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IN SPITE OF ITS POPULARITY – REGGAE STILL STRUGGLES IN MALAYSIA!

Reggae music radiates positivity, but Malaysian bands have a tough job spreading the love.

IT has soul, it has a message and it has character. Yet reggae music in Malaysia remains one of the most under-exposed types of music and doesn’t quite generate enough buzz to appeal to a large audience.

When asked if reggae gets a lot of support, veteran reggae musician Poe (formerly of the band Nonama) tells a fascinating story.

“My band was the first to perform (reggae) back in the 1980s, a time when there were followers,” says Poe as he gives us a “walkthrough” of his humble beginnings when reggae broke into the Malaysian scene. “We were still greenhorns then, and I remember our first concerts in Pasir Gudang, Johor, and Penang, both of which elicited good response.”

 

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In the groove: The late Bob Marley in one of his final concerts at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Over the years, the number of reggae bands may have increased – there are more than 20 in the country now – but the margin of growth has not been that significant. Poe says people who really listened to reggae at that time were mostly sailors, or those from abroad who were familiar with this music.

“For me, reggae isn’t just another music style; one needs to understand the context. When I first listened to Bob Marley, I found the messages in his lyrics interesting.

“Of course, Marley wasn’t doing exactly reggae when he first started out. But when he shifted into (reggae), it was all about the message, the philosophies he championed while the rhythm and beats are easy to listen to, with a relaxing, almost hypnotic feel,” says Poe, who formed another band called Retired Stoner two years ago.

How exactly do reggae bands in Malaysia survive if they do not get airplay, aren’t signed by record labels, and don’t have regular live showcases? Poe recollects a time when a recording company was hesitant to release his first album made up initially of all reggae compositions. In fact, he had to mix the album up before it could be released. Three months into its release, the album was banned because a particular song was deemed “radical”.

“There are still places that will invite us over to play gigs and we do have our own following,” Poe says.

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Getting hairy: Aru demonstrating how he can effortlessly tie and bundle up his dreadlocks in just under 20 seconds!

“But it doesn’t help that reggae is also associated negatively with weed (ganja).

“The criticism leveled at us is that, those who are part of the Rasta circle (a spiritual movement that partly spread its wings through reggae music), must be getting stoned. So just because the late Marley was himself a Rasta and smoked weed, we are also, likewise, associated.

“But I think it’s unfair to relate weed to music. People should go to clubs and see what’s happening inside when no reggae is played at all!”

He says there are also many more ska bands emerging these days, a music that is a precursor to reggae, which also originates from Jamaica. There is a thin line separating ska and reggae, but they are distinctly exclusive by their beats and tempo.

 

Republic Of Brickfields

Lead singer Aru of reggae band Republic Of Brickfields wasn’t bothered by the lack of label interest. “I didn’t write music just to be famous, and I would rather have a pool of purists who love listening to our songs than a mass who doesn’t,” says Aru, 47, who is proud to have dreadlocks that have grown down the length of his legs.

He demonstrated how he can perfectly curl and tie up those thick locks in under 20 seconds! In the 17 years he has kept his hair like that, he confesses regretting that one time he had it cut.

“Reggae bands have to be prepared to work hard and promote themselves,” he says. “When I first started out, I only wrote a few original tracks and was doing mostly cover versions from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. It was like a fun pursuit as I was dabbling more actively with my metal outfit then.”

Republic Of Brickfields has since come a long way, releasing one full album, one live album and a couple of compilations. Where he previously sang in English, Aru decided to go back to his roots by releasing his first full-length Bahasa Malaysia album in 2006.

His advice to younger, upcoming reggae bands is that they need to write their own stuff and not sing existing material.

“Reggae is a lot about expressing what you want to say, doing it in your own style and not following the sounds of someone else,” says Aru, adding that he was hooked to (Bob) Marley’s records the first time he heard one in 1978, thanks largely to his uncle’s collection of vinyl records. “His lyrics were rebellious, mellow and deep when he subtly touched on issues like oppression.”

When the Kuala Lumpur reggae scene isn’t being very encouraging, Aru turns to the Rahsia bar he co-owns in Pantai Tengah, Langkawi, replete with a Caribbean-like feel of sun, sea, beach and tourists who may appreciate reggae music a little better.

Pure Vibration

This sentiment is echoed by the members of the band PureVibracion, which is based on the island. PureVibracion’s Joe says that today, Langkawi is a vibrant tourist hub where travellers are always up for some reggae music to chill out to.

“We may be of different cultures and background but this same music has connected us in a positive way. It is our hope that KL can one day have this appreciation for reggae music,” he says in an e-mail interview. He adds that travellers have helped spread the good word when they returned to their home countries, while a Facebook page has been set up to keep in touch with the band’s fan base.

Joe considers reggae still fairly new in Malaysia, and he says that PureVibracion hopes to spread goodness in a world that sometimes loses its focus. “Our songs aim to bring attention to global issues like war and poverty, with the hope of extending love, building unity, peace and respect.

“In fact, the origins of reggae could be traced back to times of slavery and colonialism, when people needed to vent their frustration and uplift their spirits.

“The crux is not just about music being made, but about the people, the culture and attitude – just a way of life, really. The soul is free to choose which music it loves to listen to, but if your soul is free from hate and jealousy, reggae will come to you naturally,” says Joe.

The group has been around since 2002, playing its first gig in Emporium KL before recording two songs,Pesan Nenek and Gimme Love, for the Death Star Records compilation album, Journeyman, released in 2005. PureVibracion was officially appointed as ambassador to Peace Malaysia in 2006, sold out several shows in Malaysia and South-East Asia, and secured a deal with local indie record label Laguna Music, which saw the recording of its debut album, Love & Peace.

Rootstalk

The band Rootstalk laments the fact that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

“It’s hard to go far in Malaysia with reggae. The payment (for performances) isn’t great, but we know this is what we love to do, so there’s no turning back. We’ll even perform for free if people are willing to listen!” says band member Apix, 32.

The band performs all over the country during weekends, while weekdays are mainly reserved for the members to write new material, brainstorm and shoot videos.

Reggae also wasn’t exactly Apix’s first foray into music; he was playing metal in his heyday, but decided that he needed to slow down soon after.

The band started in early 2009, but it wasn’t until last year that Rootstalk’s line-up stayed constant, with seven regular members now. They have since recorded singles and an EP entitled Memoir Rasta and are looking to release a full album. Band member Ery Zubir says promo and publicity for them are mostly done via Facebook and with the help of the Malaysian Reggae Community.

And the Malaysian Reggae Community knows too well that as the collective voice representing reggae music in Malaysia, it must be seen as helping reggae and its bands tap into listeners of the music. One of its efforts is pledging support towards the One Love Reggae Fest, organised by Freestone Production and which debuted last year. Festival organiser Zamry says this year’s edition will be held on Aug 25 at Ovo Club in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, and tickets will be sold to the first 1,000 people.

“We had a crowd turnout of 600 last year. This time, there will be 22 bands performing for 12 hours between noon and midnight, as a platform of sorts to give potentially very good reggae bands a chance to showcase themselves.

“In neighbouring countries, it’s common to have such fests, which are huge tourist magnets. The scene here may be growing but the level is still not there, and bands don’t usually receive support.

“Malaysians know who Bob Marley is, but that aside, the majority of them don’t know what reggae music (is),” says Zamry, 27, who has organised events for reggae bands. The entrance fee to the fest is RM35, with a pre-sale of tickets at RM30 until mid August.

Poe adds that he is in the midst of preparing a proposal for the Reggae Sunsplash KL edition in May next year. The Sunsplash festival began in Jamaica but has today branched out to different parts of the world, with themes like Reggae In The Desert and Reggae In The Mountain.

It has become an international tourist event even in places like Thailand and Indonesia, something Poe hopes could be emulated in Malaysia, if permits are approved.

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