Datuk Peter Pragas at the "Bonding With Gaya Street" meet the Legends sessions in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

RTM Sabah should use talent shows to find and train local musicians

“The Sabah government needs to finance RTM Sabah, so it can make talent programmes again. You have to have programmes like competitions, that way the people who do music –  the singers, the players – they will come. Then you can choose the best ones from there, give them programmes to do, pay them and train them. That is the way to find and develop our musicians in Sabah.” Datuk Peter Pragas.

[Related post: Datuk Peter Pragas: Composer, Pianist (1926-2014)]

When I visited Datuk Peter Pragas for an interview, he welcomed me with a gentleness which made me feel quietly delighted, and humbled. We sat at a table in his daughter Jeanette’s home, off Jalan Bundusan, sharing a plate of biscuits and cold drinks.  The living room burst with evidence of this gentleman’s musical achievement in Sabah: newspaper articles, publications, trophies, photographs with eminent public figures; documented accolades about Sabah’s adopted music maestro, and one of her first fusion composers.

In 1957, Datuk Peter was living in Kuala Lumpur, working as a music director with Filem Negara. He came to Sabah for a holiday, or North Borneo as it was then, and fell in love with the native music here.

Staying with his sister in a government house in Jesselton, Datuk Peter listened to the grass cutters outside his window.

“At that time, the music influenced me to come back. I found the music here so beautiful, but also very simple. The grass cutters – in those days they didn’t have machines to cut the grass around the houses – they used to come round, singing their folk songs. The songs were beautiful, but quite limited in range. They were pentatonic melodies (where five notes make up an octave) and just verses.

“I imagined what it would be like to give them a chorus. To embellish and make extensions to this native music.”

“The best place to join — for me — was RTM Sabah.  At that time it was called Radio Sabah. They didn’t have a post, but my director said he would create a post for me, if I would please come.  So on his word, I said okay. Unfortunately for me, to start with, they put me in Division Four. Four!”

I didn’t understand the significance of this. Datuk Peter explained that we were talking about salary grades.

“Division Four is very low, it was RM450 a month at that time. Whereas in Filem Negara I was in Division One, that was RM2000 a month.” That was in 1957.

“Anyway, I joined Radio Sabah. I wasn’t so interested in the salary, because I was interested in the music.” Radio Sabah then entered a period of development under a Music Director who would remain there for 23 years.

“So!  I started a band.” The Datuk created the first radio band here, called the Sabah Serenaders.

Datuk Peter Pragas at the "Bonding With Gaya Street" meet the Legends sessions in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Datuk Peter Pragas at “Bonding With Gaya Street” in 2012. Photo courtesy of James Cheuk

“Some of the band boys were from Burma, and from Singapore. They were very good. Very professional. They played guitar and all those Western instruments. But of course I also had a group that played local instruments. I joined them together. I took the local music, blended it and gave it a chorus.”

Sabah fusion was born, as Datuk Peter joined the sounds of the bungkau (jaw harp), suling (bamboo flute), sompoton (a mouth organ made of bamboo pipes and a dried gourd) and others with those of Western instruments. His composition ‘Kanou Sumazau’ (Let’s Dance) became, and remains, the signature tune for Radio Sabah’s Kadazan service. It has been played each morning at 7.00 am for the past 38 years.

Datuk Peter initiated the first talent competitions here, in the 1960s, called the Radio Talentime Competitions. “As long as I was in radio, I did these programmes. Talent show ones especially. Talentime was going all around Sabah. It went out on radio alone, later on, after Bintang Radio came, of course that was coming out of KL.  But I was still in charge of Sabah, and we went all around, having these shows and competitions. Picking out the best people. And then paying them to work on programmes.”

Datuk Peter’s goal was two-fold. To find the music talent in Sabah,  and to beautify the local music.

“I was having a (radio) programme every week, and the people loved it,  they even used to write in the papers that people said the music was beautiful.

“I used to teach the police band. They were locals from Sabah. They were more or less the best, lah. I taught them notation, and they learned very fast.  Some became really good, and some went on to get a certificate of music education.  One of them is Ambrose Mudi. He was one of the best. There are a few others. Ambrose, the government sent him overseas to study.”

There were other ways which Datuk Peter was able to increase the pool of musicians under Radio Sabah.

“Radio Sabah used to bring in musicians from the RTM KL orchestra. The ones who were going to retire,  they send them here to improve us.  We were a kombo, while they (in KL) were an orchestra. But we became bigger and bigger. Eventually the standard of music in Sabah — the local music, the Dusun music — became very, very good.  Now it’s fantastic. If you listen to their music, it is beautiful,  very very good. Sabah people are very, very musical.”

So I asked, what about today? What is music education in Sabah like now, and what do you think about taking RTM Sabah’s kombo to orchestra level?

During his own childhood, seven-year-old Peter Pragas had become an organist at St. Francis Xavier’s Church in Penang. His father taught him the basics of music, and had a personal interest in the Gregorian Chant. Young Peter’s piano and violin skills were nurtured by a Professor Hoffman from Germany and later a Professor Francis Arul’ de from India. When he was 15, he was actually offered a scholarship by a German La Salle Brother, to pursue musical study in Europe. But at that age, the decision to accept was not his to make, and the offer was not taken up.

“Now?”  the Datuk responded. “There is no widespread music education going on here. You see,  you have the Yamaha people,  and the Music Concept people,  and a few other organisations, which teach music.  And what do they teach?  Piano, organ and sometimes drums. No local communities have access to music here.  Only people with private money, they have access to learning music.

“There are orchestras here. The Chinese schools have groups which are orchestra size. They already play like that.”

But for RTM Sabah to have a full orchestra? It would be difficult, because getting the breadth of musicians for an orchestra is hard. “Where will you get an oboe player from here? Remember, in KL, they still have to import some musicians. Of course the day will come when they will have an orchestra, but it will come slowly.”

But he added: “Of course, IF they had one, it would be much better!   When you have an orchestra, you can also split it into kombos! The kombos from the orchestra can play for many different functions, and you don’t have to always bring the full orchestra! But it’s very costly. You have set numbers for an orchestra, they can consist of 35, 72, 105 musicians. For RTM Sabah, an orchestra of 35 would be just nice…”

Datuk Peter pursued the train of thought. It came back to his original premise. No getting away from it. “So! How are you going to get instrumentalists for an orchestra?   You need to get the government to give money to RTM Sabah, to have more talent shows,  and find the people so that you can train them.  Then maybe, you will be able to think about an RTM Sabah orchestra.”

The growth of the tourism industry didn’t particularly impress the Datuk as a way forward for local musicians. “Tourists? They are just satisfied getting a local cd. That’s it! They don’t expect the local musicians to perform on a stage, so that they can come and see.”

But certainly, raising the ability of Sabahan musicians as a whole, through recruitment and training at RTM Sabah, was a way of improving the profile of Sabah on the international stage.

“RTM Sabah Hiburan normally asks the Director for an allocation, That director will take all the allocations,  and send the requests to KL.  Then KL will slash all the allocations, and you will get less that you ask!

“But also, the funding will have to come from the Sabah government.”

I asked the Datuk what has he enjoyed most about his musical life in Sabah? “I just loved to teach.  Teach the guitarists who didn’t read music,  teach them more chords. I used to play them the piano,  play new chords.  They have to listen, to learn,  this is what I loved to do.”

And money? Did you think about money?

“The money doesn’t come first. You think of making the music first, and then the money things will come later.”
Datuk Peter Pragas.

RTM Sabah Director of Music Datuk Peter Pragas' interview with SabahSongs was published in MySinChew.com Collectors' Edition

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  1. As a Sabah-born Canadian living in Canada for most of my life, Dutuk Peter Pragas’ music gives me a “flavour” of Sabah, and it connects me to my roots. I will share it with my children, as a means of bringing my culture to theirs. Thank you for the music, uncle!

  2. As an Australian of Malaysian descent I am proud to say that he is my uncle. I remember my childhood in Penang where he spent hours on the piano, he could play anything, all you had to do was humm the tune. He has always been a gentle, unassuming man and everyone loved him. I have no doubt he has a great deal of music left in him.

    1. Ivan, the family of Datuk Peter said:

      “Right now Papa’s last album called ‘Tranquility’ is available digitally only on http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/peterpragas2

      and also can be downloaded from
      itunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, rdio, etc

      Sandra and I will check what CDs and books we have got and post an ad in the local newspaper in the coming days.

      I suppose you could also email either apragas@gnail.com or spragas@gmail.com and we’ll try and sort it out. Hope this helps.”

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