December 11, 2007

The Sound of (Malaysian) Music

Posted in Malaysia, Music, Tricia's Writings at 1:19 am by egalitaria

The Sound of (Malaysian) MusicTricia Yeoh Much of my Mondays at school was spent at morning assemblies. The order was sacrosanct: stand, queue, sing, pledge, sing, sit, listen, sing.  We were required to sing three songs in total: the national anthem (Negaraku), the state song (Selangor), and a fully patriotic one chosen and rotated every now and again. Assuming each song lasts between four to five minutes each, 15 minutes would be spent each week on singing. Multiply this by the number of weeks a year, times the number of years in primary and secondary school, (minus holiday months) an average Malaysian would have spent 6930 minutes, or 115 hours, or close to five full waking days singing patriotic songs about our nation before reaching the age of 18 years.  So I’ve often wondered what thoughts exactly run through the minds of Malaysians, young and old, each time such songs are played or sung publicly. (The Namewee episode was of course indicative of a particular group’s sentiment in this regard.)  The purpose national anthems and songs were sung historically was to instill a sense of respect and patriotism amongst the peoples of a nation. Indeed, national anthems are still played at special sporting events to celebrate a victor’s achievement. But if the meaning and significance of national songs begin to diminish, do they still serve their purpose? Are these really the songs that can inspire or motivate the nation towards hope?  While some national songs refer to honour and dignity as principles which stand for time immemorial, others refer to past incidences which have little or nothing to do with present day Malaysians, hence augmenting the gap between past nationalism and that of the present. For example, one particular line in the Malaysian national anthem states “Tanah tumpahnya darahku”, referring to the land for which our blood was shed. Now, how many of us can truly say that our bled has shed literally for the country of Malaysia? The primary issue is that of identity mismatch.  I also believe that music and lyrics are meant to inspire individuals in their very core of being. They uplift and encourage (most of the time, anyway). I therefore look at lyrics that encompass our national psyche (officially), and do wonder in amazement whether we Malaysians are truly meant to draw any sort of inspiration out of these.  For example, the song “Keranamu Malaysia” contains the lyrics as follows: “Jaguh sukan dan juga jutawan, Berkereta jenama Negara…”, which thoroughly desists from drawing any love within me, as I hardly feel indebted to Malaysia because of the multi-millionaires that throng the streets of Kuala Lumpur, neither because of the mere existence of national-branded cars. The prosperity of a select few individuals in society cannot surely inspire me to serve the country and thump my chest for it, now, can it?  Granted, these are songs created to precisely inject positive vibes into the citizenry. But there comes a point at which many are simply brushed aside as propaganda and hardly paid attention to, much less gaining maximum utility from the money paid to compose and disseminate it. If the content of such music fails to illuminate society, what then can do so? Amidst recent months of intense squabbling over a range of issues: independence of the judiciary, transparency in the AG’s report, Islamic vs. Secular state, the social contract, religious conversion, what relevance has music to society any longer?  Lots. It’s just that the pop music culture has stolen its significance away from what it could very much be, and very much was, in the past.  Protest music, a genre crafted during the American Civil War (“We Shall Overcome”), and developed during the Civil Rights movement and 1970’s Vietnam War period, was based upon strong principles that challenged the status quo at that present time. These songs protested problems in society like injustice, racial discrimination, social inequalities and incarceration.  Bob Dylan famously sang the song “The Times, They Are A-Changin’…” with powerful lyrics that blew his generation apart. The song is worth publishing in full below, but the crux of it spoke directly at the heart of people, encouraging one and all alike to heed the call, stand up against the tide and make a difference. The main battle that civil society was fighting then was the Vietnam War, many a young American teen growing increasingly disillusioned with decisions of their Government. What the song rallies against is political abuse, unfair foreign policy, war. Without going into detail about themes during this particular era, suffice to say there was a cause to be fought; a movement like a strong wind blowing that could no longer be ignored.  Today’s equivalent would come in the form of several rappers and popular bands, anti-establishment in nature. The local music scene gets it right now and then, but many shy away from making strong statements.  Dylan’s song is completely relevant for us today. In it, he calls upon “writers and critics who prophesize with (their) pen” to speak the truth, for there is power in the written word. He chastises “senators, congressmen” to heed the call and not stand in the way of justice. He asks “mothers and fathers” not to criticize what they cannot understand, knowing well that hope is to be established amongst the young and what they fight for. In short, he calls upon all people to wake up and do something.  If songs written for the Malaysian nation are going to be instrumental in providing hope to the forlorn and apathetic young, lyrics must hit home. Highlighting the truth and then proving a source of inspiration based on foundational principles of justice, freedoms and equality. This goes for all political parties’ songs (if they feel that this is still a form of artistic motivation that can convince people of their conviction and stand, that is).  Governmental or opposition, no music has emerged from therein that we can say has truly inspired nor provided a mantra for the Malaysian public to grasp onto dearly in its search for hope. In its place, we have weak, plastic and predictable words that make us sigh in exasperation (especially those who are wordsmiths and/or pedantic writers). I feel strongly that we have come to a point in time in our country where these words need to be shouted out at all Malaysians, wherever they roam. The tide that we have been waiting for to turn is slowly but surely turning, but it needs the help of each person. The times are changing (or so I can only feebly hope), but it will take greater effort for greater change. The sound of Malaysian music should retune itself to be increasingly relevant and applicable for whom we all are, in the here and now. Never underestimate the influence that music has.  The Times They Are A-Changin’, by Bob Dylan  Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’. 

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