We always knew Sabah and Sarawak were states brimming with talented musicians — but it’s not always easy to make it big out west.
MALAYSIA’s pop culture seems to made up mainly of us Semenanjung folk.
The west side of the nation gets to call most of the shots, despite the massive stock of talent in Sabah and Sarawak.
Bands hoping to make it have always had to make the pilgrimage to big city Kuala Lumpur and operate on the terms dictated by west Malaysia.
Of course, we all know how this ends up: the same faces on stage and in the audience, limited venues, and not enough concert opportunities to go around. The more hip your fan base is, the more airplay you are likely to get.
Thankfully, the divide is narrowing. There are newer artists entering the peninsula Malaysia music scene from Sabah and Sarawak, steadily proving what we all always knew but just did not want to accept: damn, those guys can sing!
We know our insanely talented Zee Avis and Mia Palencias, you will recognise Jason Lo on the street (bet you didn’t know he was Sarawakian), and who has not heard of Sabah-born Pete Teo?
But since it is Malaysia Day, and the nation is 50 years old in its truest, rightest form, maybe we should also pay some tribute to the old-time legends of east Malaysia who worked tirelessly to create a musical sound that would inspire young hopefuls.
One such pop legend is Sabahan Peter Dicky Lee, a name that bears no introducing if you are from a certain generation.
This evergreen singer is best known for his song Kau, kau, kau (or Iziau, iziau, iziau in the Kadazan version); which has staying power that even Queen would envy.
“Once, there was a family which approached me to tell me how much they liked Kau, kau kau – this was quite recently, a grandmother, her daughter and her grandson.
They came up to me and told me how much they loved it – and the song is about 20 years old, mind you! The woman told me oh, my mum loves your song, I also love it, my son also loves it – I was like ‘wow’.”
Lee, who steadfastly refuses to divulge his age but happily admits that he is “a dinosaur, or at least close to being extinct,” has continued his musical career, this time also taking on the mantle of mentor.
He is a judge on Sabah Idol and is working on creating Sabah’s Got Talent, an avenue for young Sabahans to make a name for themselves.
“In the case of Sabah Idol, it’s hard for a talented singer to leave their small town, maybe go to Kota Kinabalu or KL. Money’s an issue, travel’s an issue – Sabah Idol will go to them,” he said, adding that he and his team went to areas like Tawau or Kudat in search of the next big voice.
Born in a poor family in Tuaran, Lee’s Dusun mother used to sell daun sirih (betel leaves) and other such “typical Dusun products”. His father was a retired school principal who sang in a one-man church choir.
Lee says he got his voice from his father and his values from his hardworking mother, who managed to feed and educate nine children.
“I always had to wear hand-me-downs. She had nine of us! There wasn’t Astro then, you know, what else is there to do,” he joked, adding that he had recently won an award for his touching song Mama, dedicated to his late mother.
Able to sing in Kadazandusun, Malay, English and Mandarin, Lee‘s career spanned many successful decades.
However, despite claims of age – “I am old. My contemporaries, some are already dead.” – he remains active in the music scene, even remixing Kau, kau, kau with an R&B flavour for a successful re-release.
For Lee, it’s a shame that so much east Malaysian music goes overlooked.
“Although the situation has improved, it’s still a shame we aren’t being given a chance outside the state. Honestly, there’s talent just walking down the street here, waiting to be discovered.”
Sabahan fingerpicking guitar ace Roger Wang also feels that the live music culture in Sabah has clearly improved in recent times, despite being in the doldrums through the 80s and 90s due to the predominance of chart-driven dance and pop music.
“When I was growing up, the only live music scene around was based on Malay rock music and classical music from music schools. Karaoke was the big thing. My teenage friends were more interested in forming dance groups instead of bands. I had to join groups with older musicians, those who were active in the 60s and 70s when live music was one of the most popular forms of entertainment,” Sino-Kadazan Wang explained.
According to him, the 1990s seemed barren from a band standpoint, but improved in the latter half of the decade.
“By the mid 90s, band-oriented music was making its way back into the charts again. It was something youths could relate to and wasn’t too difficult to get started on. But it’s only now that we are really seeing the impact of that change.”
Joanna Funk, author of SabahSongs: Contemporary Music in Sabah (published by Opus Publications), notes that Sabah has a very musical population.
In an online interview, she related how struck she was by “the wealth of natural talent among Sabahans”.
“Sabah is very multicultural, and the mix of music and cultural diversity has tended to create new musical possibilities.
“Datuk Peter Pragas was Director of Music from 1957 to 1980 for what was then Radio Sabah. During that time he started the Radio Talentime competitions to discover local talent, and he created a type of fusion music using instruments local to Sabah.
Peter joined the sounds of the bungkau (jaw harp), suling (bamboo flute), sompoton (a mouth organ made of bamboo pipes and a dried gourd) and others with those of western instruments. His composition Kanou Sumazau (Let’s Dance) became the signature tune for Radio Sabah’s Kadazan service for almost 40 years. I believe these days RTM Sabah has Kadazan, Dusun, Bajau and Murut programmes!”
Sarawakian Jason Lo thinks the main difference between east and west Malaysia is the opportunities available to musicians.
“We severely lack platforms and support from authorities and ministries. It was even hard for the Rainforest Festival to acquire funding since its inception 10 years ago, so can you imagine what the scene is like?” Lo asks.
“Having said that, many artistes are now using the Internet to get their music across the water,” he admitted.
Lo thinks there is much more angst and heavier music in East Malaysia, due to artistes there being out of the commercial scene’s orbit.
“The music is moodier or more cynical, in my opinion. But that is where the best writing comes from, being in places of hopelessness, without opportunity. It’s not as much about the fame for East Malaysians, I think.”
Singer Dayang Nurfaizah Awang Dowty, who is better known as Dayang Nurfaizah among fans and the music fraternity, is one Sarawakian who made it big after moving to Kuala Lumpur.
“I decided to move to KL because I wanted to expand my singing career,” recalled the Kuching-born lass who took part in a Bintang Kechil competition at age 12 and later went on to represent Kuching in the Golden Teen Search competition in 1996 and 1997.
Second time around, Dayang won first prize with her rendition of Whitney Houston’s You Were Love.
“Don’t get me wrong, the music scene in Sarawak is so vibrant as every ethnic group has its own music scene. There are so many ethnics groups in Sarawak such as Bidayuh, Iban, Melanau and Kelabit. It is just so vibrant, I tell you!
“Every time I return to Kuching to visit my family, there is always a new album being released into the market. It is just so “happening!” - but not for the Malay market though. That’s the reason why I moved to Kuala Lumpur,” said Dayang, who has several well-received albums to her name, including Seandainya Masih Ada Cinta (2001) and Dayang 2007 (2007).
Tawau-born Pete Teo is careful to note that being East Malaysian in one’s music is not a conscious decision.
“I don’t sit down and consciously try to write a song that sounds Sabahan, because that’s contrived and it will sound false. Music isn’t something that can be intellectually shaped.”
Teo, who sings mostly in English, scored a solid fan base in Sabah after Jesselton Tonight off the album Rustic Living For Urbanites. Haunting and a hosanna in its own right, Teo says the song is a wry nod to how Sabah had transformed from its idyllic appearance in his youth.
“I was on the plane back to Sabah, I hadn’t been back for nearly a decade. I looked out and it was just so different,” he says, adding that Jesselton Tonight was a song written “in memory of Sabah’s innocence”.
This is alluded to at the end of the song, where he asks the listener in his husky voice, “would you fall in love in Jesselton, ‘ere days of burn baby burn”.
Teo, who is behind a unique Malaysia Day song-and-video tribute entitled Hari Malaysia, also has no compunctions about bluntly admitting that East Malaysia is just that much more musical compared to the rest of the country.
“It’s an aspect of the culture – more sensual, curvier in some ways.”
If there is any truth to this, then it’s well worth noting that Sarawak produces more than its fair share of rock, punk and metal – think Love/Comes, Telebury and The Rudeboys – providing the perfect foil for Sabah’s lovelorn crooners.
The harbinger of modern Sarawakian indie rock is, of course, Nicestupidplayground, a band that is still going strong since its inception in 1992.
Nicestupidplayground hit the big time in 1997, when their hit song Bedroom Window off the album Boys & Girls 1+1=3 featured in Wayne Wang’s film Chinese Box, starring Jeremy Irons and Gong Li.
And fans, rejoice! Bassist John Boniface has revealed that the band are hard at work on an album which they “hope to release soon”.
John, who turns 40 this year, acknowledges that Nicestupidplayground are one of the few bands who have made it big across the pond.
“We are more popular in West Malaysia, actually, although we have a great fan base in Sarawak. I think that a lot of Sarawakian bands don’t make it in West Malaysia due to a lack of marketing.”
Incredibly talented rocker Melina Williams of band Tempered Mental hails from Kuching, and agrees that it’s a matter of positioning and marketing.
“There are more opportunities and venues in KL. There are bands from East Malaysia who have done extremely well, like OAG and Hujan. The bands who are serious will make the move.”
In two states that are individually a far cry from each other despite proximity; there’s an untapped wellspring of potential – and it is a shame that the only thing stopping West Malaysians from enjoying it is logistics.
But this Malaysia Day, let’s try our best to stop the interstate rivalry – it may seem cool for PJ residents to hate on KL, for Ipohmali to find Johoreans unappealing, for everyone else to diss our islanders (sorry Penang, we’re just jealous of your food), for everyone to make Sabah-no-Internet and Sarawak-no-electricity jokes – but it’s really not.
What’s cool would be digging up an old Justin Stimol cassette and listening to it with your grandmother, revisiting a Nicestupidplayground album and reliving your teenage angst, checking out Dayang Norfaizah’s latest record with your friends – and realising that it’s music, more than anything else, which unites us.
Musicians we’ve missed
There are many talented East Malaysian musicians who have brightened the world with their songs and virtuosity.
- Sape virtuoso Jery Kamit
- Noh Salleh of band Hujan
- Owen Nicholas
- Radhi of OAG
- The late Ukung Mering
- the late John Gaisah
- Abu Bakar Ellah @ Ampal
- Jimmy Palikat, of the Anak Kampung fame
- Stacy, of Akademi Fantasia fame
- Clarice John Matha
- Nikki Palikat
Playing for the flag
A beautiful Malaysia
Malaysia celebrates its golden jubilee
Historic decision that made a nation
When Singapore and Malaysia were one
As old as the nation
A time of statesmen not politicians
Distance does not make us fonder