Drummer for KAYU, SIA Jazz Syndicate

Sabahan drummer Zul, full name Zulkhaliff bin Mohammad. He was the drummer for Kayu and SIA Jazz Syndicate

“All Saints school, that’s where my music career started, actually.” Zulkhaliff bin Mohammad, drummer for Kayu, SIA Jazz Syndicate and 1912. Young and talented drummer Zul believes studying at All Saints in KK was pivotal to his life in music. “All the students were really into music. That was the thing at All Saints. Everyone wanted to be in a good band.”

Music was not in the school curriculum, but All Saints gave them opportunity. “Every year there were 11 or 12 talent competitions, and we won them all, all the time. My acoustic band was The Castaways and the other band was The Unexpected.  The members of those bands are now in Andalusia.”

“My sister was also at All Saints and I taught her to play. I told her to form an all-girl band, and she formed a band called The Omen. I taught them all how to play because I really wanted them to be in music.”

Zul, now 24, lived many years in the US before his parents came back to KK.  “My parents brought me back to take my UPSR. They said not taking the exams would make my future hard in Malaysia. We spoke Malay at home, when living in the US. My mum is really serious about education and taught me Malay and English at the same time.” They came back twice, one year before the exams, so that Zul had time to prepare for the UPSR and later the PMR.

His earliest exposure to drumming was when he was eight. “That’s when I saw my grandfather’s band play in Telipok. It’s just something that they do every day – just jam. I would wake up early, because I would hear that sound – the  drums –  and I would feel like I wanna play!”

“I snuck into the room and I thought no-one was around. So I started hitting the drums. I didn’t realise that my grandfather was sleeping there, so when he woke I thought he was going to be mad with me. But he just said “Come here”, and he showed me the first beat in my life. That was the moment when I thought that, right, I am going to be a drummer.”

“I started playing drums on tins and cans.  You know those Nespray and Milo cans?  I would put socks in them, and if I wanted a lower sound, I would put less socks in, and that’s how I get used to playing tom toms sounds and snares, and things like that.

I wanted a drum set every since I was 15, and my dad kept telling me ‘later, maybe’. I got bored of asking him to buy me one, so I made one.  I would just turn on rock music on the radio and play along with it. That’s how I practised before.  My grandfather actually passed away the same year that he taught me drums. I feel I owe it to him to do well now.”

Zul’s drumming passion was bad for school. “At first, my parents were excited, they thought, ‘Ah, Khaliff is playing music now.’ But after I got really into it they began to think like it was a waste of time, because I kept on playing music rather than study.

“My band got serious and we played with an artist called Zamani, a local artist from KL.  It was in Tawau, and we got in the papers, they wrote a whole column about us. That’s when I knew music is for me. But I felt I had to finish my STPM, to try and fulfil both dreams.  But my STPM result was bad.  That was very hard.  My dad was like, ‘I told you so.’  My mum kept quiet, because she was supporting me silently. But she was still mad at me.”

This changed later, as Zul won the drum contest at Sutera Harbour in KK in 2005. “I also won a lot of awards while at SIA, and once my family saw me on tv, they felt differently”.

After the STPM, Zul played with his cousin Wan in a band called Impulse, but something was missing. “I was happy, but something was wrong. How to say? Nothing was supporting me from the back. I was just playing, and there was nothing to make sure I stayed in music. That’s when I asked my friends in Andalusia about the music diploma.”  Zul needed some fundamentals. “Yes, my mum brought me up saying education is important. Some of the guys in Andalusia said I should go to SIA (Sabah Institute of Arts). That’s how I met Gavin (Lawrence Nicholas), from Kayu.

“SIA was a really big step for me, actually. It was the first time I composed my own music, and the first time I played jazz. (Percussionist) James Simon taught me my first drum notes when I was about 17.  Then in SIA I had to learn piano, that’s how I know about other notes apart from drum notes.

“The people at SIA shaped whatever I had. Before I went to SIA, I had played for a guy called Amy Search, he’s one of the rock legends in Malaysia. His company called me to play drums for him and he’s very strict, especially on drums. So he was like scolding me, even live! He would turn around and shout at me, ‘Yo drummer! Tempo! Louder!’ Something like that!

“Then when I went to SIA, they really helped me a lot by building me to be a more complete musician.  They would say: Zul, ok you can play drums. But how about dynamics, how about tempo? They taught me how to play different kinds of music besides rock, like latin and jazz. Some of my SIA classmates are in the band JIAJA.  They introduced me to reggae and psychedelic rock, and Gavin introduced me to classical.  Trumpeter Jessel (Yansalang), he’s a lecturer there. He introduced me to jazz. He didn’t make us listen to the music, he made us PLAY. That’s his way of teaching.”

Jessel is also ex-All Saints, and Zul believes this is relevant. “I think, because he came from All Saints, somehow he knows how our minds work. We don’t like being told to do something (smile). If you say to me ‘Zul, you have to listen to classical in order to be good,’ I won’t listen.  But the way Jessel taught us, he made it so that there was something you had to do. Like, ‘OK, today we have a performance’. You have to just learn what to do! Me and Gavin, we composed out first piece in SIA during a subject called Orchestration. We had to compose an orchestra piece for about 20 people.  That’s how I got into composing.   The two things I really like to do are performing and composing.  And SIA taught me both.”

Zul completed his SIA diploma in 2006. Jessel wanted to put Zul into the degree programme at UMS.  “I said OK sure, no problem. But I never thought that I would be accepted.”

Zul toured with D’Carnival  (which is now playing at Edgar’s)  and they were ready to sign a good contract with a hotel in Sarawak. “Something like RM4,500 for each person, to play every night, with free food and transport and everything.”  Then Zul got accepted to UMS.

“I called my cousin and asked him what should I do? Wan said, ‘Go. Because your life could be better than this if you go to UMS.  This life is good now, but in the future it won’t be good.’ So I had to leave the band, and the hotel wouldn’t accept a sub. So the band lost the contract, and everyone hated me for weeks.”

Zul had to quit playing while studying at UMS.  “Once I could focus on UMS I really grew. I met this guy called Mat Rock, he was one of the best drummers in Malaysia. I had lecturers like Ian Baxter, Sir Andrew (Poninting), Budin, Nizam, and Dr Andika. They were like my guide to another music.

“At UMS Sir Andrew Poninting taught me how to create music with feeling. Everything has to come from the heart. He taught me about morals in music: how to arrive on time (I have a problem with punctuality), how to be a team, how to be a good musician to other musicians. He not only taught us how to create and play music, he taught us how to be good people. Mat Rock taught me technique, his lessons were really good because now I can play much more freely.

“My time management is bad sometimes, because I do a lot of stuff. I like to learn, so I try and take every offer I get, and then people scold me when I turn up late.”

Zul is in his final year at UMS. “From here, I want to be bigger than what I am now.  I taught before at MusicMart, and Guitar Point, and I am being offered a job to teach at University of Malaysia Sarawak as a lecturer.”

But Zul doesn’t want to teach, he wants to learn. “I want to be somebody different from anyone else. I want to be a musician that is versatile enough to be known in Malaysia.”

“Being in Sabah has helped me a lot. Sabah is a rich culture and rich in arts. There are different genres of music nowadays to look into. Before it was always rock, rock, rock.  Rock and traditional, something like that. But now there’s acoustic, jazz, rock. People are writing their own songs rather than just listening to other people’s music.”

Zul is not interested in winning international recognition. “Tanah tumpahnya Darahku.  I would like Malaysia to be proud of someone Malaysian. I think it would make my family very proud, if I could be ‘someone’ in Malaysia. I feel I owe it to Malaysia, especially to Sabah.”


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