn’t believe sophisticated audiences would be so receptive to her humble, unschooled voice. I had to laugh when it dawned on me that I was still stuck with a hillbilly band – this time from the Titiwangsa Range instead of the Appalachians.

My 2nd solo album reissued as a CD in September 2010
So, to remove the bland taste of folk music from my eclectic palate, I ventured into idiosyncratic expressionist solo experiments, mostly extemporized because I’m musically illiterate. I regard myself as a Malaysian citizen, so however my artistic output turns out, it’s always “Malaysian” – though the authenticity of “Malaysian” as an adjective can be questioned.

6) Talking about authenticity and Malaysia to me is a bit of an oxymoron. However, as you have spent so much time among orang asli - ideally, the authentic inhabitants of this country -, would you consider their lifestyle as authentic to Malaysia? If not, do you believe there is any kind of cultural/artistic authenticity in this country?
Allow me to quote playwright Huzir Sulaiman as the only appropriate response:
“It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up." ~ Huzir Sulaiman, Notes on Life & Love & Painting (1999)

7) Sorry If I insist on the authenticity point, but you state that KD Possum & the Flying Fox was "authentic enough for you". How do you envision authenticity in music, then? Don't you think that music should be more localized and reflecting of a people's environment and traditions, social history and politics, rather than use the stereotypes of global genres such as rock/punk/psychedelia etc.? I am not arguing that there should be no globalization of sounds in this world, but don't you think that, let's say, a Malaysian punk band would be more authentic if they sang about actual political and social problems, rather than the higher stereotypical ideas of the genre crafted in the West?
Os Pombos, a popular Malaysian cowboy band,
has been around for decades
What are you driving at? Are you suggesting it’s “inauthentic” for blue men to sing the whites?
I don’t represent any kind of cultural tradition. Some people do, some don’t. Why on earth should I insist that music be more localized, reflecting “Malaysian” culture & traditions? Nobody knows what “Malaysian” means. It depends on your political orientations. If you’re an Umno member, for example, you’ll insist that national culture must smell & taste Melayu.

I don’t insist that anyone or anything must smell & taste Chinese or Eurasian or whatever. If something sounds good, I’ll listen to it over & over again & share it with friends. I’m not the national arbiter of musical fashion & taste. I value originality more than technical precision, it’s true - and the idea of a Bollywoodized version of “Thriller” or a bunch of Malay kids with baseball caps & oversized clothes rapping in a shopping mall strikes me as fairly comic. But why can’t they be left to do whatever pleases them?

M. Nasir in action
There will always be a few individual artists, like M. Nasir, who focus on musically exploring their own tribal roots & regional influences. Or the short-lived Thavil Blues Band formed by Allan Perera & Paul Ponnudurai in the mid-1990s which introduced curry-flavored blues to the world.  Bluegrass wasn’t & will never be my idea of music. My solo musical experiments were purely for fun & they express my personal idiosyncrasies rather than some national culture.

8) Returning to KD Possum & the Flying Fox: it was a multi-ethnic band. How did the members come together in friendship? Based on my current observations, I have noted that, especially in punk and metal, there is a majority of Malay players and fans, and the Chinese have instead focused more on other fringes of indie and post-rock, while the Indians have at times created a localized Tamil version of hard rock. I understand that your musical involvement today is lesser than before, but do you feel that back in the 1970s it was easier to mingle as Malaysians, without the silly racial divisions which are reified in the public as of today?

You’re making an intellectual mountain out of a circumstantial molehill here. KD Possum & The Flying Fox was really just a few good friends getting together to make some sweet noise. Our female vocalists Ping & Shamala happened to be married to Rob & Lightnin’ Fooch. Lat @ Nashville Slim was a regular visitor at the Fooch household where I first met him & none of us was aware that we were the embodiment or forerunners of some stupid slogan like “1Malaysia.” There was a great deal of camaraderie among us, that’s for sure. We had a lot of fun.

KD Possum & The Flying Fox in 1980 (clockwise L-R): Lightnin' Fooch, Shamala Devi,
Rob Stuebing, Antares, Ping
Other guest musicians were roped in for bigger concerts. I mean, how likely is it to find a Chinese banjo-player from Penang named Willy Chin? Nobody thought in terms of race or nationality. We weren’t embarrassed to be playing Appalachian folk music. If Rob were Greek & played the bouzouki, we would have been just as happy performing Mediterranean folk music. I enjoyed being part of a band. It so happened none of us owned amps & drumkits or we might have been churning out rock - or jazz, but the truth is, none of us was that much of a virtuoso on any instrument.  

Marco Ferrarese's latest book:
click here to order!
My checkered musical career includes a very brief stint as part of a madrigal choir performing medieval songs. I did it at the insistence of the choir conductor, my great buddy Hans Sallmann who was director of Goethe-Institut & an enthusiastic cellist. Guess I was grateful to Hans for appreciating my weird musical output. I gave him my second solo album & he called the next morning to say it was “the most interesting music” he had heard since arriving in Malaysia.

There are no serious racial divisions – apart from the ones fabricated & orchestrated by Barisan Nasional to keep itself in power indefinitely. Artists, especially musicians, don’t give a shit about race & religion & such crap. They’re usually in it for whatever buzz they get out of jamming together.

[First posted 5 November 2014, reposted 30 June 2017]