The body of work of the late Datuk Sudirman Arshad spanned only 13 years – from the release of his EP Teriring Doa in 1976 to his final studio album in 1989 – yet his songs are still played by Malaysians to commemorate various celebrations.
Balik Kampung, a melody about the excitement for the journey back to one's hometown has become the annual Hari Raya Aidilfitri anthem, despite it not being a Hari Raya song and Tanggal 31, a tune about the country's independence is played at almost every Merdeka Day celebration.
So massive is the impact of this cultural phenomenon that the country's theme for its 57th National Day in 2014 was Di sini Lahirnya Sebuah Cinta (A Love Is Born Here), a tribute to the first line of his patriotic number, Warisan.
Born in 1954 in Temerloh, Pahang and a product of urban migration – he came to Kuala Lumpur to read law in Universiti Malaya – Sudirman's career timeline coincided with the nation's modernisation years in the mid-1970s.
It was truly a time to reach for your dreams. And Sudirman did just that. He first attracted national attention when he won the Bintang RTM competition (a talent search show on TV) in 1976.
Through his songs, some penned by various composers, Sudirman managed to capture the different facets of these shifts in nation-building. His cumulative contribution made A Tribute To Sudirman concert, presented last Saturday by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) under the helm of conductor Ahmad Muriz Che Ros at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP), a fitting homage to one of the greatest entertainers Malaysia has ever seen.
Songs for the people
Despite his academic qualification, Sudirman's songs were never elitist. From the struggle of the average worker in the city to the idealism of rural living, they were real, realistic and easy to sing along to, which explained why, for most parts of the show, the audience sang along to upbeat numbers like Anak Gembala, Basikal Tua and 31 Ogos.
His songs resonated with so many everyday Malaysian things that it was impossible for them not to hit home at some point. It was perhaps unbeknown to vocalists Hazama and Arish Mikael that evening that the person who was responsible for the practice they sung in 8 ke 4 Suku (Punch Card) was in the crowd.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad came, along with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali. And one of the first things he did after he assumed premiership in 1981 was instituting the punch card system for civil service, practised until today.
Arish, born 11 years after Sudirman died and whose debut on a concert stage was at the DFP, had a voice similar to Sudirman's. His version of Hujan, and a medley of Apa Khabar Orang Kampung Sepetang Di Pinggir Bukit, Anak Gembala and Joget Kenangan Manis had the audience almost feeling that the late singer was belting them live on stage.
After the show, he said Sudirman's songs were a big part of his childhood. "I listened to them, imitated his voice and eventually realised that I sounded a bit like him,"
Novelty and nostalgia
A street busker from Muar, Johor, Arish's Sudirman interpretation started out as something fun but he said "it now feels like a big responsibility the more he knows how important Sudirman is to so many Malaysians."
On the hipster dancefloor today, Sudirman's songs are also a big part of the Disko Santan Soundsystem, a Klang Valley-based deejay collective which specialises in spinning rare groove Malay 1970s and 80s numbers during their gigs.
Importantly, MPO conductor Ahmad Muriz says Sudirman was a rare gem whose works could easily transcend decades.
"He sang about the average person; that orang biasa/ basikal tua (average person/ old bicycle) line in Basikal Tua affirms that his pulse and storytelling is about the people," he said.
But singer Liza Aziz, who also sang at the MPO concert, shed tears for her dear friend and collaborator.
"Sudirman wasn't well for some time, but when he got up on stage, he would look fit as a fiddle,"
She said she saw him two days before he was hospitalised and understood that it could be their last meeting. Sudirman's demise in 1992 at 37 left his fans void of a definitive Malaysian voice that could instantly unite everyone.
Thankfully, his songbook remains a diverse - and all-embracing - one that continues to appeal to all Malaysians.
Be it on the grand DFP stage or a simple gathering at home with friends, we can always go back to his songs at any time.
And for that, Sudirman will always live.