It's hard to imagine Datuk Zainal Abidin feeling nervous about performing live.
The 63-year-old is set to headline a concert at Istana Budaya on Sept 30, commemorating his 40-year journey as a recording artiste – first as the lead singer of Headwind and then as a solo artiste.
Yet, here he is, telling StarLifestyle that he still has jitters before stepping on stage.
But, according to him, that’s a good thing.
“If you’re not nervous, that means you are overconfident and that’s never good. Being nervous means you are more aware of everything and you make sure you are truly prepared.
“If you think you are perfect, then that’s when you will start making mistakes on stage – you say the wrong thing, you forget your lyrics.
“So, being nervous is good.”
Zainal’s ability to have a positive outlook in life is perhaps something that comes from having so many scars in the past, starting just days after he was born on Nov 4, 1959, in Johor Baru.
The Hijau singer says that he was given away by his parents to his paternal grandparents when he was just three days old as his parents were just too poor.
Zainal was his parents’ fifth child; they went on to have five more children after Zainal.
For a few years, he was fine as his grandparents were loving folks. The problem started when they passed away.
“Grandparents, as you know, love their grandchildren more than their own children. When I went to that family, that’s when the jealousy started – my uncle and auntie felt I got more love than them, but they kept quiet then.
“After both my grandparents passed away, the mental and physical abuse started.
“I was about eight years old when I was beaten, bullied, everything. So, I ran away and moved from one family to another – some were relatives, some were neighbours.”
He recalls that he would earn his keep at these homes – working at what he could to get a plate of rice and some money to pay for school fees.
Going back to his parents was never an option as he didn’t want to burden them.
“That’s how it was for a while – in the morning, I’d go to school, then I’d work in a small store selling ice kacang or washing dishes. I was about 10 years old at that time.
“I did that until I was 12. Then I couldn’t do it anymore.
“I was an excellent student, but the only thing I couldn’t do was pursue my education because I had no money.”
Luckily, he had an innate interest in music, thanks to his paternal grandfather, who used to play in the orchestra during the British colonisation in Malaya, and maternal grandparents who were into traditional music like the keronchong and the ghazal.
Besides those different styles playing in his head all the time, Zainal also learned the trombone as part of the school’s brass band.
Along the way, he picked up other musical instruments too – “I learned to play drums and percussion by watching musicians” – and he started earning a living with music.
“So, I studied until I was 12 years old, then I became a street musician. I would play at parties, funfairs and even at clubs,” he says.
At 15, he would accompany Chinese funeral processions in Singapore, playing the trombone.
“I would walk the Johor-Singapore Causeway to a Chinese funeral parlour and wait there for a funeral to take place. At that age and being so poor, I prayed that there were more deaths within a day so I would get paid more.”
And yes, he did say he walked the Causeway.
“It is less than three-quarters of a mile (1km), it’s not far,” he adds, laughing.
“But for kids nowadays, you know, walking for 10 minutes is challenging. Having no air-conditioning is impossible. No Wi-Fi, and they die.”
The teen’s musical talents got noticed and, sometime in the late 1970s, Zainal was invited to either join M. Nasir’s group Kembara or a rock band named Headwind.
Zainal chose to go with Headwind as its trombonist.
“On New Year’s Eve of 1979, I travelled to KL with one pillow, one T-shirt, one sarong, two pairs of jeans, and I slept at (Masjid Jamek) Kampung Baru for four nights before I met someone who helped me (to get where I needed to go),” he says of his beginning.
As luck would have it, the minute he joined Headwind, the lead singer left.
The rest of the band members decided each one, including Zainal, would take turns to sing two songs as the band had to fulfill a three-month contract playing at a club.
Zainal proved to be the most popular singer of the group – and a star was born. But Zainal didn’t see it that way.
“I needed the money, and I was doing anything and everything that was asked of me. That’s how I got my start as a singer. I had no intention of becoming a singer.
“I wanted to be a musician. I still believe today, I am a musician and that my best instrument is my voice.”
Ten years after being the lead singer of Headwind, Zainal quit the band as he wanted to take his journey as an artiste further and in a slightly different direction.
For his solo act, he wanted to create a new genre of music based on the music he had heard as a child at his grandparents’ home – a fusion of Western style and traditional music.
“People call my music Afro-Asian, but for me there is no Afro-Asian, there is just Zainal.”
Some of the massive hits that fall under the “Zainal” genre include Hijau, Manis, Senang-Senang, Orak Arek and Ikhlas Tapi Jauh which gained him new local fans as well as international ones.
These titles and more are the tunes Zainal will be performing during his two-hour concert on Sept 30 called Tiba Masa ... Zainalabidin.
He says that he will be dividing the two hours into different eras of his musical career.
The first 30 to 45 minutes will solely be on Headwind songs like Suraya, Segalanya Mungkin and Hanya Di Radio, where Zainal will be joined by other Headwind members.
“Then we enter the 1990s era to the present, with just me, which will be another 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Then we move onwards ... where I will be singing new songs.”
One prominent new song is his single called Tiba Masa, which he says is a sort of a sequel of his evergreen number, Hijau, released 32 years ago.
“Hijau is a song advising listeners to take care of the environment ... some followed that advice, but many didn’t and Tiba Masa is the outcome of that.”
Zainal adds that Tiba Masa is an important song “as it carries a message that we need to listen with a very deep language”.
The lyrics for Tiba Masa are written by Mukhlis Nor, who also penned Hijau.
For Zainal, this new song reestablishes not only his seriousness as an artiste but also his ongoing battle to create awareness that we should take better care of our planet.
Besides using music to make his green message heard by the masses, Zainal also personally visits schools and kindergartens to talk about the environment with the youngsters in a way they could understand.
“I use my songs as my vehicle to reach them, because that is the best method, I feel. It’s a lot better than a politician, whom nobody wants to hear, going on stage and talking.”
While he says he has no favourite song – “I treat all my songs the same” – he hopes Hijau will live on as an anthem for the environment that every Malaysian child will sing in school, and every adult will remember to practise.
“The song is only getting stronger every day because of the current issue regarding the environment and sustainability.”
Flipping through his discography for the upcoming concert, and taking stock of his life, he says, has stirred up old memories.
He says what he went through – being poor, his parents not in the picture and being physically and mentally abused by his relatives – he carries all that with him.
That is why spending time with his family is his No.1 priority.
However, he admits at one point it could’ve all gone badly for him if it wasn’t for music.
“When you are desperate, you are willing to do anything. I had no money, no parents, no home and no education. Everything is self-taught. And I was a victim of abuse.
“When you have been through that much difficulty, you become a hard person and you tend to turn to crime.
“I had that urge, too. The dark side is always strong, so you have to be careful. But I stayed focused on my music, and kept on that path.”
Admitting it wasn’t easy to not be another number of a growing statistic, Zainal says he tries to stay positive no matter what, presently.
“But old songs do bring back the memories. Sometimes I do feel down when I hear an old song, I do feel sad because of what I’ve been through. They still stay with me.
“At the same time, I’m also happy because I made it and became a success story.
“If there is one piece of advice I’d give to the younger generation, it would be the importance of education,” says Zainal, who has been married twice and is a father of four. His two children with wife Datin Angelina Asmawi are studious types with no interest in a music career, he says.
“Yes, you can achieve success without education like me, but with much difficulty. You must have an education as it is the tool for you to reach success properly and safely.”
But he has no regrets, definitely not with being in the music industry where there are ups and downs as it has given him things he didn’t have as a child and more.
“I am a person who wakes up thinking of something positive. Even if there is a problem, I take it as a blessing in disguise.
“The word ‘cannot’ does not exist in my vocabulary ... there is always a way to solve a problem, there is always a way to achieve what you want.”
Tiba Masa ... Zainalabidin will be held at Panggung Sari, Istana Budaya on Sept 30. Tickets are available at ticket2u.com.my with prices ranging from RM169 to RM865.