Going against the grain, Momain Blues is set to inject the staid music scene with a dose of blues.
IT seems highly unlikely that a bunch of musicians would pursue the blues genre in this day and age, decades since the idiom fell off popular music’s map. But that’s just it about the blues, isn’t it? It was never fashionable to begin with, so how could it even go out of style?
Momain Blues (abbreviated from the Malay phrase “mau main blues”, meaning want to play the blues) isn’t looking to be a trendsetter either because the quartet, which hails from Sabah, is under no illusion of re-inventing the wheel.
And its debut, The Album, is proof of the pudding. Encapsulated within the framework of a 10-song CD is a tip of the hat to the fire of urban Chicago blues and its many roots and branches. There are no genre-bending themes, no mishmash of musical ideas – this is straight up rootsy music, camped largely in blues terrain.
The brief for the album was simple enough – catch a live performance in a studio setting.
“We had basically written a collection of what we considered ‘pop blues’ numbers, as we were writing Malay lyrics loosely based on everyday Sabahan life experiences. We hope musically it will be a benchmark of sorts for the future, and we hope it sells enough to finance the next album,” revealed co-frontman, guitarist and singer Sonny Bahari, during a recent interview.
The band also includes brothers Naza (bass) and Nazri Hussein (guitar and vocals) and 49-year-old drummer Ahmad Aziz.
Older sibling Naza, 32, and Nazri, 29, had gained traction as the duo Jiaja through their Beatles and Bee Gees-inspired psychedelic songwriting endeavours – culminating in the release of a couple of EPs.
However, being ahead of their time did them few favours with mainstream success seeming elusive. But fate would have other ideas when the brothers were offered the chance to act in the now-canned 2010 TV drama Kinabalu Blues. And with musicians part of the cast, it seemed a natural idea for them to write a song or two.
The track Blues Kita was recorded, but with the drama not seeing the light of day, it was naturally incorporated into Momain Blues’ debut instead.
“Ahmad and I have been friends since we were 11. We got to know and hung out with the brothers since Jiaja started to take off around 2005. In late 2009, the brothers suggested Ahmad and I do a song with them for a TV drama they were involved in. After that, Naza and Ahmad saw the musical potential of the four of us teaming up long term due to the chemistry and shared musical roots. So, basically, Naza and Ahmad formed the band – officially in early 2010,” relayed Sonny.
For a while at least, it seemed Blues Kita was the band’s ticket to some form of commercial exposure, seeing as the guys won the Most Popular Song category for the tune at RTM’s Carta Lagu Artis Sabah (CLAS) in 2011.
But blues isn’t exactly setting fire to any music charts at the moment, and Sonny is explicitly aware of the status quo.
“To us, there is no actual ‘scene’ to talk about in the first place. Even though Sabah musicians have a healthy respect and strong camaraderie with each other, homegrown talents basically support themselves without any actual party/authority highlighting or covering local musicians on a regular basis. So, it’s still mainly: record a single, hawk it to radio stations, sell it at gigs and ‘act’ like stars,” he revealed frankly, the fleeting and farcical sense of stardom not lost on him.
To paraphrase a John Mayall album, it has been “a hard road”, one which at least led to a steady stream of gigs, even if the band remains clueless of its audience’s identity.
“It’s still debateable who Momain Blues’ audience is. When someone calls us for gigs, it’s mainly because they remember the musical chemistry and the vibe we give off from our individual personalities on stage,” asserted the 48-year-old.
That sound and style comes from devouring the music of yesteryear, courtesy of the likes of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
“We listened to all of that and what came later, like Led Zeppelin, Cream, Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, Robert Cray ... the list goes on,” Sonny said, confirming the band’s roots. Not far off in the band’s musical diet were blues progenitors like the three Kings, BB, Albert and Freddie, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and their ilk.
But Momain Blues’ music isn’t inspired by any single genre, but a multifarious concoction of influences.
“We’re not influenced by any certain artiste, era, movement or instrument when we create an idea for a song. We’re really attracted to the raw energy and spontaneous emotional creativity of the blues, especially in live performances.”
Selling albums for a band like Momain Blues obviously isn’t a walk in the park. Hard graft and dogged determination are what has taken the band across the line. “It’s an ‘up-close and personal’ strategy at the moment – we’re only selling the album at our shows and through word of mouth. And the plan from here is to keep on performing, sell more CDs, write more new songs and record an English album.”
Judging by the musicality of The Album, a second effort by the band is a welcome prospect, even if the band knows that the blues is not a sought-after commodity.
“The minute we started making our own brand of blues music, it was a non-issue whether it was viable or not. Of course, it’s hard for most musicians here to even think about playing blues music as a career. We realised that from the beginning. But that’s what we naturally do together – play our blues and sell it as it is.”