“Korupsi, Oppressi, Obsessi diri…
Polussi, Depressi, Di bumi, Kini…”

If I haven’t bungled it, verse typically flows into chorus, before building dramatically into bridge, finally fading to coda. So I’ll call this bit of Hijau the pre-bridge, before Zainal Abidin launches into the percussion backed bahaso Kelate chorus everyone wishes they could vocalise. What you have to do is sing it aloud like you’re the only person in the room. Just let it rip right out of your lungs and soul. There isn’t a single rankling millennial in our readership, so I know you know the tune. Don’t forget that little up-sweep at the end… obsesiii… diri.
If you’re doing it right and making enough love on the weekends, a groove begins to take over every iota of your being. Your body can’t help but move to songs like Hijau, written by Mukhlis Nor  and made eternal by Zainal. It’s one of the splendid mysteries of life that we’re the only animals to enjoy music induced dopamine responses. Sure we understand the harmony of chords and arrangements and the rhythmic allure of tribal drums. But the heart of a song is an enigma. It jogs memories and reaches into our experiences, morphing into something intensely personal. No other form of artistic impression leaves an audience overwhelmingly claiming it as ‘their own’. Think of the ballad that accompanied your walk down the aisle, the choral tunes at your father’s funeral, or any song that had you questioning how love hurts. You catch my drift.

Remarkably, these prodigious verses are more relevant today than they were a quarter of a century ago. They evoke ever stronger ideas about justice and fairness, the stewardship of nature  and therefore  ourselves, and the prescient nature of Zainal’s artistic mind. Or maybe we’ve all grown up and seen the dog eat dog nature of the world. Still, only optimistic types get enough love on the weekends. We shot him several weeks back and he proved to be the seasoned professional of a production crews’ dreams . Arriving early, posing for shots candidly, plus as stupefying as it may seem, here’s a local celebrity who hasn’t heard of his own legend. Arguably one of the greatest Malaysian musicians with the most universal appeal, he remains conscientious about how he can make our jobs easier, preferring to focus his energy on the people around him. We tell him there’s going to be make-up and delicately, if he doesn’t mind, a hair-piece to spice things up. Do your worst he says.

As people fuss, powder, tweeze and twirl, I wonder what he thinks of the entertainment industry. While they have the renown, Malaysian musicians still don’t have it easy. Like a mountain top sage, he says, “The entertainment business is like a goldmine. But it takes a lot of effort to make a name. Today everyone is into selling faces instead of talent. The term ‘artist’ has  lost  its  meaning. Being an artist is not about popularity, it’s about being genuinely exceptional at
your art form.”

“There are a lot of gifted musicians. Not many are able to make a living.” I retort. “One achievement I’m proud of is teaching myself to speak English. I come from the kampungand I didn’t
even go to school. I still don’t know grammar, but I try my best to learn from friends and from my beautiful wife. When I speak in English, on stage or with friends, it doesn’t matter if I get it wrong. What matters is my sincerity.  People recognise and appreciate sincerity. That’s what musicians today should be striving for.  Sincerity. That’s how they’ll make it in this business,”
he says.

The proof is in the pudding. In July last year, Zainal was invited to the Roman Forum, a priceless ancient ruin and venue of Music for Mercy. Performing among the likes of
David Foster, Andrea Bocelli, British singer Elaine Page and Syrian jazz clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. “It was an honour to share the stage with them. When I performed Hijau, many were surprised and impressed I was singing about environmental protection so long ago. Hijaucame about because I missed my kampung. There were fruits and rivers to catch fish. If you were hungry, you didn’t need money to survive.”

You may not know this, but Zainal’s father was also a musician and a jazz vocalist who performed for the British and Japanese armies of that era. His mother was equally inclined as a famed ghazal performer in Johor  Bahru at the time. Born on November 4, 1959, some are surprised to find he’s Johorean by birth. So where does that Kelate dialect fit into the narrative? He explains in an unrelated interview, “We wanted it to be a Malaysian song, to portray that we are multiracial and have many dialects. We actually tried different languages and
dialects. We tried Tamil, Cantonese, Mandarin, Negeri Sembilan dialect, Perak dialect… But none of it gelled nicely,” he said. “But when we used the Kelantanese dialect, it gave an ‘aroma’ to the song, it was more soothing and unique.” It didn’t matter that his Kelantanese was mispronounced and accented incorrectly despite the help of a language expert from University of Malaya. Producers and musicians working on the song felt it was a good fit rhythmically, especially with Zainal’s distinctive  delivery. If he’d gone back to grammatical rules, following instructions on  tempo and dynamics, his career would probably have lasted several years. But Zainal did what the best musicians do, expanding beyond notation and interpreting sounds and styles best suit the song. That’s why his career has instead lasted over 35 years.

To celebrate this milestone, a concert has been scheduled. Titled, The Musical Journey of Zainal Abidin—35th Anniversary Concert,it is to be held at the Plenary Hall of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre this February 25. “The idea was mooted six years ago. But I wasn’t 100 percent keen. When some friends heard about it, they jumped and responded very positively. They convinced me it was an excellent idea,” he tells me between photographs. You’ll be surprised to know though, his first paying gig was playing the trombone at age 15, accompanying Chinese funeral  processions. He earned the not-so-princely sum of RM5 per funeral. He moved on to various music roles and eventually caught the eye of industry players who were looking for someone to handle vocal duties for a new band called Headwind. This was 1983. He packed his bags, headed for Kuala Lumpur and the rest, as they say, is resigned to history.

I ask what the future holds for him. “If financials are strong, I might record one last international album. That depends on a lot of factors. Right now, I’m just focusing on the concert. And also working out, I’m doing a lot of cardio and cycling, just to make sure I can handle a full length concert!” he laughs. I think I understand. But I tell him, at 57 years of age, Zainal doesn’t seem like he’s aged. “The years are really getting on now, and this may be my last big concert. That said, I really hope a lot of folks come out for the concert. I’d like to take this time to invite all my friends and family in the music industry, all my fans who’ve supported me these many years. It’s going to be a trip down memory lane both for myself and for the audience,” he says with a warm smile.

For his February show, the old band is coming back as headliners. “When I met up with the boys, the first thing I asked was whether everyone felt healthy. It’s always good to know if someone needs an ambulance in advance,” he says with a laugh. Concert-goers will be in for a rare treat. The song list will first include Headwind classics like Suraya, Di Sini Segalanya and Bisikkan Mu. Then a 20-minute intermission for the Zainal Abidin band to set up, before he comes back on with Orak Arek, Puteri, Ikhlas Tapi Jauhand Damai IV. Then a five-minute break for another set-up, this time an acoustic tribute to the late Tan Sri S.M. Salim, who spent his life promoting classical Malay songs. The entertainment titan was recently laid to rest in December 2016. “We’ll close with Hijau.” What a beauty.

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