WHILE listening to and admiring how the musicians as young as twelve years old handled their instruments – violin and piano – with such dexterity, memories of long ago kept on interfering with my concentration.
This happened during the musical presentation at the Tun Ahmad Zaidi Auditorium last month. How I wished I had the opportunity to learn how to fiddle – a wish unfulfilled and one not likely to materialize at this late hour.
Musicians from outfits such as The Talent Masters, Classic Conservatory Music and Avant Guarde Academy had showcased new talents, especially the young ones.
I am no musician but know how to tell the difference between a melodious sound from a din made by metal. The sound produced by the above group was music, though different from that I used to hear some sixty years ago in the villages.
In my village, boys manufactured Ukelele out of soft wood (Plaie) and for the strings they used thick cotton thread (ubong or benang besai) or thin wire. I had one made and played it together with friends during school holidays. More or less in tune, we weren’t fussy! There was only one violinist in the village, Stunggang. An old sailor, Yugo Junit Anak Temaga, was in great demand whenever there was a Begendang (Malay Joget session). He would perch on a chair and fiddle away all night long. From time to time he would stop to rub the bow with kelasau (resin). I can’t explain what good did it do to the violin but we all accepted that he had to take a short break every now and then and swipe his bow with the stuff.
Of course, it was not Vivaldi or Chopin that Uncle Junit was playing for us on his violin; it was Labuan Pulau Di Laut or Serampang 12 or Terang Bulan. Years later, with modification, the Terang Bulan became the Negara Ku.
During Japanese Occupation (1941-1945), the villagers had escaped upriver and felled the virgin jungle for rice farms and that was the end of the musical life of the village. When Uncle Junit passed away, the musical enthusiasts went their separate ways – some joined the Police band. For example, Joshua Angie who eventually became the Director of Music in the Police is a good example. Others pursued other occupations away from the village.
After the war, church activities resumed. Hymns were sung in Malay but Begendang petered out as many village girls wanted to go to school and did not have much interest in becoming seh gendang (drummers and pantun experts). The old ones got older.
Anything akin to music was the Sha’er, a story told in song and rhyme. It kept our interest in music alive. My daddy used to recite one on Yunan to the boys; we often fell asleep near his feet while the old man kept on sha’ering himself hoarse. We had no idea what or where Yunan was, but the sha’er had a therapeutic effect us; we had had long hours on the farm all day and sleep was no problem.
In 1949, I continued primary education at Lundu town. The old prison was converted into our class room which doubled as the concert ‘hall’. The District Officer, Abang Haji Adenan, dubbed it the Sekolah Bumiputra, probably the first school in Sarawak given that name.
Many afternoons and week ends were spent on rehearsals under the DO’s supervision. We boys learnt how to memorise Chinese and Indonesian songs, the girls learnt how to dance. Life revolved around concerts, as often as the DO wished them held, at the slightest excuse – the Queen’s Birthday, or the Governor’s, a Regatta or even a transfer of government official from the district.
Sekolah Bumiputra was a happy place to be in the 50s – full of cultural activities. A guitarist from Sambas, one BujangTonel taught us Indonesian songs. Bola, another Indonesian, was a comedian; both were great assets to the school. Che’gu Nusi Haji Ahmad was a good teacher but when he was performing as a comedian in the concert he was witty, not just humorous; in class he was really strict!
Road show at Sematan
We went to Sematan on a ‘road show’ during the school holidays by boat! There was no road to the seaside town then.
There was no Chinese student in the Bumiputra School concert party that went to Sematan and the DO wanted somebody to sing in Mandarin. Believe it or not, I was assigned by him to sing ‘Ni Chien Mei Li’ which I sang with gusto. I tried my best to do justice to the task, though I must admit I did not know what the song was all about.
Bangsawan (Travelling theatre)
The Bangsawan provided the locals the chance to hear songs from Malaya. More important was an opportunity to see live on stage famous actresses like Siput Sarawak and Normadiah or to talk to Dollah Sarawak who gave us boys tips on singing.
“Voice control very important,” he advised.
Some local personalities were addicted to Bangsawan; one towkay fell in love with one of the actresses, scandal of the town. He would throw coins on to the stage from time to time to show off his wealth (profits from rubber sales).
I remember the troupe staged Ali Baba And Forty Thieves and Laila Majnun. I could not make out where or how the forty ceramic jars, full of thieves, came from as there was no pottery around. They were made of bottomless paper boxes but when painted they looked exactly like earthen jars.
Music on the radio
When Radio Sarawak started broadcasting in 1950s we got news and music via BBC and Radio Malaya, on a blue ‘corned beef’ radio set because it looked like a meat conserve tin.
To listen to your favourite songs you had to put in a request in writing, and wait for the week end when names of people requesting for songs would be on the air. Songs were dedicated to girl friends or relatives. The Saturday’s programme was always popular with listeners.
Pat Boone’s “Love Letters In The Sand”, Harry Balafonte’s “Island In the Sun”
And Connie Francis’ “ Never On Sunday” were among the most popular. These few I still remember; there were many others whose titles and wording I have totally forgotten.
For live music
I migrated to Kuching in 1952 and no time made friends with the boys from the police barracks at Badruddin Road.
As short distance via Jalan Nagor, we would all walk to any concert organised by MBHT, a club promoting Malay songs and music and the theatrical arts. There venue was at Haji Taha Road, a perfect rendezvous for people of similar interests.
Well-heeled Kuchingites patronised the Aurora Hotel (where the present Merdeka Hotel is) to hear Abang Khaidir at the piano. Sometimes, they could also hear Lancelot Adam on his saxophone in accompaniment. Great musicians, these two.
As there were no Karaoke lounges or night clubs, life for ordinary Kuching folk in the 50s was quite simple. On Sunday afternoons (weather permitting) the police band would be performing in the Museum Garden.
Can’t turn the clock back
As the good old days are over and the type of clock that can turn time back has not been invited, we have to make do with what is there in the market – the Karaoke (Empty Orchestra) and occasional heavy metal on the Waterfront.
But to get to the shows at the Waterfront one has to make a real effort to find space on which to park the car.
There are other sources of amusement or entertainment today; nobody has to bicycle down to the Museum Garden to hear a bit of live music.
The TV has taken over, and all the mobile music contraptions our young friends are wired to.
I can sit in my favourite armchair and listen to the Keronchong on tapes which I bought in Solo, Surakarta, in 1979. Thoughts of events long time passing, interspersed with music, melodious one – what a therapy!