Cosmopolitan Intimacies: Malay Film Music of the Independence Era

Husni Abu Bakar

This book is an extensive study on nostalgia, postmodernity and postcolonialism in Malay film music via the idea of ‘cosmopolitanism’, the idea that Malayness, as depicted in the films in this era, is diverse in its essence instead of being pure and categorical; and the idea of ‘intimacies’ between the influences that are intertwined in the production mechanisms involved in the making of Malay film music in the 1950s and the 1960s. This is done by way of careful ethnomusicological analyses of film music in the works of P. Ramlee, the most omnipresent Malay cultural and film icon in this era, and his Singaporean predecessor Zubir Said.

The book opens with an interesting discussion on the multiple possible translations of a Javanese version of ‘open sesame’ incantation line to open the entrance of the cave in Ali Baba Bujang Lapok (1961), a P. Ramlee movie inspired by the Middle Eastern story ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. Adil Johan points to a subtle intimacy that binds together all of these elements in the film and the community that understands all of the cultures represented in these kinds of films – Javanese, Malay, Middle Eastern, Western – yet, are not exclusive members of any of them.

Using as a theoretical apparatus the discourse on musical cosmopolitanism and its prevalence in cultural as well as theoretical contexts, Johan explains how Malay film music is intertwined with the Malaysian nationalist project in the 1950s and 1960s, and the many notions that surrounds it and are essential to it – such as bangsa (race), kebangsaan (national), kampung (village), adat (tradition). Regarding this matter, Johan writes, ‘A cosmopolitan cultural practice is one that can be distinguished as articulating two or more contrasting identities simultaneously. These identities are not necessarily divergent, but can be interactive, and in the case of artistic practices are often the result of active aesthetic agency’ (p. 9). Malay film legends such as P. Ramlee and Zubir Said, in this book, are treated as unique creatives, cosmopolitan cultural practitioners in their own rights, who had their own special way of seeing the world and expressing it on the silver screen. As such, they pave the way for the audience to experience Malayness and its multilateralities, across space, time and cultures.

What Johan makes clear in this book is that there is indeed a significant presence of a ‘Western ‘superculture’’ in the production of Malay films and that therefore Malayness as an identity is one that is heavily affected by it, hence its cosmopolitan disposition. And these can be seen in the Malay films. While the audience have taken for granted aspects of a film such as the end credit and the production mechanism, Johan invites the reader to reconsider them. In Chapter Two, he discusses two important films that symbolize and represent Malayness, Sergeant Hassan (1958) and Hang Tuah (1956). In these films, he pinpoints anachronistic leitmotifs that are supposed to represent of certain historical periods, yet do not fully corroborate them.

While discussing themes of modernity, it seems almost compulsory to bring in some lip-service on notions of ‘class’. In Chapter Four, Johan comes up with deep and detailed readings of two foundational Malay films that include ‘class struggle’ as their main theme, Ibu Mertuaku (1962) and Antara Dua Darjat (1960). In making these films, film makers employ narratives that prescribe certain class features to articulate modernity. Johan brings up the example of the protagonist Kassim Selamat in Ibu Mertuaku, played by P. Ramlee, as the ideal symbol of the Malay lower class hero. From Antara Dua Darjat which means ‘Between Two Classes’, Johan writes about the juxtaposition of expressions of communal intimacies in a kampung, which includes musical practices, and scenes that feature remarkable technologies in the modern Malay music world such as the recording studio and the gramophone.

Chapter Five entitled ‘Disquieting Denouement’, focuses on the musical form of pop yeh yeh, that originated in Europe and was brought to Malaysia and Singapore in the 60s. Labelled as ‘rootless’ ‘youth music’ that is a part of ‘yellow culture’ (pp. 183-187), it was silenced by the government in the 60s through cultural policies, due to its deviant nature that does not conform to the state-enforced ideologies. Pop yeh yeh was claimed by the government back then to promote ‘degenerate practices’ such as tea dances in clubs that was considered ‘juvenile delinquency’ (p. 202). Johan uses this musical form that had been imported, controversially so, into local culture to explain the binary situation between the young and the old in that era when it comes to understanding imported cultural forms, in music as well as in films. Propped up against the ebb of a glorious era in Malay films, this chapter serves as a sort of textual archive of pop yeh yeh bands that were active back then. Then, Johan gets into anecdotes about the trials and tribulations in the making of youth films such as Muda Mudi (1965) (p. 214) and A Go Go ’67 (1967) (p. 217), which expressively featured modern dancers and pop yeh yeh music. In addition, Johan documents the reactions, opinions and ideas of experienced cultural agents Zubir Said and P. Ramlee on cultural nationalism and how to regulate Western influences while preserving indigenous and traditional music, towards the end of the1960s. By combining some meticulous documentation of pop culture in the 1960s and early 1970s and some formal analyses of the processes of cultural policy making in Malaysia and Singapore, Johan succinctly illuminates on how these films paint an image of a ‘local cultural imaginary’ (p. 223) for these two emerging nation states.

Using the pun term ‘indiepretations’ (p. 226), Johan critically documents the memorializations of the lives of P.Ramlee and Zubir Said, and further investigates the multiple relations and disjunctures between Malay film music and musicians, and the nation-making projects of Malaysia and Singapore. Johan captured moments in Singapore’s commemoration of Zubir Said, the composer of the Singaporean national anthem Majulah Singapura. His figure was made larger than life and absorbed into the national context by way of cultural events and festivals, turning him into a historical figure that symbolizes the state’s multiethnicity and cultural pluralism, instead of being just a Malay musical figure. In the same chapter, he provides an in-depth commentary on an indie tribute album to P. Ramlee called Indiepretasi. By interviewing local figures in the music scene who contributed to this album, he interestingly problematizes the commercialization of the Malaysian cultural icon.

At some points, Johan risks a paradox to give way to sensitive readings. For example, in a book on the complex and diverse nature of cosmopolitanism, he observantly, and riskily, puts forward the inevitable fact that the works of P. Ramlee are cardinally fundamental to the ‘soul’ and ‘heart’ of Malay culture. ‘Regardless of how Malay or cosmopolitan P. Ramlee’s songs actually are, his music provided the basis for an ethnonational discourse of homogeneity or indigeneity, in which Malayness in music is perceived to be rooted in the ‘soul’ or ‘heart’, which are therefore the exemplary identifiers of ‘Malayness’ – something that is actually difficult to discern musically’ (p. 24). Such is the nature of Malayness when examined closely through the academic lens, seemingly present and identifiable yet at the same time also very elusive and non-categorical. In almost all of the examples in the book, the Western, the traditional, the historical, the national, the Malay, and the extra-Malay elements are intimately associated with each other. And more intimately associated, are P. Ramlee’s music and Malayness, however elusive the category might be, to many Malays.

Johan concludes the book with the second part of the mantra he opened with, the Javanese ‘close sesame’. With it, he brings home the entirety of his argument, which is that Malay film music in the independence era is inextricably, complexly, paradoxically, sometimes controversially, and, most importantly, intimately tied with the nation-making projects of Malaysia and Singapore. Combining approaches in history, ethnomusicology and film studies, he performs a fine job in presenting an academic text that is novel, informational, and intellectually engaging. By scoping out a one-of-a-kind academic discursive space and bringing in substantially appealing materials into it, and at the same time guiding the readers through interesting topics and theoretical readings in Malay film music, this book provides an avenue for intellectuals, academics and film aficionados alike to further understand Malay film music in and beyond the nationalist contexts of Malaysia and Singapore.