The Malayan Film Unit is seen here filming the National Melayu Merdeka Choir during its rehearsal at Radio Malaya’s new studios at Federal House, Kuala Lumpur on Aug 5, 1957. The film was screened in all cinemas during the Merdeka celebration.

Rosalie and other love songs (2014), with a second edition recently released, is a beautiful rendition of the nation’s sonic journey.

A comment in the blurb succinctly stated that the book “begins with a mystery about a love song and, stealthily, turns into a history of Malaya as time, as frame of mind, as nation”.

Author Datin Saidah Rastam tells us of shining moments in the popular music of Malaya, of people “travelling freely within Nusantara and the worlds of intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists and nationalists cut across each other. There was a sense of archipelagic kinship”.

And I remember telling the author earlier that music, memory and identity do not stop or begin at national boundaries. They transcend political territories and the modern nation state. One cannot place a label to claim origins and belonging.

What Malaya/Malaysia has inherited, it has shared cross the Malay archipelago. There was a shared history and memory. Songs are social commentaries. The keronchong is one genre. At the time of writing this I chanced upon a keronchong rendition of Terang Boelan on YouTube. The recording by Kronjong Orchest Eurasia, said to be in 1928, was made at Edison Bell Studio in London. Terang Boelan is supposedly the origin of Negaraku. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was recorded as Mamula Moon. There was also the Dutch version.

Songs created in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were not just songs of love and longing. They commented on contemporary foibles, and sometimes urged social transitions. How are these songs captured? What are their text, context and spirit? As in some of my previous articles, I used the preface as object of discussion. It expresses the quintessence of the author’s consciousness in crafting his narrative.

Tan Sri Ahmad Merican was one of those who prompted the research, in addition to chats over teh tarik with the daughter of a music teacher. Ahmad Merican’s account of reversing his car into bundles of documents at Angkasapuri, getting out and discovering they were original handwritten music manuscripts, dumped as trash, seems to be quite legendary.

According to Saidah, a lawyer-turned-composer and music historian, the research began in April 2013 — to discover to what extent original music manuscripts and recordings remained, and to record interviews with veteran musicians. Along the way, she discovered “so much to uncover and so many to interview”. One main methodology used was oral history and the interview. The interviewees were people who formed part of Malaysian musical history. The idea of social memory came into the picture. Stories about the same event were always different and contemporaneous documents only added to inconsistencies.

Saidah also looked at manuscripts, official histories, newspaper accounts, websites, interviews reported elsewhere, academic texts and personal documents, and whatever is left of precious music scores and recordings. Many of these scores were destroyed by fires and floods. But gems did emerge. An example is the 30-odd open-reel tapes of Jimmy Boyle, in the care of his son, and the songs of Saiful Bahri kept by Mohamed Noh Iman. Then there was Audrey Lim’s “strangely moving collection of Japanese and other old music manuscripts, and old keroncong recordings belonging to Tuan Haji Abdullah Safri”.

The emotional appeal of the melodies is as fresh as a freehand drawing, reflected Saidah. Researching and writing the book involved listening to the melodies, like entering “a three-minute time bubble from 60 years ago”.

The spookily vivid voices on the tape, the sheer artistry of the musicians, the infectiousness of their swing: as these sounds came through the studio’s speakers, we were transported back to the middle of last century. We felt we were in the same room as the ‘cats’, under the spell of their smouldering brilliance. How disorientating it was to look up at the end of the first track to find we were here, in Petaling Jaya, very much post-millennium! (Saidah Rastam, xvii)

Rosalie is great detective work. And Saidah managed to craft together what had been tales that sound similar, illogical, inconsistent and contradictory. The book contains many names familiar or not so familiar to us. Many were heard over Radio Malaya/Malaysia and their melodies became the sounds of the nation. Johar Bahar and Ismail Marzuki, Jimmy Boyle, Saiful Bahri and Hamzah Dolmat. We know the singer R. Azmi (Raja Azmi Raja Ambias), and RTM Orchestra conductor Alfonso Soliano. We have Ahmad Merican, Wan Ahmad Kamal, Zainal Abu, Johari Salleh, Ahmad Nawab, Mahadzir Yassin and Anthony Fonseka — just a few names of pioneer musicians who worked in or with Radio Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Melaka) in the 1950s.

In Singapore there were Zubir Said, Ahmad Jaafar, Yusoff B, Kassim Masdor and Ahmad Wan Yet. And of course, P. Ramlee. These were names echoed from the radio — the medium that filled the airwaves then, the music seeping into my childhood consciousness in 1960s Penang. The radio was a powerful instrument for social memory.

Saidah was aware of the role of music in the nation’s quest for modernity, “whether in the form of sensual keronchong from Java, or frenetic swing as people rebounded from the effects of war, or symphonic music as the fledgling nation took its place on the international stage”, As Malaya became Malaysia, more songs were composed and woven into the fabric of the nation. Legends were formed, and perhaps later demythologised.

That single piece of music, which graced the land, was played not liltingly but grandly. Popularly known as having its origins in the Perak state anthem, it was first heard on a Tuesday in the early or mid 1880s by Raja Chulan, or was it Raja Mansur, both sons of Sultan Abdullah in Mahè, the principal island of the Seychelles.

In 1957, the sound presented a melody of love and hope, heard by citizens throughout the Federation of Malaya as the Union Jack was lowered, and the new nation’s flag was raised.

The keronchong rendition of Terang Boelan played on as I finished writing this last sentence, like no other music, echoing the spirit that is to become Malaysia today. But who wrote the lyrics, evoking imageries of nation and nationhood in the likes of tanah tumpahnya darah ku? The melody lingers on.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at ahmadmurad@usm.my

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