To be yourself and have your own music; That is what to reach for

Whether Nazri Ji Hussin and Naza Aja Hussin are talking, or playing music, it is clear that they have honed their musicianship skills to a very fine art, and they absolutely, uncompromisingly, choose to be different.

These two musicians, who make up JIAJA, are walking the less travelled road.

It’s nerve-wracking, especially for their parents and relatives who want the good things for them: security, a future, things like that.

Some people would say it’s unwise, because they are not being conventional, not playing it safe. But other people would say that Greatness is uncompromising, and only the fearless can take that road.

I mean, have you ever heard of a reasonable genius?

These very musical sons of Hussin Sulaiman grew up in Tanjung Aru before the family moved near Bukit Padang.

“We went to primary school in Bukit Padang,” according to Ji, “then for secondary school we went to SMESH, in English it was called Sabah Boarding School. Not much music there, it was a science-based school.”

Aja added, “I still remember that time, the guitar was banned!”

But they were undeterred. Ji recalled an early memory about their quest for more music info.  “When we were at boarding school, Aja had to go back home because he got chickenpox. He discovered all these old books of sheet music, my father’s old music books. All the songs, the chords, our father used to play guitar. So whenever we went back home, we would go to his room and raid all his books. We got to find some rare, old books, So that’s where we learnt our first chords, actually.”

Aja said, “I asked my mother if she would give me a guitar after my PMR. I was 15, I think I wanted to say, I wanna grow up! You know?”

Their music exposure was wide. “We would always find something to listen to,” Ji said. “Of course we went through a lot of these cassette tapes. In the 80s, when we were kids, my father was more into his jazz thing,  so we listened to his jazz collection and also some 80s pop and rock. The 80s was the keyboard era, so my eldest brother had a few keyboards, an organ and a Casiotone – the one we later use a lot in our album. Our eldest brother was supposed to go to organ school but…”

“Our father was a music lover and knew a lot of musicians,” Ji continued. “He had been into it from the 70s,  and when we started to play, and loved to play, he took us to meet all these different bands, his musician friends. So we knew of Sonny (Bahari) because he was part of the local music scene. Our father took us to a pub…”

“We were under age at that time!” added Aja. “That’s when we saw Sonny perform, in 1996”.

Sonny (who was also hanging out in Eyes & Ears) said, “It was a weekend jam session during the day. We played in a place called Mitramas, in Sadong Jaya, where local musicians were encouraged to jam. I didn’t know them (the brothers), I knew their father.”

“We also listened to some 90s Malay rock. That was from our eldest brother. It was folk rock, at that time. Mainstream rock. Bands like Search. Then going into our teenage years, we started finding all kinds of music. The psychedelic thing (a characteristic sound of JIAJA) came from our love of the rock era during our teenage years, which was in the mid 90s.”

Aja said that’s when their curiosity to learn more was fired up. “We were not too much into the music of the 90s. We were thinking, where did this come from?  That was the start of us studying the history of the music. Ji was listening to the Bee Gees and I was listening to the Beatles.”

Ji said this was when they discovered more complex harmony. “We found out that the chords the Bee Gees were using were quite interesting. Actually I learnt a lot of chords from listening to the Beatles and the Bee Gees.”

So, the passion was embedded in their hearts. Nazri Ji and Naza Aja were not focussed on more structured career paths, to their parents and uncle’s distress.

“From the science boarding school we moved to Sabah College,” said Ji. “After that we went to Inti College in West Malaysia. I was doing electrical engineering.  Aja was doing civil engineering.  But unfortunately,  or fortunately, we flunked out! At the same time we had to try to please our parents.  They weren’t worried about our music interests yet because we kept it to ourselves! We had to repeat our courses at Nilai College in the same area. But again we flunked.”

“We had started writing songs when we were teenagers,” Aja said, “By the time we were in college, all this contributed to our failure in engineering. We were just too busy: busy practising music, writing songs, performing…” (smiles)

“We were too busy experimenting on four track tape recorders rather than electrical engineering,” Ji concurred.

Eventually, everyone has to wake up and smell the coffee.  What did they want to do with the rest of their lives?

“This time there was no escape. We had to go back to Sabah, and it was quite a turning point for us. We knew it had to be music for us, and we wanted to find something serious we could do,” said Ji.

But there were virtually no options.  “The day we were going back to Sabah, I was thinking we just have to make something for ourselves,” Aja said. “Because around 2000 there was nothing going on in music here which was interesting for us. What we were looking for was just not there. I was thinking, there is no music band we can become to perform for other people, because they don’t like the same thing as us. We have to make it for ourselves first.

Jiaja Sabahan musicians Blast Off contest winners

“It’s like this:  How are your going to start something, when you have got nothing? You have no choice,  you have to become something yourself first, before you have anything to offer.” Naza Aja Hussin. 

Ji and Aja worked as bartenders and waiters while working on their own music style, and they were also session musicians.

“Our parents were so unhappy with us, because they could see no future in what we were doing. So when we registered with SIA (Sabah Institute of Art) they felt better.”

“Music courses had started in KK,” said Ji. “In 2003 or 4, we didn’t have any idea what SIA was, but Jessel (Yansalang’s) batch was the first batch (of Music degree graduates). I think maybe we were the second or third batch. Moses (de Silva) was our senior at that time. The registration was with SIA but it’s linked with UMS. I don’t understand the relationship actually.” (We all laugh.)

“So we started our first formal education in Music. Jessel’s batch had just graduated, and they were the ones teaching us.”

“Now we started learning and reading music seriously, and the lecturers really helped. It was such a fresh experience. Also, SIA had more connections outside, which meant more places and opportunity for us to perform, and expose ourselves.” Ji recalled.

“I think that was the time when we started being full-time musicians. Not even just music students. We were going in the daytime to our classes, and at night time we were playing around pubs in KK”, Aja said.

Suhaimie Jamli was the music coordinator of SIA during our studies, the one that encouraged us to do  music activities outside school.

“I think we learned a lot from that. SIA taught us a lot” said Ji.

“I think I was the oldest student there…” mused Aja.

By now, they had their style, and they wanted to enter a talent competition: Astro HITZ.TV’s Blast Off Season 2.

“We were Jiaja, a duo, songwriting thing.” said Ji. “We decided to enter our own song, and as Jiaja. But they wouldn’t take a duo, the minimum was a four piece band. So we got a bass player and a drummer.”

“We had wanted to enter the first season but they were not doing auditions in Sabah. So we had to wait another year, which was in our fifth semester. We had six semesters for our degree. The audition was in Razzmatazz. It was fun, but quite scary also.”

Aja spoke quietly as he recalled that time.  “We were really lucky, we were chosen to be THE band from Sabah.  One band from Sabah out of maybe 20 bands then! We were very lucky that time.”

The dream continued. In February 2006, Sabah’s Jiaja won the band category of Blast Off Season 2. They came home with RM20,000, a trophy, a handphone and a backpack each.

But being true to yourself is not easy, and not everyone understands your way.

“When Jiaja won Blast Off, there were a few offers of recording contracts to go to KL,” explained Ji. “But we didn’t want to go, because it was not suitable for us. We want to do something new (different) as a band, something that we dream of. We had one more semester in SIA, so we thought why don’t we finish our studies and try to write and record our songs independently.”

Aja continued, “If we went to KL,  they would want to change us. They have to consider what is their business, the market trend.”

Ji added, “When we came back after Blast Off, most people said, ‘Well it’s a shame you didn’t stay in KL’. It’s hard to explain to them, because they are not the ones actually looking at the contract, and being there in KL. It was a tough decision for us.”

Both brothers realised that they had represented Sabah, and that people expected them to go further in KL. But they also knew that this was for Sabah’s image, and not for the personal dreams of Nazri Ji and Naza Aja, as individuals.

“We want to have our own music,” said Ji. “We want to tell people who we are. That’s the thing. We are NOT a commercial band, and we are happy with that.”

Aja struggled to make his point. “You know, five years ago, Jiaja had its own character. Five years ago. But you see Lady Gaga now? What’s the difference?  She’s doing that. I don’t know what to say.”

I am reluctant to put words into Aja’s mouth.  But maybe one could say Jiaja was ahead of their time, making unique music that people here were not ready for.  Perhaps  people are also prepared to listen to something different when it comes from the West, even though something similar was created right here on their home soil.

Local response to Jiaja is two-fold. Pride because they are talented and skilled Sabahans, but the music is not for passive listening. It demands a bit of work to understand the messages. A bit like watching a foreign movie: you have to read the subtitles. It takes more work.

“When we finally recorded our own album, two EPs, we could see people are not ready for this kind of music,” said Ji. “Just the response was quite confusing. They like it because it’s us, and it’s from Sabah. But at the same time they didn’t really like it, because it was a different kind of experience. The people in Sabah still look to KL for their direction. They expect you to become a celebrity, but …”

“If you have your own character, you should be your own self,” stated Aja. “I want to see you as YOU. Not as somebody else’s idea of what is supposed to be good.”

These brothers are aware that great skill and talent comes to them not out of the blue, but through the combination of their own effort, and the generosity of others. They asked to make acknowledgements.

“We would like to pay some respect to musicians who did it before us,” said Ji.  “I mean, the generation before us, the local musicians who deserve more recognition than they have got. I’d like to mention one man who was a crooner in Sabah, and he was the late M.Y. Ahmad. He sang with his brother M.Y. Ismail, which is the father of guitarist Suffian Ismail. They were great crooners.

“Also some local musicians that my father introduced us to, including Ahmad and Sonny. Mr. Albert, the drummer. When we first started playing in a band, he was the first one who started coaching us because he was my father’s old friend. He’s a good teacher. My father also introduced us to Maha, where I saw Ahmad. I took a few guitar lessons with Oswald (Perera), and both of us did play in the band of ex-guitarist of Laserbeam, Mr. Ritchie. We used to join them to play functions. Also we played a lot of music with our brothers, my eldest brother and my younger brother. We learnt a lot watching performances by the rest of the Sabahan musicians, actually. There are so many of them.

“We would especially like to thank our father, Hussin Sulaiman, for giving us the musical genes, and who introduced us to all these musical things, collected all the instruments, which was his hobby and now we share the same passion. It’s a privilege and we were very lucky.  Also our uncle, Datuk Uzair, who is also a collector.”

What about the future? Enter Momain Blues: Ji, Aja, Sonny B and Ahmad Aziz.

“We have formed our Jiaja character, and we were looking for other music alliances,” said Ji.

“I believe that we – as Jiaja – were doing something,” said Aja.  “At the same time, they (Ahmad and Sonny) were doing something. So why don’t we do something together?”

But that, folks, is ANOTHER STORY.   😀

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