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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Music for the masses

Music for the masses
Singer-songwriters in Malaysia deal with the challenges of musical creation and surviving in the musical landscape that surrounds them. Mukhlis Nor, the songwriter famous for 'Hijau', and Reza Salleh, a current staple in the indie music scene, talk about the importance of support, timing and being true to one's self, with KOH LAY CHIN listening in

Mukhlis Nor (right) and Reza Salleh giving their input on the local music industry.
Mukhlis Nor (right) and Reza Salleh giving their input on the local music industry.

Reza: The Ikhlas Tapi Jauh times was a very magical, harmonious time for local music. It kind of transcended race.I felt that with those concerts, which I didn't go to but heard of, it didn't matter who you were or where you came from. Do you feel like it has changed a lot since then?
Mukhlis: Yes, maybe. It was about coming in at the right time. When there was a need for something like that, no one had grabbed it.
Reza: So it was timing that made it so "magical"?

Mukhlis: Not entirely. But yes, it had to be some kind of timing and need which the audiences wanted and we were delivering.
The mindset was not to think about what the public might want and feed that to them, but to...
Reza: Just do it.
Mukhlis: Yes, just do it. I think the binding force was the fact that we never set any boundaries. Everybody felt like they were not left out.
It's true, between the ages of eight and 18, you are at your most impressionable age. Friends that you meet and things you learn and discover in those years will last forever.
It's indirectly going to shape you. Maybe that was also the time when everybody needed the connection. And there was nothing in music at that time and this was something.

Reza: Also music beyond the country was not as accessible as it is today. Today we have so many global benchmarks.
I find that the local music industry is kind of a planet by itself. You sing a certain way, a certain kind of song, and you have to sing a certain language.
I think the level of appreciation is kind of behind, so for me, the struggle is what do I do about that. I feel like I can't stop at Malaysia, I need to go beyond.
Mukhlis: Oh definitely. The online concept is that there are no boundaries. That doesn't mean you just stay at home and do your work and sell your music. That's too idealistic. We have not reached that. You have to go out, you have to decide where and how.
Reza: I think that when it comes to the level of appreciation here, whether high or low, it's really not the public's fault. (The market is) too small.
Mukhlis: We are just so underpopulated. Yes, it makes you feel good when everybody recognises your name but so what? It doesn't make you the best in the world. I think the important thing is to challenge yourself, and if you play well here, go out and have a look.
Asia is so untapped. For the western world, Asia has infinite promise. They know Africa already, they've already done Latin music for 50 years.Look at Indonesia. There are so many (musicians) over there, it's very competitive.

Reza: And also just from working with Indonesians and organising events involving bands from that country, I see their level of professionalism.You can see that they are light years ahead of bands here. It's so competitive there, and they are so professional.
Mukhlis: In order to get on in Indonesia, you really have to work hard. Over here they ask if you have paid your "dues". "Yeah". "Where?" "In KL". And that's really not that much. You have to go beyond. Definitely. Even if it's across the Causeway.
Reza: To me, the music industry here feels like a big comfort zone nobody wants to step out of.
Mukhlis: And it's not bread and butter, it's just nasi, okay? (Both laugh) So at the most, you make porridge and you still can survive. And it's low standard anyway.
I'm not trying to put down our country, I love Malaysia but yeah, it's too bad, it's just like that.

Reza: I've met a lot of bands who think "I'm not too bad".And then they go to, let's say Canada, and see the bands there. And they'll go "What have I been thinking all this time?"
Malaysians are quite behind in terms of music, business and the industry.
Mukhlis: Actually, we've never been out of this planet. We have many caretakers, as I call them, who are good at looking after people and containing problems.
In a way it has worked against all of us because now we think that it's okay, everything's okay. A lot of people say "It's okay".


Reza: Was there a big team behind you guys?
Mukhlis: Not at all. That's what we learned early on. I think 10 years into my association with Roslan Aziz, we went into RAP (Roslan Aziz Productions), a big team, and suddenly at one point it just sort of fell apart.
Everyone wanted to pursue his own thing, freelancing, or have his own small unit.
And then we realised that the big team can sometimes be costly in the end. You want to use the same people because you enjoy teamwork, but then later everyone's not on the team anymore.

Reza: I would love to have a team of people, a support cell group of sorts. It'd be great. But sometimes meeting those people can be tricky.
It's not like I put signboards or something. Sometimes, you meet them, and sometimes they help out.
Mukhlis: Sometimes, those cells are public relations work. They aren't necessarily activated. They are there, they know you are there, but they don't have to do anything for you now or you don't want them to do anything.
But then the moment something happens, jalan (move it). That is very important now.
You probably know a little more about this social networking.
A lot of people are really wondering how they can best tap this, without being annoying and looking like you're doing business and all.
People from my generation, who have seen the shift from analogue to digital, from photographs to digital photos, or to handphones, they still seem to me like they're a bit stunned by all the change.

Reza: I used to have a daytime job, then I chose to stop because I found that I ...
Mukhlis: Couldn't focus.
Reza: Couldn't focus. It was nine-to-seven, and then organising shows and performing myself.
I found that I couldn't write. I felt like I was burning out after a while. I quit to see if I could free up some brain space to make it this year.


Mukhlis: I think we experienced the same things. We both started out in school.
To me it was the popular culture, when you are 12 or 13, to listen to music which your parents bought.
It was vinyl back then, and I liked reading the covers and seeing the names in the brackets -- the producers and the songwriters. I realised that music involved this and that. And then I taught myself.

Reza: Did you start as a performer or writer?
Mukhlis: I started writing and performing to guests. My first "victims" were my sister, mother, aunties and cousins.
Reza: Oh, I spared my family that.
Mukhlis: I got some self-esteem and confidence after that, and somebody then hooked me up. Along the way you get to know people who start along with you.
Reza: So music business-wise you started as a composer first?
Mukhlis: Yes, at about the same time. I released one album, and all these producers in that very small circle, whether EMI, Warner or BMG, were friends. Everybody poached each other's writers. Immediately you had producers asking you to write and people asking for songs.
At the time I was 18, and had not finished schooling yet. After I finished schooling, I shot up from being a recording artist to songwriting and producing. I'm still doing that, actually.
Some people just like going on stage. And I wish I had more confidence like that. It's not being nervous or whatever, it's just that smaller crowds are easier to deal with.
Reza: What's interesting is that when I play at no-black-tie events, and I've organised shows there for bands who play at bigger venues, the bands get very intimidated.
I think it's because they are not used to being so up-close. They say "I don't know how you singer-songwriters handle it".
Mukhlis: It's because of that intimacy. It's not like you have more control over smaller audiences.
But if you're not really having the right repertoire, and people are chit-chatting, etc, you will know and feel it immediately. But if you are in a crowd of 10,000...

Reza: You can't even see them.
Mukhlis: Yeah, and you become a robot with the spotlight on you , and there is no connection. And to me, you'd really have to be someone who enjoys that and be in control.
Reza: I really like Yuna, she's from Kuantan, studying to be a lawyer. She writes beautiful songs and has a beautiful voice.
I like her because on one level it is very hard not to like her, but she doesn't attach herself to the game.
Mukhlis: I have this good feeling, seeing you and the younger ones just believing in what you are doing, really. Back then, 25 years ago, there was basically nobody or venues to support and help lead us. If there were, they would be more like pub performances.
Reza: Yes, for someone like Yuna, she had 20,000 people as fans on her Facebook, She's the kind of performer that will play any gig.
Mukhlis: It is so nice to see every few months new talent like this.
Back then, there was just Sheila Majid, who was something different when she came out.
And you would just have that one, for many, many years.

Reza: Are you listening to anybody in particular now?
Mukhlis: I'm listening to Zee Avi now, my brother passed me her work.
Her production is a bit loose but she's got everything set up. It's Los Angeles-based and she's got the networking all set up so it's rezeki dia (her good fortune).

Reza: It's a machine on another level.
Mukhlis: Machine yang dashyat punya (An incredible machine). Automatic, clockwork.
You just have to keep doing your best.

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