They're playing our song
When it comes to our musical roots, America shares more in common with Malaysia than would seemingly meet the ear. Both the secular and sacred compositions of such far apart neighbors aptly extend the melting pot definition of our respective cultures, resulting in an improvised symphony which is as imitative as it is original.
It's no small coincidence that religion, revolution, and industrialization worked in concert on either sides of the globe to bring about this curious mix, a meld of allegiance to the origins of one's ancestors and the spontaneity to bookmark present events with fresh song. Nor is it unusual that both countries saw the wisdom and reward of integrating music programs into their primary and secondary school curriculums, as well as providing funding for orchestras and choirs on national and regional levels.
As if the chronological comparisons weren't enough to convince you, we need only to look to the relatively recent quest of American and Malaysian young people to leave their own stamp on the music scene, borrowing from existing trends and inventing radical new ones, courtesy of advanced technology and global communications. A fellow traveler, recently relocating to Penang with his teenage daughters, made the sobering but humorous discovery that "there's no getting away from the 'loud'." No sooner had the CD's of their favorite hard-rock stars been packed away in storage in San Francisco than they discovered a new group to take their place-Malaysia's own XPDC. The fact that the singing is in another language has not yet endeared them to dad, especially since he could never figure out what the American rockers were singing, either!
A short history lesson
Like the U.S., the mid 19th to 20th centuries brought an influx of immigrants to the Malay states, primarily to operate the British tin and rubber factories. The highest concentration of these foreigners, Chinese and Indian, still comprise almost 40% of modern Malaysia. While the language barriers alone were impediment enough to foster unity, there were also the issues of opposing cultural mores and worship-conditions which had first taken root in both the Melaka Sultanate and Portuguese takeover nearly 400 years previous.
Economic instability and political unrest encouraged little time and even less incentive for commercial creative expression. Not until the standards of living began to improve did the government start to realize that social and cultural growth were essential components of a diverse population moving forward. The recognition that the musical tent was indeed large enough to embrace all voices is reflected in the chart-breaking popularity today of groups such as Sheila On 7 (SO7), Dewa and Gigi, and Rossa-talents who hail from Indonesia but have found a bevy of loyal fans in Malaysia.
And while the names Zahid Ahmad, M. Nasir, Jenny Chin and Lewis Pragasam may not be household names on the California coast, their vision of music's future helped to inspire an innovative wave of contemporary sound that has overspilled Malaysia's borders.
Oral tradition, similar to American Indian storytelling, was the early mainstay for keeping alive the legends of the past and reinforcing the values necessary for success and/or redemption in the future. Interestingly, the concept of group singalongs and rounds has not faded from either country's repertoire with the passage of time. The poetic call-and-response styling of dikir barat performers in today's Malaysian clubs are not all that different from camp songs sung in the Catskills, the commonality being a social interchange as much as a musical one.
So, too, is the popularity of folk dancing, a practice once reserved for festivals and religious observances. The successful fusion of instruments and ethnicities is well evidenced in dances such as the Portuguese joget and ronggeng, which incorporate Southeast Asian gongs, Northeast Malaysian lyrics, Arab flutes, and Western violins!
Hindustani and Persian passion were the driving forces behind ghazal (love poems) which came to Johor in the mid-1800's and used Indian sitars and chordaphones to accompany Hindi songs. Though still performed with traditional instruments in the Malaysian Indian culture, modern ghazal performers have now added accordions, ukeleles, Japanese drums, clarinets and guitars to form a sound the originators could never have imagined!
Opera anyone? Bangsawan (Malay Opera) was especially popular in the 1920's and 30's, and derived its energy from Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin American, Chinese and Western influences. Although this form of musical entertainment originated in the 1890's, it took a Malaysian composer to put it back into commercial use in filling a gap he perceived in popular music of the 1950's. Over 250 songs later, Tan Sri P. Ramlee was hailed as Malaysia's most well-known musician whose blend of Malay folk music and Western classical structure would continue to be an influence long after his death.
The hottest sounds
Surf the Net or take a spin through any number of Kuala Lumpur radio stations and you're likely to find a wide range of country western, hard rock, and jazz offerings by home-grown Malaysian artists. Pop/ballad vocalist Siti Nurhaliza and R&B sensation Ning Baizura have become particular favorites with Malay listeners.
Yet another regional claim to fame is Terry Thaddeus, a guitarist dubbed in the 1970's as the "Jimi Hendrix of the East". Even a proliferation of music videos have hit the market, one of the latest being a Butterfingers recording called "Malayneum" which was shot on location in Kuala Lumpur.
While still in a state of evolution, Malaysian music strives to accomplish something on a global scale that we would all be wise to take note of: if we all have access to the same music and can learn to listen with a non-judgmental heart, can peaceful harmony be far behind?
Published on 3/26/01