Saturday, 2 February 2008

Mat Rock Asli Berwibawa

Off The Edge Magazine (The Edge)
June 2007


he Sultans of Swing, Piano Man, Guitar Man. These are songs about the musician, not the stadium filling super star, but the journeyman; the ones who barely eke out a living with their talents. The ones who only come alive when the sun goes down and the spot comes up; when the music takes over and the tedium of the daily drudge melt away beneath a power riff or a sweet chord change. This is another such story. It is about a band. It is not a famous band; I doubt you would have heard about them. But it is a story worth telling nonetheless because it is about passion, belief and mostly it is about music, real music. In this age of manufactured banality, where millions of people tune into hogwash such as Malaysian/American/Mongolian Idol and piffle like Akademi Fantasia, it becomes rare to hear music that reaches deep down your throat and rips your guts out. Music made by adults, sung by adults, for adults; thinking adults. So it is with relief and gratitude that you hear such sounds being played live.

This was how I felt when I first heard Blues Treats play. It was at an undergraduate do. A more inauspicious setting is harder to find. Usually at such functions, the students are so caught up with the fact that they had spent their meagre scholarship and loan money on dubious clothes and even more dubious hairstyles that they spend most of the time posing for pictures to preserve their new found glamour for eternity.

Sure enough this was what happened. Those of us old enough to have given up hope of looking beautiful were listening to the band, playing their hearts out whilst the majority of the audience seemed to not care. Then slowly something happened. The music caught on. The sheer drive and power of the sound were drawing their attention of the attention deficit students.

Young men and women, who were not even born yet when David Gilmour sang Roger Water’s anthem against oppression (with a backdrop of little oiks from the local school); who would not understand that Sweet Home Alabama was a raucous answer to Neil Young’s Southern Man; who might only vaguely remember the phenomenon that was Brothers In Arms, were suddenly clapping, cheering and appreciating the music.

It just bowled me (and I was not the only one) over. Pink Floyd, Lynard Skynard and Dire Straits being played by a Malaysian band? And more importantly being played damned well, with their own interpretations which took nothing away from the originals but added their own raw love for the songs. Why are these guys playing dinky little gigs like this? They were too good for this. There was an audience for this kind of music. I know I can’t be the only one with a pathological aversion to the fluff dribbling out of our radios and TV. I decided that I had to get to know this band and that is just what I did.

Rfizan Amjad Ali (yes, that is his real name), lead singer and rhythm guitar, was the founder of the band. What started out as Slow Train (a Dylan inspired name if ever there was one) in 1999, eventually evolved into Blues Treats. The only other member of the present line up who was there in the beginning was the bassist, Mohd Shahlan Dahalan (Shah). Over the years Mustaffa Ramly (Tapok), lead guitar, joined. With the usual comings and goings of band life, these three are what remains as the core of the group. Although without a full time (and the term is used loosely here, as everyone has day jobs) drummer, the band have been lucky to have excellent percussionists play with them. Purnama Booty, of the famously musical Booty family performs with them. So does Arul, who had tasted fame in the early nineties as the drummer for Lost Souls, the band that had a big hit with their rocked up cover of Bread’s Everything I Own.

Whatever image one might have as to what a rock band looks like, it won’t be these fellows who pop into your head. These are not young punks. Rfizan and Tapok are in their early forties and Shah is not far behind. Tapok’s small, round frame may fit his day job as an Actuary, and until he plays his Fender, it is unlikely that one would think he was once a sessionist for Sheila Majid and could claim that the riff in Zainal Abidin’s Ikhlas Tapi Jauh came from his note perfect six strings.

Shah’s quiet and respectful demeanour harkens to days of Kampung manners and is a far cry from the intense picture of closed eyed concentration that he displays either when performing or simply jamming in a dingy little studio on the outskirts of KL. Rfizan however shows a flamboyance that sits well as the front man of the band. His voice, a beast that sounds like Mark Knopfler on a forty a day habit, blasting incongruously from a puny frame.

These fellows all work in the day. They all have families to feed and they all sure as hell don’t look like Siti Norhaliza and Annuar Zain. It’s a vicious world the music industry. What would drive three non spring chickens to devote so much time and so much energy doing what they do? And perhaps more importantly doing what they want to do, resisting calls to play more contemporary tunes (“Can you play Linkin Park?”) and old chestnuts (“Can I request Hotel California?”); and rejecting outright advice to have a pretty young thing up front in order to pull the more leery punter.

Speaking to the band, the sense one gets is the belief that eventually quality will win through. Tapok’s obsession with achieving the right sound lends to his simple reasoning that “if it is original and good, people will accept it”. An optimist’s view gained perhaps from his years touring Australia with the Az-Men, playing biker bars with porno on the TV screens and facing down racist suspicion with the ability to simply play well.

Rfizan has a more grandiose sense of destiny. He is convinced that five years ago, they would have had no hope. But now he sees a resurging interest in the old stuff and believes that Blues Treats can ride that interest. He believes that they can open the minds of those who listen to them by exposing them to music and lyrics that have been buried by passing fads, but is lying under the surface, waiting for the “non stick wall paper” of musical trends to peel off revealing the truth beneath. And they will do so only on their terms, playing the kind of songs they want to play. As he puts it, “If I can’t feel a thing (for the music), why would I want to lie”.

So they wait for their break; the break which in their view would be a record deal where they can play their own sounds and a regular gig in a place where they can perform to an audience who are actually looking for music. In the meantime they jam every Friday night in D’Attap, a small restaurant in the Malay heartland of Keramat with a musically inclined owner. A more surreal setting is hard to imagine. Amidst the car wash places and your typical tom yam eateries, a medium sized thatch roofed joint wails to the sounds of Wish You Were Here, No Woman No Cry and blues staples like Dust My Blues, Hey Hey and I Can’t Hold Out.

They do get the occasional bigger gigs. Playing at the F1; holding their own and more at things like Factory Music Fest against younger and hipper bands. But it is still very much a rough and ready existence. Playing places like D’Attap does have its advantages though. They believe strongly in playing live to get a reaction and it can’t get more intimate then where they are. It also lends to a great groove when the audience get into it, giving the band the right kind of energy and buzz.

And the audience does get into it. Friday nights sees regulars turning up to watch the band. This is not your usual lounge scene where some guy with a keyboard is singing Celine Dion mush while drunken punters scream to be heard. People really listen to these guys. Sure there are some of us in the audience who are Flloydians or Dylan freaks, there to share the communal appreciation of the works of heroes. But the music and performance is too good for that. The appeal is more than just to a bunch of old hippies and rockers. You can see it in the rapt attention of the audience, sitting there with a plate of chips and a glass of teh tarik to keep the proprietor happy while they spend a few hours with the band.

But the intimacy does become bothersome like in the little episode that they related to me, where a big shot titled chap got his hangers on to ask if he can hit the skins. Being polite they said ok to find out that the big shot titled fellow plays like crap. Inciting Rfizan to spit, “If you want to play in a fun fair, go to the fun fair”. These guys take their music seriously. And it’s clear that although they have a small and loyal following, their situation is far from the big time.

Yet they keep on rocking. As to why they do, it is something that none of them can truly put a finger on. “I like to entertain” offers Shah, “It’s the playing”, says Tapok. But really it’s something much more intangible that drives them. An unintelligible need inside to do what you have to. No reasons, just the need. And it’s a powerful need. These men are taking a risk. A risk both economic and personal. It takes a strong belief to spend energy on an endeavour that, in a society where you are judged by the car you drive, does not have any immediate real economic returns. It takes guts to lay yourself out in the public eye. Not many of us will have the balls to take such risks in order to chase a dream. A dream which Rfizan says you just work on. If it happens it happens and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

This dream to make music had been in Rfizan’s head since third form when he was at the American inspired Mara Junior Science College in Kuantan. Incidentally, also the place where Tapok was, though he was a few years ahead. Perhaps it was the liberal philosophy of the school that nurtured such artistic longings. It was after all a school system where, horrors, they actually had compulsory music lessons where while tooting on the recorder students learnt basic note reading and the concept of timing and where the music teacher forces you to learn an instrument, put a group together and perform. Unheard of in this day when if it doesn’t lead to 13 As at the SPM, it isn’t worthwhile.

But it took many years before the first tentative steps for the fulfilment of this dream came about. Feeling that he was in a rut, Rfizan put a promising career in the tourist industry on hold and started the band; determined that his wish to express his type of music could be accepted. In that the group is fortunate that they have the same sort of tastes. Tapok honed his skills from sitting in his room in Australia for a year and listening to the likes of Hendrix and Gilmour. One months worth of formal music lessons was all he had, from a Dutch jazz guitarist, but it was enough to open his vistas to an entirely different level of guitar playing and for him to develop to the point that he was at one time a regular with RAP (moving up the ladder from night watchman and general flunky to sessionist). Shah too, admits to liking the kind of stuff from the era the two older members come from.

And so the beat goes on. The future is far from certain. Can they survive in a society so enamoured with the latest, shiniest, new thing? Is there room in the hearts of the paying Malaysian public for music that comes from the heart? There are no recording contracts on the horizon for example. Right now there is the just the talent, the courage, the integrity and the inexplicable “illness” of wanting to play the music they love. Are they going to “make it”? As I listen to them jamming, infusing P Ramlee’s Getaran Jiwa with a bite and edge which transcended its cloyingly sweet roots to something quietly gut wrenching, I can honestly say, I don’t know. But for the sake of music with soul, spirit and meaning, for the sake of those of us with a dream long dormant but just waiting to be released, I sure as hell hope that they do.

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