There are no rules. If you believe in your music, do whatever you like

The first time I saw Sonny Bahari was at RTM Sabah’s offices. I had finished an interview with Moses De Silva and took a group photo with the RTM Sabah’s producer’s team . But we didn’t get the chance to talk.

The second time I saw Sonny was at ‘My Story at Starbucks’ in 1Borneo, where he was backing Moses. I saw him on stage, eyes closed and making funny faces, while he reeled off sublime licks on an acoustic guitar, as part of a very memorable jam session.

The third time I met Sonny was a few days ago, at the Indian mamak shop underneath RAM Production studios in Damai, with Chris Pereira. This time, I made sure we talked. And boy, Sonny can talk!  We were soon joined by Alvin MY and his wife Dazeree, Reuben Raymond and Rolln Augustine, and Terence Blantocas. All of us headed for the Eyes & Ears studio, where Sonny sat down and took out his guitar. Oh man, I counted my lucky stars. This guy plays and talks at the same time. It was just too good to be true! So, what was Sonny’s story? Born in Sandakan and raised in KK, Sonny Bahari circumvented his dad’s plans for him to take a business degree.

“I dropped out of business school after two years. I started knowing everybody in music in KK, I had this vision of wanting to be Larry Carlton.”

Sonny taught himself guitar.  “In those days any information I had was from ‘Guitar Player’ magazine. For me, it all started with the Beatles, and you can’t categorize them as a ‘pop band’ only.  They went into jazz, they went into classical. So that started the ball rolling – I was a music fan first, and then came the guitar playing bit.

“In those days it was a plus if you could play every other instrument a four piece band would play. so I taught myself a bit of keyboards, a bit more bass, and drums.   [Sonny played harmonica on Roger Wang’s album ‘Journey Home’.]

Impromptu Jam Session at Eyes & Ears
Impromptu Jam

When Sabahans come together it is inevitable that they will make music. Sonny plays here with Alvin MY, Rolln, Reuben and Terence.

Melody, lyrics and rap all totally spontaneous and unrehearsed. In the beginning you can even hear them deciding what language to do this in. Awesome.

Sonny did the hard yards to be a musician. In 1986, “in order to get ahead in music in those days, you had to meet everybody in the clubs. So I met Chinese nightclub musicians, I met people who played weddings. I met everybody.  I just put myself in every musical situation that I could find.”

He worked an education-related day job. “My bassist was working as the drummer in Kombo RTM. He became the best reading drummer in Sabah, and his name was Suffian Ismail.  So I had the privilege of following them everywhere: every time they had a practice session or recording session. I forced myself into that circle, and (Kombo Leader) Ronald James basically taught me how to read music.”

After a year, there was a reshuffle at the kombo and Ronald James invited Sonny to join the team. “I took my one year contract to be filled and signed by my dad. My dad said: ‘So how? Sign ah? If that’s what you want, I sign.’ So it all started from there.

“The first time I worked for RTM Sabah was from ’88 to 93, as a guitarist. I learned a lot from there, musically, technically. From people like Ronald, and Basil Lazaroo the bassist. That’s in addition to my friend Suffian. Without him I wouldn’t be there. I’m still very close to him.

“I stayed for six years, but it came to a point when I didn’t want to renew my contract. I formed a band with my cousin called The Headhunters, and when I left RTM we went on the road for the next eight years, throughout Malaysia, with stops in Singapore and Myanmar.

Chris Pereira and Sonny Bahari

“Touring with The Headhunters was a different learning curve: all about business, and the music. I finally stopped being on the road in 2001. The band went on, but I stayed behind. That was when my eldest kid got into Primary 1, and I said: Enough travelling.”

Did Sonny have advice for young musicians today?

“I would not know what to tell young musicians today. They have their own vision, inspirations, and what they want to do. I would just say do what you feel like doing. Because when it comes to music, there are no rules and borders.  Nobody says if you’re a blues player you cannot play soul, if you are a blues player you cannot play classical. There’s no rules about that. If you believe in your music, do whatever you like.”

Alvin MY asked Sonny, “When you feel down,  in  those days,  how do you make yourself believe that you still can do it?  I mean, maybe we have our own ways, but a musician as yourself, what did you do?”

“I tell you one story.” Sonny began.  “I hope you understand, I answer this way, lah. My wife used to dance professionally. When she stopped dancing, when she became housewife plus plus, I still had my guitar: in bed, on the sofa, anywhere.  One day she said to me, ‘I wish I can be like you. Then whenever I am sad I can just pick up the guitar.’  So that’s my answer to your question.  I always have the music with me.

“And the other side of it is like,  if I want to put it down, I put it down.  This is my music and this is my lyrics. It’s part of my experiences, it keeps me sane.”

After about three more years gigging locally, Sonny returned to RTM Sabah as a producer, where he makes programmes and evaluates new talent.

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