In this exclusive, the veteran singer commemorates his groundbreaking self-titled album and lead single that has become the nation’s other anthem
WHILE waiting for Datuk Zainal Abidin for our meeting via Zoom with The Vibes Culture & Lifestyle, a familiar melody filled the room.
Three decades since it was first released, one can never be too young to recognise the evergreen music composition of ‘Hijau’.
It has been played on many occasions, appealing across communities that makes the tune a crowd-pleasing track.
How many times have we been in a room filled with strangers, and then belted out the chorus in harmony (arms wrapped around each others’ shoulders) a few minutes later when the song randomly plays?
Much like other timeless tunes of that time, the chart hit is the go-to icebreaker that sits well with any given Malaysian demographic.
Not long into the waiting, a notification pops up with a bright “Hello!” by the man of the hour. Read on for the interview.
The Vibes: Thanks for calling in, Datuk! We appreciate that you can spend time with us, commemorating the success of your single. ‘Hijau’ was the first song released from your first solo album ‘Zainal Abidin’, and it reached the Malaysian public at a time of great confidence. Could you describe the musical environment back in the early 1990s? What were artists looking to create?
Datuk Zainal Abidin: When ‘Hijau’ was released, it surprised listeners because the song was something very unusual. It was different and new. The music that was played on the radio at that particular time was mostly love songs, rock ballads and dangdut.
I did not expect that it stood the test of time 30 years in. It’s interesting because the initial feedback that I got from the people in the industry was I was doing something crazy and how the song was not going to work.
Even then, I told them it was not about what people want to hear but about what best we (artists) can give to listeners. If your product (the song, its lyrics, and melody) is good and is something positive, the audience will accept it.
TV: After 30 years, Hijau is still unsurpassed as Malaysians’ favourite sing-a-long regardless of race. Was this the inadvertent product of a multi-ethnic ensemble that came together in the studio?
DZA: It was something that happened naturally. I wanted Chinese, Indian, European and my own culture (not just the language but the dialect as well) to be part of the creative process.
To give you some background, the idea of creating a track, such as ‘Hijau’, actually started way… way… back a long time ago.
I was born into a poor family, and I lived with my grandfather. He played in a lot of British and Japanese orchestras… whereas my grandmother (and my mother) loved listening to traditional (ghazal and keronchong) songs. So the musical setting I was exposed to growing up already had a mix of things.
Adding to that, having neighbours with diverse backgrounds, attending several cultural occasions and having experienced the value of being in a multiracial environment was part of the inspiration.
I had always been curious about fusing the sounds, and this desire maintained as I grew older. It gave me the idea to not make Malay music, but Malaysian music instead.
What is meant by this is songs that can create a sense of belonging – incorporating musical instruments (traditional and modern) that represent the diverse communities we have, portraying society and celebrating it through music.
When I joined Roslan Aziz Production (RAP), and the team asked what I wanted to produce, I took that opportunity to finally go for it. I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted to create this new genre of music, that Zainal Abidin is known to carry.
On whether I get exhausted having to sing ‘Hijau’ – never! I am very proud and happy to be able to sing it again and again because every time I do, I deliver a message.”
TV: Yeah, the dialect that you featured was of course what partly made the song so distinct. Was it hard for you to master it?
DZA: The story behind it goes; I went to Universiti Malaya to learn the dialect with one of the lecturers, a language expert, that was based there at the time.
I am a Johorean, and we have our dialects (most are so close to the existing Malay language we know today). But to speak Kelantanese dialect is a whole different level.
A Johorean tongue will never be able to speak so fluently as a Kelantanese. Even though I attempted to add it to the song, the pronunciation was wrong. Those who can speak Kelantanese dialect will know this.
It became a hit anyway, and I guess there is no tip or grand formula to it. All you need to have is just sincerity, and let the rest take its course.
TV: Are there any plans to celebrate three decades of ‘Zainal Abidin’ the album, and ‘Hijau’, the song? Do you think you will ever get bored singing the hit song over and over again?
DZA: Many discussions took place in celebrating this but with the current pandemic, we will need to hold back on any possible arrangements. But of course, once it is over, fans will hear more about it.
On whether I get exhausted having to sing ‘Hijau’ – never! I am very proud and happy to be able to sing it again and again because every time I do, I deliver a message. That is also what fans can do, in celebration of the music together.
Revisit the album, and truly prize each of the tracks available as each carries strong messages. ‘Debu Liar’ talks about the abuse of drugs, ‘Telaga’ is about the behaviour of politicians, ‘Manis’ talks about gossip, ‘Inayah’ is on child abuse, ‘Damai IV’ is about adultery, and ‘Baba’ is on a father figure among the list of songs you can listen to.
*‘Hijau’, released on May 31, 1991, celebrates its 30th anniversary today. Revisit the song and share your joys with us in the comments section below.
TV: This was your first solo album following a long stint with the group Headwind. What made you want to pursue a solo career then?
DZA: After being with the band for 10 years, I believed that I could do more. Headwind, in its true nature, is a rock band that knows how to command a live showcase. And I must say that we were good at it.
However, when it comes to making music for the public, I felt that we were not being ourselves. This is because we had to follow what the recording label wanted, and had to fit a particular mould. Headwind is not what Headwind is in the album. We are a great rock band, but live performances are where we thrived.
So when I embarked on going solo, it was more about being sincere with my music. If I were to stay, I would not go anywhere because the image that the band had at the time (or evolved into) was not me.
I needed to be free to do what I wanted to do. I definitely took a huge risk. I understood the move and was accepting of whether I would make it or not outside the band.
TV: How did the band respond to the decision of you going independent?
DZA: They were very sad because we were like brothers. There were no issues or fights when I broke the news about wanting to pursue a solo career. I was honest with them of not wanting to please the recording label, and sure enough, we had a good farewell.
We are still close to each other. I would often see or talk to them, sometimes four times a week, reminiscing about our past experiences as bandmates and having enjoyed our time together.
TV: Do you ever miss performing together with your bandmates?
DZA: We have done so, and performed together many times before with great success. The last was back in January 2019 where I had a showcase at Singapore Esplanade before the pandemic.
The three-hour show was split into two, one where I performed solo and the other half together with the band. It was a full house where the audience gathered to watch us perform.
What was great to note is when I was on stage with the band, it felt like I never really left the band, our dynamic was still strong. There was no feeling of a ‘comeback’ whatsoever because the bond is still there.
TV: The musical direction in the 1990s was increasingly sophisticated, including aspects of musical production and marketing. Could you reflect on what all that meant for the music industry then and now?
DZA: I’ll start by saying that there are a lot of changes in terms of the contractors and budget over the decades. The pursuit today is also more about getting to the top and going big.
Back in the day, the industry had a lot of great bands that set the tone for the scene like Search, Wings, Revolvers and many others. While there were many of us, we did not compete or try to copy each other because everyone was trying to create their own identity and the setting was more grounded. Artists today are more focused on chasing popularity and do not know how to contribute.
Let’s face it, the younger generation has market control. And with that in mind, we should not be feeding them with a lot of love songs, because love songs are filled with fantasy. The ‘…you love me, and I love you’, and ‘…you dump me or I dump you’. I mean, where are we going by only pushing for this kind of imagination?
I feel that it is not healthy. There should be more thought into producing music that talks about love differently. Towards the country, family relationships, success, compassion, respect and so forth – that has a broader spectrum of things.
To write a love song is not wrong, but you can write it in a way where you touch on the current issues that affect people’s emotions positively.
On marketing, back then it was more about the hard copies or what is on the racks. That made the industry also be more creative in the offline merchandising approaches and selling of shows. This contributed to the strong buying power of that time.
Fast forward today, no one wants to even pay to see (or support) their acts that much because people want things to be given for free. To me, it’s not so much about the technology because some parts of the world still have shows selling out.
The loss of interest here is more because there is no real appreciation towards the arts and it all boils down to priorities. Sharing from experience, when I go for a showcase or for a trip to receive an award abroad, it is not the local brands that help to sponsor the arrangements. This goes to show the level of local regard we have for creatives, let alone veterans.
TV: You rued that there is little regard for ‘seni’ these days with music and artists being manufactured. Why is that so?
DZA: Additionally, back in the 90s, international recording companies (ie Warners, EMI, etc) actually did their best to export our music outside of the country when it still had the ‘standards’ to go abroad. Now it seems that the quality of our musicians (or the music in question) do not give the confidence for them to export and they only focus on the local market. So, the question here is why?
These record labels coming in today intend to sell their products here, not to take our products out. That is their intention, and there is very little care for the craft because returns are not as fast enough and they don’t see the bigger picture.
Ultimately we (artists) have to work on our own to do promotions. This gives more reason for artists to be given the belief by the government (and the corporate sectors as well), which I would say is certainly lacking.
TV: When it comes to producing quality music, who should be putting more of the effort here, the artist or the label that represents them?
DZA: If you want to look at it deeper, it is not about the effort but simply education, and everyone needs to be equally educated. For an artist specifically, if you want to be a good songwriter, you have to go to school, or better yet become music graduates. If we can foster such appreciation and put in the time towards music education, then I am sure we can push the frontiers of the industry because we can understand the mechanics to help shape it.
Most of the creatives in the industry are very much street smart and do not know how to read/write music, myself included. My drive comes from my talent but imagine if I can be empowered with such knowledge. Surely I can do more than what I can do now.
TV: With regards to having music carry more substance, some would say that certain topics or the delivery itself can’t be too heavy since music is a form of escapism. So, music should be light/simplified or at least ride on the listening trends of the present times. What is your opinion?
DZA: That is completely wrong because music is its own language. And it is the perfect medium to reach everybody regardless if it is sung in English, Malay, Hindi or any other language. For as long as there is a good lyric, rhythm, and melody, I do not see why artists should limit their creativity by not diving into issues that can help raise their consciousness.
I want to further highlight the aspect that music is universal and transcends audiences. Just look at U2, I don’t think their fans understand what Bono is trying to say. Or Sting, for instance, uses very heavy articulation for his songs and sometimes he even sings in French, but people who don’t speak it still listen to him.
TV: You were part of the assembly of artists under Roslan Aziz Productions (RAP) that staged one of the most successful live concerts in our recording history – Ikhlas… What did this new style of management indicate for Malaysian music?
DZA: RAP was a brave small company. Strong in ways that they produced good artists (musicians/songwriters) and controlled at least 30% of the CD sales during their era. That said, they are not the greatest businessmen. They spent a lot of money, but the spending was too much to a point that it seemed like they did not care about the revenues to survive. By the end of it, they weren’t able to pay a lot of people. They were a great team, don’t get me wrong, especially under the wing of Roslan Aziz, but they were not able to sustain themselves.
In Japan, for example, they close Shinjuku on Sundays just to let the younger generation express themselves. And industry players will just go there to scout the talents they see.”
TV: Taking your years of experience as a veteran in the music industry, how would you like to see the scene improve?
DZA: The definition of an artist itself needs to be redefined. To begin with, it’s not just about being on TV, which the modern world would suggest. In reality, an artist is someone who acquires a high level of creativity, whether it is in music, painting, craft and so forth. They must be able to showcase their work with great care.
For this, you must have proper facilities to guide the creatives, like a proper music academy (for musicians). We have a huge talent pool in Malaysia but we don’t necessarily have the means to widely educate musicians and help them master their very artform.
Lastly, they need to have a space to showcase their talent. I’m not talking about one-off event platforms or having them reduced to only conducting street performances (busking), which limits the view that further emphasises the ‘starving artist’ stereotype looking to collect donations.
In Japan, for example, they close Shinjuku on Sundays just to let the younger generation express themselves. And industry players will just go there to scout the talents they see.
So, it is like a marketplace. I do not see such spaces here exist just yet. Quite frankly, if an aspiring artist were to come and ask what my advice is to propel his/her career, I would say go abroad.
Apart from the gaps that were already mentioned, one challenge that is quite significant for creatives to face in Malaysia is that there will be a lot of political rhetorics that will need to be navigated through. A decision-maker can suddenly turn things sour by injecting religion into the context of your art, and you will be left to pick up the pieces.
You see the music scene now, you only hear sounds, and you don’t hear the music anymore. The repetition of words (in lyrics) makes songs monotonous. The quality (of artists) that you see today here is like a piece of wood without any carvings. Our music is not crafted properly because people are tired and lazy. There is this mentality of why should I work hard when no one cares.
On a bigger scale of entertainment itself, there are a lot of reality shows being aired today where the studio can manipulate not just the artists but also the audience to make money.
Often, the stars that you see are also fresh faces. They don’t make much of an effort to call veteran artists. Not just because of appearance cost, but more importantly, it’s hard to manipulate someone who is already seasoned in the industry.