Penang – Motherland of Musicians

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As a small state, Penang is certainly not short of talent – perhaps it’s in the water we drink. It has produced many musical geniuses throughout the years – the great P. Ramlee instantly comes to mind, with his honeyed voice and silver screen charm; the legendary Alleycats are currently still active; and today, Bihzhu and Dasha Logan electrify the circuit. The list goes on…

But did you know that there are also many, many Penangites who have made waves – not just in the state, but all over Malaysia – as musicians, composers, producers, arrangers and musical directors?

These are but some of the names.

Tan Sri Ahmad Merican (left) with George Shearing.

1. Tan Sri Ahmad Merican

Tan Sri Ahmad Merican used to be a guitarist with a number of bands in Penang (Hawaiian Quins, Joe Rozells and The Hawaiian Palm Beach Boys, Three Fishermen, Rindu Malam Orchestra, and was also a member of Rhythm for 6 in KL). He was one of the pioneers of TV Malaysia (then known as Talivishen Malaysia) in 1963 and was also involved in setting up TV3, NTV7 and Metrovision. He composed one of Malaysia’s most recognisable songs, “Tanah Pusaka”, and was the first Malaysian to study music, sound broadcasting and production at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in 1959. He was made adviser to the College’s international advisory board for 10 years from 1960. He was also the first Malaysian to produce a jazz concert of Malayan songs at the John Hancock Hall in Boston, and has been dubbed by local print media as “Malaysia’s Grand Old Man of Broadcasting”.

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Nawab performing for GTF 2017 at Penang House of Music.

2. Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Nawab

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Nawab is a saxophonist who started with a police band in Kedah and then joined the Penang Municipal Band. He played with a number of bands in Penang and formed Orkes Juwita and Orkes Murni Mambo before moving down south to ply his trade in KL with different groups and in 1960 joined the RTM Orchestra. In 1975 Ahmad became a full-time composer, arranger and producer with EMI and in 1978 he joined WEA. Later, he started his own recording company, MRC, before establishing his own production company, Nawab Productions. He has composed over 2,000 songs; and almost 70 over singers in the region have recorded his songs. He gained recognition as the man behind “the making” of a number of Malaysian stars through composing and producing albums for artistes such as Sharifah Aini, Uji Rahid, Khatijah Ibrahim, Hail Amir, Datuk Shake, Ramlah Ram and Jamal Abdillah. Some of his compositions have been performed by regional singers such as Indonesians Broery Marantika and Hetty Koes Endang, and Hong Kong’s Frances Yip. He has been dubbed “The Lion of Malaysian Music” by local print media.

Jimmy Boyle at the piano.

3. Jimmy Boyle

A pianist, the late Jimmy Boyle led his own bands: Jimmy Boyle Trio, Jimmy Boyle Runnymede Swingtette, Jimmy Boyle Quintet and etc. He composed over 300 songs – some of which are still being played today, such as “Putera Puteri”, “Chendering”, “Jauh Jauh”, “Sungai Pahang” and “Gema Rembulan”. His songs have been recorded and sung by many local and international singers such as Netherlands-based Indonesian singers Sandra Reemer and Annekke Gronloh. His recordings have been heard over Voice of America and BBC. Some other songs he composed were the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) official song, RAAF school song, Penang state anthem and the 1st Malaysian Scout Jamboree song. A great advocate of Malay/Malayan music, Boyle had seven of his compositions played during the 1961 Radio Malaya recording of “Malam Irama Melayu” (An Evening of Malay Music) by a 45-piece orchestra playing Malayan songs in classical style. He is the only composer from Penang whose works have been selected as a contribution to the development of a national culture by the Malayan Arts Council (1961).

Datuk Ooi Eow Jin (right) with P. Ramlee (1965).

4. Datuk Ooi Eow Jin

Datuk Ooi Eow Jin is a piano, vibraphone and accordion player. He played with a few bands in Penang such as Robert Tan’s Roy Hits and the Jolly Amigos, and Albert Yeoh’s band at E&O hotel. He was the winner of Radio Malaya’s first National Tune writing contest in 1962 and was offered to join Radio Malaya Orchestra as pianist/arranger from 1963 to 1966 and later again as senior musician/arranger for RTM Orchestra from 1971 to 1984. He led the RTM Combo for a three-week tour of 21 army bases throughout the country with performers such as P. Ramlee, Saloma, Hamzah Dolmat, Kamariah Noor and others in 1965. He has composed, arranged and produced songs and albums for artistes such as Dahlan Zainuddin, Sudirman, Rafeah Buang, Jennifer Yen, Frances Yip, the Alleycats, Salamiah Hassan, M. Nasir and Frankie Cheah. He also composed and arranged music scores for the films Dia Ibu Ku, Ali Setan II and Hati Bukan Kristal. He won the 1983 Pesta Filem Malaysia’s Best Theme Music Award for composing and arranging the film score for Rantau Sepanjang Jalan. He was the first professional musician to be authorised by the Ministry of Education to teach music courses at the degree level.

Datuk Zainal Alam compering a Miss Malaya competition.

5. Datuk Zainal Alam

Datuk Zainal Alam was a singer who sang with bands such as Hawaiian Quins and Rindu Malam Orchestra. He was sent to study broadcasting at BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), All Indian Radio and Syracuse University in New York for TV Production. Zainal could converse in 12 languages and recorded more than 20 songs, some of which he wrote, such as “Susu Mambo”, “Durian”, “Malaya Merdeka”, “Bunga Malaya” and “Saloma”. The most famous songs that Zainal recorded was one he wrote for the first Malayan Elections “urging” the public to vote – “Everybody Vote” aka “Vote, Vote, Vote” and a cover of “Rose, Rose, I Love You”, which he sang in four languages (English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin). A natural comedian and an excellent mimic with a great personality and fantastic sense of humour, Zainal was dubbed “Malaya’s Minister of Mirth” by an Australian Cabinet minister. Among the many firsts Zainal did were: he conducted the first Toto draw; emceed the first Pesta Lagu; the 1st Asian Film Festival in KL; and the 1st Malayan International Beauty Pageant. Zainal also compered the Muhammad Ali versus Joe Bugner heavyweight boxing title fight at Stadium Negara in 1975.

Datuk Peter Pragas with daughter Jeanette at the piano.

6. Datuk Peter Pragas

Datuk Peter Pragas was a pianist who played with bands at City Lights, Wembley and also for a traveling Bangsawan troupe. He was the first music director of Radio Sabah in 1958. He also formed the Sabah Serenaders, Radio Sabah’s first local band. He initiated Radio Talentime competitions in Sabah in the 1960s. He composed many songs by fusing Sabahan and Western melodies and rhythms and among his more popular compositions were “Kasakazan Do Bambazon” and “Kanou Sumazau”, the signature tune for Radio Sabah’s Kadazan service. In 1978 he was acknowledged as the “Father of Sabah Modern Music” in recognition of his significant musical contribution documented in a biographical data of “Sabah’s Quarter Century of Songs” and in 1999 he was again acknowledged and reaffirmed as the “Father of Sabah Modern music” by Sabah Museum Officials with the National Day Celebration Exhibition.

Richard Hoon on the keyboards at the Penang House of Music for the An Evening with Richard Hoon and Friends programme.

7. Richard Hoon

Richard Hoon is a pianist, keyboardist and organist. He has played with bands at Noordin Street Café (later called Happy Café), and Captain’s Bar in Mandarin Hotel; and he formed his own trio as well. He was the winner of the 1st Malaysia Open Organ Festival in 1973 and studied music and arrangement in Japan. He later joined RTM Orchestra as pianist and arranger. Hoon has played and arranged many shows and recordings for local and international artistes such as Lee Yee, Elaine Kang and Frances Yip. He has recorded a number of instrumental albums for Million Records, Antelope Records and EMI. Hoon was with EMI and later Warner Music and Sun Recorders as an in-house producer.

Goh Boon Hoe.

8. Goh Boon Hoe

Goh Boon Hoe is a pianist and keyboardist who has played with New Faces, Discovery and Asiabeat. In the recording industry, Goh was the youngest in-house producer for EMI at 21 and in later years was an in-house producer for Sun Recorders and A&R Manager for ASP Records. He was also a music director for Anita Sarawak and Sudirman. A prolific artiste, Goh has recorded thousands of jingles; he has also written many songs for special occasions, such as the official ’89 SEA Games song (“Reach for the Sky”), KL Anniversary theme song 1990 (“Seratus Tahun Senyuman Mu”) and the official ’98 Commonwealth Games theme song (“Forever As One”). He has composed, arranged and produced albums for artistes such as Freedom, Frances Yip, Amy Mastura, DJ Dave, Jennifer Yen, Elaine Kang and Kathy Ibrahim.

The Alleycats (Khoo Fook Sin is second from right).

9. Khoo Fook Sin

Khoo Fook Sin is a pianist and keyboardist who has played with the Alleycats and D’Channel Band. He was a music arranger for RTM programmes as well as the inhouse composer, arranger and producer for Channel Eleven. He has composed, arranged, produced and played for a number of local and international albums, and was a music director for local and international shows.

Helen Yap (left) with Siti Nurhaliza (1999).

10. Helen Yap

Helen Yap is a pianist, keyboardist, composer, arranger, producer and musical director. She has composed, arranged and produced hit songs for artistes such as Siti Nurhaliza, Anuar Zain, Anita Sarawak, Shila Amzah, Ziana Zain, Jaclyn Victor, Sheila Majid, Noraniza Idris, Ning Baizura, Fauziah Latiff, Jay Jay, the Alleycats, Sarah Raisuddin and Amy Mastura; and also for Indonesian artistes such as Glen Fredly, Warna and Rida Sita Dewi. She has also been the music director for numerous artistes such as Sudirman, Harvey Malaiholo, Misha Omar, Erra Fazira, Nora, Siti Nurhaliza, Liza Hanim, Mas Idayu, Ziana Zain, Jay Jay, Ning Baizura,Fauziah Latiff, Ramlah Ram, M. Nasir, Sharifah Aini and Jessie Chung, among others. She was the music director and keyboardist for Shila Amzah’s concerts in Shanghai and KL in 2014-2018, and was a regular judge on Malaysian reality TV shows such as TV3’s Anugerah Juara Lagu, TV3’s Mentor, RTM’s Bintang RTM, Rentak Juara band competition, Anugerah Lagu Johor 2015 & 2016, and Ambank’s Got Talent. She composed the “We All Will” theme song for the 7th World Summit Media for Children 2014, as well as theme songs for the RTM 2016 morning talk show “Selamat Pagi Malaysia” and RTM 2016’s “All Berita Nasional” on RTM 1 News.

About Penang House of Music

The Penang House of Music started as a labour of love under the Penang Musical Heritage Project (PMHP), inaugurated by Capricorn Connection in 2007.

In line with the Penang state government’s aim and vision of establishing a heritage and creative arts city, the setting up of Penang House of Music on November 21, 2016, with a grant from Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang and the support of the former chief minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng, presented a strong and credible musical historical centre from which the older generations can enjoy a glimpse of the past, and where the young generation can draw inspiration.

The “heartbeat” of Penang House of Music, the Resource Centre, acts as a focal point for musicians, scholars, academicians, students and others interested in Penang’s and Malaysia’s musical history, while also creating a larger network of organisations to celebrate the state’s abundant heritage.

Penang House of Music is truly a celebration and acknowledgment of the work and achievements of past musicians with the hope of being a creative “home” for present and future musicians to congregate, share their journeys, and instil awareness, appreciation and pride for Malaysian music and musicians.

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