Blues Gang’s standout interracial footprint on Malaysian music

KUALA LUMPUR: Many Malaysian bands from the mid-1960s to the 80s were guided by a flag of multi-ethnicity.

These interracial groups touched off an era representing some of the best musical gifts of the 20th century as a new Malaysia was in transition.

The Blues Gang’s were among the pioneers who helped diversify the local music scene. (Facebook pic)

Back then, every photo of bands in a newspaper, magazine or on a record was a statement of togetherness.

Among the pioneers who helped diversify the music scene were the Blues Gang whose music widely resonates today among Malaysians and in genres as far-flung as R&B and hip-hop.

On Aug 11, the band accomplished the dream of their late bassist Jim Madasamy to release a 10-track Tamil blues album, ‘Solla Vanthein’ (I was meaning to say).

Recorded in 2013 but not released due to the poor state of the music market, the album was like a dose of sunshine straight to your heart.

Jim Madasamy is the first Malaysian musician to have a welfare fund for artistes named in his honour.

Malay blues was introduced to the Indian community but Madasamy was no longer. He died from a neurological syndrome in April 2018, aged 68.

Madasamy’s version of his band’s smash hit, ‘Apa Nak DiKato’ in Tamil, catches fire in its execution.

Madasamy, on vocals and bass, was backed on the album by Azizi (guitar), Julian Mokhtar (guitar), Shaik Karim (drums), Steve Thornton (percussion), Abdul Ghani (keyboard) and Thila (guest female vocalist).

The effort reflects unity and racial harmony – an Indian musician, married to a Chinese, in a band whose members were mostly Malay.

At the launch of the album, the Jim Madasamy Artistes’ Fund was unveiled, making him the first Malaysian musician to have a welfare fund for entertainers named in his honour.

The event, organised by the Malaysian Artistes’ Association (Karyawan), was themed, ‘Unity in Diversity’, a message aimed at forging social bonds and multiculturalism.

Karyawan president Freddie Fernandez, in his Malaysia Day message, reiterated that “unity through music can break down all barriers and unite people of different ages, cultures, religions, gender, or anything that can divide us from love and community.”

Behind the recording of the album is another inspiring story of unity through music in 2003.

In the 1980s, Blues Gang became one of the characters of Lat’s cartoons that portray the colourful lives and unique blend of Malaysian multiracial society.

A close pal of Madasamy, who saw the project as uniting Malaysians, offered to produce the album at RM30,000. He did not seek financial returns.

The Jim Madasamy Artistes’ Fund to help artistes experiencing bad health and difficult times was made possible through the generosity of businessman Rajendran Ramasamy of Amalan Setar (M) Sdn Bhd.

Rajendran donated RM100,000 to kick-start the fund which will be managed by Karyawan in liaison with Madasamy’s wife Soo Leak Meng.

The presence of National Unity Minister Halimah Sadique and the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Nancy Shukri at the launch of the Tamil album was a testimony of the government’s thrust in promoting national unity through arts.

Their clarion call was, “No one can break our unity.”

To the culturally curious, Malaysian musical culture changed dramatically between the mid-1960s and 1980s.

Icons: (L-R) Zizi Blues (guitar), Ito Mohd (vocals), Julian Mokhtar (guitar) and Abdul Ghani (keyboard) made Blues Gang a household name together with the late Jim Madasamy.

It was a period of demographic shifts as urban culture eclipsed rural life.

This cultural shift demanded the crafting of an integrated nation and musicians were key in creating a more singular Malaysian culture.

Interracial bands helped carve the framework for new modes of expression, giving birth to classic groups such as Blues Gang, The Strollers and Alleycats during a fertile period of made-in-Malaysia music.

Music centres, Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Johor Bharu, Penang and Singapore produced bands that embraced the idea that Malays, Chinese, Indians and other Malaysians belonged together.

Blues Gang morphed from a trio with a dark moniker, Messenger From Hell, when Madasamy, Karim and guitarist Ahmad Abdullah formed the group in March 1973 at Lorong Fatimah in Woodlands, Singapore.

When the name Blues Gang made people look at them as wild and rough, they briefly changed it to 15 Shillings to get a gig here.

15 Shillings because 15 was their house number and shillings indicated the small income they were earning.

Times were hard but the group, who are still rocking today, played a significant part in the constantly evolving and rich history of pop music in Malaysia.

They have an engrossing brand of Malay songs in blues and pop that everyone knows and loves until today.

If there’s one thing that is equally appreciated and celebrated by all cultures, it is music.

Frankie D’Cruz – FMT

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