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Friday, March 13, 2009

Obituary: Wednesdays with Zubir Ali


Zubir’s look of consternation was just a bluff, the big give-away being the twinkle in his eye.

JUST like how American author Mitch Albom had his Tuesdays with Morrie, many former students of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) had Wednesdays with the late Zubir Ali.
Zubir died of heart complications at Damansara Specialist Centre, Kuala Lumpur on March 6. He was 59.
To the world at large, he was a singer-songwriter and a good one at that. But to the students who had chosen to join Peska, the cultural unit in UiTM some 30 years ago, he was Cik Zubir, the department’s head honcho and mentor, who gave meaning and motivation to their creative and artistic dreams.

I was among the thousands of impressionable young people who entered college then, streamlined as we were into our chosen vocations as diverse as engineering to hotel and catering and computer science.
I studied Mass Communications but while subjects such as Fundamentals of Journalism and Communication Law were necessary tools of the trade, the picture wasn’t quite complete.
There was this need to express (and perhaps impress) that hovered like a shadow. It vanished as soon as I found my soul mates in the cultural unit — boys and girls who wanted to act, dance, sing, recite verses or just play a musical instrument or two.
At the centre of it all, to advise, supervise and even reprimand at times was Zubir.

He was a diminutive man but his spectacles gave him a severe look that, when displeased, could put the fear of God in you.
More often though, his look of consternation was just a bluff, the big give-away being the twinkle in his eye.
The building, a small section in the sprawling Shah Alam campus where lessons were held in the name of the arts from playing traditional instruments to studying the intricacies of asli dances, was one bustling place especially on the compulsory Wednesdays.
If one’s skills weren’t in any of the abovementioned areas, one could find a niche as a member of Himpunan Penulis dan Dramatis and be encouraged to write, read and recite the various forms of verses, be they sajak, syair or plain citations.
As you approach the cultural unit and hear the beats of the gendang and cak lempung get louder and louder, you feel uplifted!
After all, you would also have made firm friends. For me, there were Atuk, Aida, Aina, Boon, Lloyd, Hazlan, Jamal, Ogie, Putri, Roslan, Zailan, Nizam, Wak2, Zurina, Zubli and Zuraidah, to name a handful.

The rigorous practices led to actual performances, of course. There were small ones involving maybe just a group of “poets”, and others that required the presence of the entire troupe such as at convocations or inter-college cultural shows with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Regardless of the scale of the show, we were taught that one’s input and commitment to a performance was the same. You have to give your all. Come what may, the show must go on. You learnt all these and more. Looking back, these stuff prepares you for life.
Exhausted by the rehearsals? It would surely be nothing compared to the midnight oil-burning “marathons” when one prepares for a presentation in the real world later.
Chagrined by the dancer beside you? Well, you’d had better learn to grin and not bare it onstage because your prospective business contact 20 years down the line may not be the sweetest of women.
The pointers you learnt then were just as invaluable. Zubir would spend hours explaining the theory or philosophy behind anything that you queried, selflessly sharing his deep knowledge if it would help make you more insightful. Where was I in the scheme of things, you might want to know? Zubir was the founder of Kumpulan Harmoni, a vocal group that sang songs shaped from poetry written by luminous literary figures including the late Datuk Usman Awang, Firdaus Abdullah and Zurinah Hassan.
The members (Joei and Roslan on their acoustic guitars plus Ogie and I as vocalists) always felt special because the group was, after all, Zubir’s “baby”. Zubir played the guitar and sometimes the harmonica, and was mighty proud of us.
We used to perform at cosy and even exclusive puisi events attended by leading thespians in the country. After having heard a whole string of poems, our songs always made for a welcome break, at least that was what I thought.
Moreover, Zubir had the knack for putting even the most complicated of verses to beautiful music. One example was Firdaus’ Patricia Takamoto. Zurinah’s Sepanjang Jalan Ke Pulau Pinang was also my personal favourite.
Kumpulan Harmoni went on to release an album, Penantian, in 1981. Being in my tougher final year then, I stupidly opted out and often wondered whether Zubir had ever forgiven me.
Anyway, the title track became a hit. The group cut another album, Nyanyian Ombak, before Zubir joined Roslan Aziz Production later and was featured in the outfit’s compilation album, RAP 96.

Being the trouper that he was, Zubir made a solo album titled Zubir 06. His songwriting talent was also heard in Datuk Siti Nurhaliza’s latest album, Lentera Timur.
To the end, this man remained a crusader who was happy making songs out of literary works. Proof of this was when he formed Trio Harmoni two years ago (with Joei still!) to sing tunes in the same vein and verve as his other compositions.
He performed with the group at a fund-raising event, Malam Puisi Utusan Demimu Palestin, at Istana Budaya on Jan 23.
His commitment to culture and entertainment never wavered. He established Koperasi Industri Muzik Malaysia (along with some members of the Music Authors and Copyright Protection Bhd not too long ago to champion the rights of artistes and music practitioners.

Zubir is survived by his wife Faudziah Ismail and three children — Fauzul Azhan, Badiatul Adawiyah and Raihan Nurani.
To the many young minds that he has nurtured, Zubir will remain more than a memory.

Like many great teachers, he’s lit candles that no wind can put out and he has our doa that he will be in a good place...

1000 VERSES feat Joe Flizzow

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