Matlan Kidz and his Abah; an extraordinary journey from Kudat to KK
Extraordinary things sometimes happen in quiet places. In Kudat, at the Northern tip of Borneo Island, a boy called Raimon used to walk an hour-and-a-half from his kampung Onduon to his school in Sebayan. At school, among other things, he played a melodion and recorder in music club, until school teacher Cikgu Shariff Kassim decided that 10-year-old Raimon bin Sukudat could learn to play a bass guitar, and become the first member of the virtuosic rock band KIDZ.
This is an interview with Raimon [aka Matlan Kidz] and his Abah, Cikgu Shariff. My thanks to Moses de Silva for translating throughout the session.
Cikgu (Teacher) Shariff was exposed to music at a very young age, and he was a performing musician throughout the region before becoming a teacher. In that role, he formed many music clubs and bands, and came across a lot of children playing music.
“I noticed that young people were playing music without any purpose: kids playing at bus stops, at the side of the road, underneath their houses.”
This spurred Cikgu Shariff to form a band of children, and teach them music using his own approach. “Each child is unique, comes from a different background, and will learn in a different way. Also, from my experience, every performance in front of a crowd is also different, and therefore the idea of learning music is a far more dynamic concept than merely learning from using music theory.”
He added, “If you look at children in a group, when someone plays music, there are always some kids who will follow. They pick up an instrument and start to copy. So it’s quite obvious which ones have real potential.”
Raimon wanted to go and live in Cikgu Shariff’s home to learn music to the maximum extent possible. At first his parents were against this, because they [and the community in general] were suspicious of Cikgu Shariff’s motives. But Raimon was determined to go, and eventually Cikgu Shariff adopted Raimon legally, as he did all the members of KIDZ.
KIDZ was formed in 1997. The original members were: Matlan (Raimon) – guitar, Mok – keyboard, Lee – drums, Awin – bass, Black – 1st vocalist, Farid – 2nd vocalist. Ateq and Ameng join KIDZ in 2004.
From this point, Cikgu Shariff became their Abah: their father and their mentor.
Apart from playing music, KIDZ children attended school, did their homework, and participated in all the household chores. Raimon said life in the KIDZ family was like this:
- 7.30am: go to school
- 12.30pm: Return to Cikgu Shariff’s home in Sebayan and help prepare the meals for the family
- 2pm: either practise music or do homework
- 6pm: rest
- Evening, help with meals and house chores before sleep
Raimon said music practise was intense. Raimon started out as the bass player but later became lead guitarist.
“Abah told us what to learn. Every day we had to learn minimum three new songs. If can, five. When practising, everybody would be looking at Abah’s face, trying to guess, ‘How is it? Is he happy or not?’ He would be sitting in the middle, while all of us practise. At that time, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just do it!
“I don’t really know how to describe how my Abah taught us, but we learned by ear, and I can say it was like military style!” he added.
Cikgu Shariff said teaching from books is very limiting. In Malaysia, music theory is taught in textbooks similar to Grade I, II etc. He said he used these books on KIDZ, but felt it was not enough.
“The scope is too narrow: it doesn’t cover the information you hear, or the dynamic processes going on in your mind, because you are continuously receiving and interpreting musical data.”
So with KIDZ, Cikgu Shariff experimented with his method. “I taught them without theory, and without much structure [spontaneously], to give them the chance to rely on their minds and their ears.”
“So, if they are backing up a singer, once they hear the singer they automatically know what style it is, what key the song is in and can anticipate what chords to play. It is a whole, larger picture, and automatic for the whole band,” he said.
[Head of Kombo RTM Sabah] Moses said the skills of the KIDZ band members go way beyond normal musicians. “The rhythms they handle and the music genres they know is so wide. You know, they played songs by ‘Dream Theater’, songs that we had difficulty playing, even when we were studying at UMS.”
Cikgu Shariff said, “Certain children have what I call a larger musical IQ. Their minds can cope with a lot and you can get more out of them. For instance, when you teach somebody the concept of music notes, if you teach with theory only, it’s like you are asking them to play inside a box. With the KIDZ, I teach them by helping them understand what is going on inside the music, along with the theory, and most importantly, with musical feeling.”
When Raimon was in just Primary 6, KIDZ were already performing all over Kudat: Kota Belud, Kota Marudu, Tuaran, playing weddings and other functions.
Raimon said, “From Form 1 until I completed my university degree, RTM Sabah was always calling us to play, as session musicians.”
Moses concurred. “KIDZ are considered the Number 1 sessionists for RTM! Their record from five or six years ago still holds – they played 72 songs a day!
“There is this story, about one time when Raimon was practising. This is when his guitar was still taller than he was! [Then Kombo Leader] Ronald James came up to him and actually grabbed his hand to look at it, and said, ‘Wah, how can such small fingers go that fast, ah?’”
“In Form 3, we went to KL, because we planned to do a recording with Rafflesia,” Raimon recalled. “During one of the practice sessions for the album recording, the boss from Warner Music – I can’t remember if it was Tony Fernandes or Rudy Ramawy - came to watch because they had heard about this band of kids from Sabah. Next thing we knew, Warner Music put KIDZ under their label, and my Abah and Rafflesia were like the management team.”
Warner produced the album. “We had planned to do a thrash metal album, but Warner Music didn’t like it. They wanted to do some commercial pop music, so we just followed them,” Raimon said. He didn’t really like the album. They had one hit from it, ‘Demi Cinta’, which was written by Ajai, and most people will know KIDZ from that song. Songwriters on the album were Ajai, M. Nasir, Anuar Razak, Marlin, and Cikgu Shariff.
Recording began in 2000 and the album was released in 2002. Warner Music wanted KIDZ to stay in KL, since it would be easier to record more albums and maintain their popularity. But their Abah was against it, being more concerned about the children’s studies and connection to their real families. So they returned to Kudat.
Then KIDZ played the Hard Rock Cafe in KL. Matlan was 16 and Ateq was just in Form 1. The German heavy metal band Scorpion launched their ‘Acoustica’ album at the Hard Rock Cafe, and KIDZ were billed to perform after them. The A&R rep was late, and when the band tried to get in, the bouncers wouldn’t let them, until someone in charge confirmed that they were performing artistes.
“Imagine! To be 16 and play the Hard Rock Cafe! It’s a musician’s dream!” said Moses.
But Raimon said, “To us it’s like nothing big. We didn’t go ‘Wah! We’re playing Hard Rock Cafe!’ Just like, ‘It’s ok for us to do this now.’ We just follow only.”
Cikgu Shariff had taken them out of school for one month to go to KL and record the album. He took a lot of criticism for it, with many people complaining that the children’s grades would suffer. Raimon himself was in Form 5, it was a crucial time for him.
Raimon said, “When I heard that the teachers were complaining about my Abah, I decided to show them they were wrong. After the final exam, I was one of the top students in science stream. Back then, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.”
“After Form 5, I got invited to go to the Labuan matriculation campus. I wanted to go, but my Abah said I was too small to be going out to Labuan! So I stayed back and took Form 6 science stream. Final exam STPM, I’m the top student in the class.”
Raimon wanted to go to UMS. He filled in the online form, for all the available options in UMS. So, medicine first, chemical engineering second, all the sciences for almost all the choices. He was almost at the eighth and last choice, then he saw there was Music at UMS! He thought for a moment, then he put Music first and moved all the rest down…
When he got home, Cikgu Shariff asked him, so what did you fill in? Raimon said he picked doctor and all the sciences, then he added,”I put music also lah, but I put it last…”
When Raimon was offered a place in UMS to study Music, Cikgu Shariff was still reluctant to let him go away, because he was so little! But UMS is still quite near to Kudat. “He still treats me like a baby,” Raimon said.
Moses laughed out, remembering how they met. “The first time I saw Raimon was at the UMS audition. He came out of the audition room: So small, with his really long, yellow hair and moustache, and jeans. He really looked like one of those kids at the bus stops, with big yellow hair and a MegaDeath T-shirt. That kind of look, lah!
“But then, when we had to go for registrations and all that, and I saw this small boy sitting on the chair: clean-cut hair style, boring long-sleeved shirt, with his neck-tie and his bag. I thought he was somebody’s son, like someone went for registration and left his kid there!
“Then this girl we know, Betsy, recognised him and started talking with him. I was with Teddy (Chin Jr). Betsy called us, wanted to introduce us to him.
“He said, ‘Saya Raimon, Raimon bin Sukudat dari Kudat!’ And we starting laughing! And he actually called us ‘Bang, like Abang.’ Betsy said he’s from KIDZ. So I had to remember he’s 20 years old. He looks like he’s 15!
“So of course, Raimon was the school… joke!” Moses continued, “He started teasing me about my colour, where I’m dark you know, and in dark places they can’t see me. I started teasing him about his size and his teeth. So it became me, him and Teddy, lah. Teddy was fat. So it was a good combination: The Dark One, The Short One and The Fat One.”
Raimon works for Kombo RTM Sabah now, and continues to teach the equivalent of KIDZ Junior. The band is called BELALANG [Grasshopper :D] The youngest member is 12. “The bassist is my brother. He plays a 6-stringed bass,” Raimon said. The other original KIDZ members work at Kombo Jabatan Penerangan, which is the kombo for the information ministry.
What does Cikgu Shariff want for his KIDZ?
“I don’t expect anything. I already have the satisfaction of seeing them leave home and make their own way. Take Matlan (Raimon). He has finished his training, and now he’s working for Kombo RTM, so I feel good because Matlan is giving back something to the community, to the people, and it means I did my job well also. This applies not only to children who went into music, but other ones I taught, who became teachers, policemen, whatever. That is enough for me. It is the way of a teacher to feel like that. Teachers don’t expect anything, they just teach. I am happy seeing the KIDZ excel in their fields, and to be good human beings welcomed and accepted in the community.
“There is still demand for KIDZ,” he added. “Especially in Indonesia and West Malaysia. But things will not be as intense as when they were younger. Any performances will depend on the band members’ work schedules.
“Would I like them to continue my work? Yes, I would like that. But what I do takes a lot of sacrifice and dedication. It’s not suitable for everybody, it would have to be up to each individual. They have jobs now.”
Raimon said his Abah used to always come to visit him a lot in KK, but less so now, because he has a heart condition. Raimon is philosophical about the state of things. “For me, KIDZ is actually my Abah’s heart. He is really in us.”
Raimon is gentle, dignified, friendly and infinitely talented. He is an example of Grace and Genius born from a simple kampung in Sabah.
Moses summed it up. “What you see in them [KIDZ] is what you see in their Abah. He is a very down-to-earth person, very humble. He is Sabah’s unsung hero.”
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