Tanjung Aru: Birthplace of the Sabahan Blues
Stay close to your roots and true to the music of your heart. Tanjung Aru was the childhood home for four musicians, years later it was the birthplace of a uniquely Sabahan blues band. These guys wrote “Blues Kita” for a tv drama which didn’t happen. Instead, it won the ‘Most Popular Song’ category at RTM’s Carta Lagu Artis Sabah (CLAS) 2011.
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Make your own luck. These four sharp-looking blues musicians talking to me in Eyes & Ears Production are proving how true that is.
“Momain is short for mahu main as in want to play,” Sonny Bahari said last year, when I was reviewing their EP, Blues Kita. “When you say it Sabahan style, it sounds like mau main. So, want to play – blues becomes momain-blues.”
Members: the Jiaja brothers Nazri Ji and Naza Aja), plus Sonny Bahari and lifelong songwriting partner Ahmad Aziz.
The tale behind the eclectic duo of Nazri Ji and Naza Aja is here. So, the story of Momain Blues will be incomplete without a better picture of the partners-in-crime, Sonny B and Ahmad Aziz…
Ahmad and Sonny – The History.
“We’ve known each other since we were ten,” said Sonny.
“There’s a primary school in Tanjung Aru right in the middle between Terminal 2 and the roundabout near the shops. Before we were ten, Ahmad was in the Malay part and I was in the English part. When they integrated both schools into one, we were in the same class.
But it wasn’t until we were 15, and at La Salle, that we started sharing musical notes. I don’t know how we found out that we had music in common, but it was the 80s, and we were stuck in the 70s and 60s!” Sonny recalled.
“And now my hairstyle is stuck…” added Ahmad.
“In school, people were listening to punk rock, reggae, new age. Going into hip hop, rap, break dancing,” Sonny said.
They were like: Hey, listen to this [Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark]
We were like: Hey, listen to this [Pink Floyd]
“We were asking our friends for their older brothers’ cassettes. Does your brother have Led Zeppelin?
“We were searching back. Where did the Beatles come from? George Harrison had a good friend called Eric Clapton. Those kind of things.
“Then in our last year before graduating high school, someone said, ‘Did you know Cyril Simon’s got a band? He’s got brothers who can play together.’ We didn’t know anything about Cyril except that he was really mysterious!”
Cyril’s house was about half an hour’s walk from La Salle school.
“I was the librarian in those days…” Sonny said. Everyone in the room laughed. “I looked after the library for the boarding school guys up to 3 or 4pm. So one of those days, we went to Cyril’s house. That’s where it all started. It was the first time we sat on a real drum set, played electric instruments, after all our formative years of banging tables. It was a real rush…”
“I learned to play drums at Cyril’s house,” Ahmad said. “Me and Sonny, well actually me, spent almost every day knocking at the door [as early as 7am!] to look for Cyril just to learn the drums, using their drums set!”
“In a period of two to three years, I got drumming tips from Cyril, or his brother Marcelus. Sometimes his mother called us for lunch or tea break. They let me listen to some unknown music, like some jazz fusion group, rock group [Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Stray Cats, Duran-Duran and many more which I did bring home to study as my homework!]
“Until now I really miss them,” Ahmad reminisced. “I spend most of my ‘music learning years’ with them. One of Cyril’s brother is the legendary ‘star’, James Simon Gonsilou. He’s still in KK teaching drums, and can sing well too.”
“There are lots of people that I want to thank or give credits to [in music] too many. But I start with the Gonsilou family first,” Ahmad said.
At the end of the year, the two friends went their different ways, at least in the day. Ahmad looked for a job, while Sonny had to retake his exam. “Now I was in All Saints,” said Sonny. “The first thing I asked the boy sitting next to me was: Does this school have a band? He pointed to the guy behind me, whose name was Suffian Ismail. Suffian became our bassist, and we formed a band called Mixed Bits.
“So there were people around doing music, but you had to know who. You had to put up a brave face, and we were shy guys! We only had one thing in mind – pick up the guitar and get to the next chord. So we started at Cyril’s house, and Mixed Bits did some session work during the Bakat Interact years.”
Nazri Ji leapt in at this point. “I would like to say that we – Aja and me – didn’t even pass the Bakat Interact audition! That’s the difference between us!”
Sonny responded, “That’s because they tried to break through from the front. We broke through from the back.”
Listening to Sonny, I got the feeling that these were the real working musicians, guys straight out of school and into the Life, raising their families while developing in all the musical ways they can. Ahmad and Sonny chose different ways to be musicians.
Ahmad started in the clubs and walked out halfway through a gig. “Just once,” he said. “I only left once.”
Ahmad refused to work the club circuit. He joined the Land and Survey department and remains there today. It has served to look after his family of five kids, while his music finds an outlet in studio session work.
“I like studio recording. More freedom. More peace. More natural,” he said. “I also listened to all kind of music. I listened more than I practised drums, because I’m more into the feel of making music. I think, Get the right feel and automatically you’ll get the whole story.”
A near fatal car accident in 1996, when a bus hit his car from behind, put Ahmad in a coma for almost a week. Sonny said when Ahmad was conscious again, he couldn’t remember his own name.
Ahmad said (with a twinkle), “Yeah. I remember I’m a drummer, but I couldn’t remember my name.” 😀
Since then, Ahmad really makes time for drumming and song writing. “This is what I like to do. So I just do it.”
Sonny is the quintessential working musician. He does everything: session work, gigging in clubs. He worked with RTM Kombo for six years after an introduction from Suffian, and credits Mr. Ronald James for years of priceless guidance. But sometimes it was a struggle.
“I was 22 years old, and the rest were in their 40s. You make music from 8am to 5pm, and it’s not really inspiring to hear: ‘I gotta go take my kids to school, I gotta go out and buy milk…’
“But I was doing sessions at nights for other bands, so I tried to soak in everything in those formative years when I was in Kombo.”
He and his cousin formed Sabah’s respected club band – the Headhunters. “I was with the Headhunters for eight years. My cousin had a plan to show that locals can play clubs too, properly, like the Filipinos. You’ve got to have a formula, and they use that formula up to now. Even after we left the band. They’re playing in Shenanigans now.
“During those years with the Headhunters, I still kept in touch with Ahmad, who was writing more and more.”
Ahmad and Sonny formed a project called NSD. ‘Nama Singkatan Dunia. Literally means Short Form for The World.’ They invited Vincent Chin to record four songs for NSD at RAM studios in 2001. The duo’s songwriting and session work continued, and Sonny rejoined RTM as a producer.
“Things started to pick up in Sabah” Sonny said. “Especially for Sabahans. We got noticed. It like snowballed.”
Nazri Ji joined in. “I remember there was one night when we were invited to go and have a jam, in a studio in KK. It was the end of 2009…”
Birth of the Momain Blues
Nazri Ji said, “We (Ji and Aja) were invited to be actors in a tv drama called ‘Kinabalu Blues’. The directors needed some local musicians. They introduced us to Sonny, and they decided to have a few songs for the movie.
“We decided to write a song for that movie, and that is when we started to play together.”
“When we were about to record the demo, I had some insider information that the drama was not happening,” said Sonny. “But a song like that is good, something we can bring with us. We don’t have to wait for the movie. So I didn’t tell the others what I heard.
“Afterwards, I met with them and said, ‘Let’s do something with the song’. I didn’t know that the two of them had a group in mind already. Just from that project.”
It was Aja’s idea to form a band.
“I put the blame on him,” said Ahmad. “They (Ji and Aja) made a meeting at 2nd Beach in Tanjung Aru! It all starts again there!” They laugh.
“Hey! That really was our first band meeting actually, in Tanjung Aru!” said Ji.
“At that time, I was interested in doing jam with them,” admitted Ahmad.
“I was surprised,” said Sonny. “I’m a family man, and these two guys (Jiaja) are from a different world, they’re not even married, they’re not tied to anything, and yet we can seriously go around each other and in the past year nothing seems to be an obstacle.”
“I believe that we (Jiaja) have something,” said Aja. “We did something. At the same time, they were doing something also.”
“So why don’t we do something together?” finished Ji. Everybody laughed.
“I think Ahmad is the main songwriter,” said Ji. “The lyrics, the words. We come to the studio and do some jamming, according to his (Ahmad) direction.”
“From what I see, his writing is more to social culture. Things like money, everyday things, relationships, work, politics,” said Aja.
“What comes out of a Sabahan’s mouth, he tries to put it in a song,” said Sonny.
“Like what we talk everyday! It’s a story!” Aja laughs.
“We want to tell the world there IS a blues band from Sabah, with a good story, a story that is worth listening to,” wraps up Ji. “It’s good stuff!”
Fine musicians working with a timeless musical form – The Blues. The Sabahan Blues has arrived. Yep. It’s definitely very good stuff.