Traditional musician Kamrul Hussin bent on pushing boundaries

  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 31 Jul 2019

'In terms of education, it is very important to discover and try out new things. The possibilities are endless. I always experiment whenever I can,' says Kamrul. Photo: S.S. Kanesan/The Star

Multi-instrumentalist and percussionist Kamrul Hussin, the son of the late Hussin Yusoff (a master Kelantanese rebab player), has always believed in the idea of fusing traditional musical instruments with modern forms of music.

To Kamrul, there is always a place for traditional instruments in a contemporary setting ... be it a theatre or music performance.

The 41-year-old Kelantan-born, who is one of the coolest academic types in town, also pushes hard for the right to experiment.

Musically, he says, be bold and brave. If an individual has a good grounding, a lot can be achieved.

“In terms of education, it is very important to discover and try out new things. The possibilities are endless. I always experiment whenever I can,” says Kamrul, a senior lecturer in Malay traditional music at UiTM Shah Alam.

It is no wonder, then, that he is part of the music line-up, together with his brothers Mat Din Hussin and Mat Wan Hussin, his former student Danial Nazrin and Susan Sarah John, for Masakini Theatre Company’s latest production called Wayang Mak Yong Stories (Wayang).

Directed by veteran theatre practitioner Sabera Shaik, the 55-minute show will use the device of shadow play to tell a mak yong story based on the writings of Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard, a British colonial officer turned Malay nationalist scholar, who began to write about mak yong in the 1960s.

Wayang opens at Masakini’s Studio Ramli Hassan, Taman Tunku in KL on Aug 1.

The show features Tristen Zijuin, Douglas Philip Labadin, Iskandar Zulkarnain, Matt Tan, Liz Wong and Chloe Tan with Muha Aziz taking on the role of the narrator. It is choreographed by local dancer Weijun and composed by Jun Xian, Ken Hor and Sarah John, who is also the music director of the show.

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah-based artist Azlan Dulikab was commissioned to do the puppet illustrations for the show.

In the spirit of experimentation, Wayang will distance itself from the original songs from the Andera Dewa story (one of the 12 Mak Yong stories written by Sheppard) and will only use basic elements of the songs instead.

'I realised that I have to do something to make sure the (traditional) arts doesn’t just die off,' says Kamrul, who set up a cultural centre called Sanggar Budaya Geng Wak Long in his hometown near Pasir Mas in Kelantan in 2013. Photo: S.S. Kanesan/The Star

“The music has been completely rearranged to suit the performance. The texture and the melody of the songs are different,” says Kamrul, a father of three.

The Wayang musical score, which Sarah John and Kamrul worked on, is a blend of original compositions written for live and digitally arranged music performed primarily through South-East Asian instrumentation, structured in a Western format.

This kind of cross-discipline performances are, of course, not novel. You can look back

at the 2018 production of Titis Sakti (by Norzizi Zulkifli) at KLPac, which used the device of Mak Yong to tell the Bard’s fantastical comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

“My aim is to bring mak yong stories to the general public. I mean, how many people understand the language of mak yong? In Wayang, the stories of Mak Yong will be presented by actors (wearing custom-made masks) and elements of shadow play. We will work around the possibilities and limitations of this experimentation,” says Sabera.

Of course, having a master like Kamrul is a huge plus to the production, who also played in Sabera’s Puteri Saadong at Denmark’s Odin Theater early this year.

The late Pak Hamzah Awang Amat, a National Laureate and Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize Winner, and Pak Nasir Yusoff, a tok dalang (master puppeteer) also played instrumental roles in shaping the Kamrul's approach to music. This Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (Aswara) graduate majored in Malay and Western percussion music.

Wayang Mak Yong Stories, with music led by Kamrul, will play at Masakini Theatre Company's Studio Hassan, starting Aug 1.

Photo: Hima Easwaran

Kamrul, who plays nearly 140 instruments, has worked with the pop star likes of Datuk Siti Nurhaliza on her landmark Royal Albert Hall concert in London in 2005, Zainal Abidin and Ning Baizura. He also leads the traditional group Geng Wak Long and has frequently collaborated with Hands Percussion.

He has dabbled in local film soundtracks such as Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004) and Bunohan (2011).

Sabera only has praise and admiration for Kamrul whom she describes as “a darling to work with.”

“He listens and then gives his feedback and ideas. This is something I value as a collaborator. Also, he takes his responsibility as a proponent of Kelantanese music and culture very seriously,” says Sabera.

Kamrul sees the value in promoting traditional arts awareness and shows like Wayang, despite having a relatively modest audience, is a starting point for the curious masses to experience what a traditional Malay music group can offer.

But for all his accomplishments and accolades, Kamrul feels he still has to do more for the traditional music community in his hometown of Banggol Gelang Mas, Pasir Mas in Kelantan. There is a lot of grassroots work to be done, he mentions.

"I realised that I have to do something to make sure the (traditional) arts doesn’t just die off,” says Kamrul.

He admits that his busy schedule and frequent touring engagements have gotten in the way of developing a traditional Malay music scene back in Pasir Mas.

“I received recognition from the outside but I hadn’t done anything to lift up the level of traditional arts in Malaysia.

“That is why I entered the academic line and became a lecturer. Education is where you can have the greatest impact on people. You are providing them with the necessary tools and exposing them to different things," he says passionately.

Kamrul established Sanggar Budaya Geng Wak Long, a cultural centre that teaches silat, tari inai and Malay percussion, in Banggol Gelang Mas in 2013.

“I knew I had to create a space for kids to learn and experiment but with a more focused approach,” shares Kamrul.

Kamrul travels back to Kelantan regularly to teach at the centre and with more funding, he wishes to expand the centre's scope to include lessons about wayang kulit, mak yong, dikir barat, rebana ubi and other forms of Kelantanese percussion.

Wayang Mak Yong Stories is on at Studio Ramli Hassan, Masakini Theatre Company, Taman Tunku in Kuala Lumpur from Aug 1-4. Showtimes: 8.30pm. Entry by a minimum donation of RM50. More info: 

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