Blues singer Johnny Toft: Understand your voice and pick up a style of your own

This photo of Johnny Toft and Datuk Uzair at the 5th KK Jazz Festival is courtesy of Tom Rungitom. Thank you, Tom!

From ‘Oktoberfest MusicVibe 2010: Pride and Passion in a night.’

Momain Blues’ Sonny Bahari hugged his guitar in his characteristic way, twanging and squinting and grimacing. Then he said, “We’re gonna invite a guru of ours onto the stage… Mr Johnny Toft.” This veteran singer [who’s been around since the ’70s] nodded to the band, and they eased into a version of ‘Summertime’, showing their cool hand of experience.

Johnny wailed like a down-and-out hobo and we banged the tables and howled like wolves baying to the moonlight. We were owned. Momain Blues had us captive, happy prisoners with no resistance. Awesome.

[UPDATES 17/07/2011 to add where he hangs out, and a bit about his family.]

Yep. That was my first impression of blues man Johnny Toft , and I knew we would talk again.

“My dad was English. I’m the third generation in Malaysia, because my grandparents came over here first. They were sent down to Malaya and Singapore, at that time when Sabah was known as British North Borneo. My dad was into music, though he didn’t play any instruments, he was more into dancing. But my grandmother – my father’s mum – she was a musical tutor and she qualified from one of the schools of music in London.”

Son of Eddie Toft and Daisy Dang, a young Johnny came to Sabah from Singapore as a small boy, and grew up in Hone Place in Tanjung Aru. He attended Sacred Heart, La Salle and Sabah Colllege, before joining the world of working musicians.

He cast his mind back… “Let’s see now. Going back to end of ’64, I joined in the Talentime competition, I was 16+. We had a group called ‘The Lost Safaris’. In that band we had Charles Wong, the elder brother of James Wong, the famous Malaysian footballer. Charlie we used to call him. Thomas Tham or Tham Ping Fook – he was playing bass. On drums we had Matthew Koshy, and Martin Pereira came in from Singapore. He later became a famous producer for Anita Sarawak, Malaysian singer Sudirman, and Teresa Teng. After Talentime we changed our group’s name to Marksman.”

It was the beginning of his musician’s life, in the time of jazz dance bands and the emergence of a group called The Beatles.

“The first song I ever sung on stage was ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ and that was in the Talentime. But as the band Marksman, we concentrated mostly on the jazz line, because we were employed by the Jesselton Sports Club, which was mainly dominated by people from England, and they liked the old-time jazz, and dance numbers like foxtrot and all that.”

Marksman was made up of: Martin Pereira, Charlie Wong, Tham Ping Fook, Matthew Koshy and Johnny. Johnny said Tham Ping Fook now plays with ‘Final Fling’, with Charlie Wong’s younger brothers.

“We did instrumentals as well as vocals: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole. Songs from those guys. That was basically my roots, although there was also a lot of Beatles.”

Some travelling was involved too, which was quite a thing in the 1960s. “The Penaga Club in Kuala Belait belongs to Shell. They flew us in to play for the Dutch National day, so Marksman had a stint in Brunei too.

“After the Marksman, I joined up with three brothers from Burma who I went to school with. We called ourselves ‘Brothers 3 + 1’. That’s when I started drumming. We were doing numbers by the Bee Gees, Simon & Garfunkel. The three brothers were church trained, so there was good harmony, they did a bit of Mama and the Papas. Songs like ‘California Dreamin’ ‘. Some Stones.”

The world outside continued to crash in on Sabah. “In 1969, when I was about 21, a guy named Dennis Phillips came over from Canada, his mother was a teacher with Sabah College. We became friends and he was into blues and things like Jimmy Hendrix. So we got together and called ourselves ‘The Experience’, we had the late Gordon Gregory on bass. We had a 3-piece group playing a lot of blues and Hendrix stuff, with me concentrating on drums because the other two were singing. There were a lot of things I had to learn on drums. There were no classes. It was all self-taught. I had a few tips from Matthew Koshy. He was a good jazz drummer and he’s still playing.”

Johnny’s father moved to Australia, and Johnny gave it a shot. “When I was working in the North West of Western Australia, in one of the mining towns, I met up with a Maori friend Phil Paronini and another Kiwi friend, and we formed a group called ‘Stonehouse’. We were a pub band, playing all the covers. I stayed in Australia for a while, but I was always coming back to Sabah. Somewhere along the line, the Australian lifestyle, somehow I couldn’t fit into it. Australia is very modern, with beautiful roads, buildings, but for me there was something missing.

“Being in Sabah was a very important part of my life, and I felt my roots were here, even though I was born in Singapore. I’m more Sabahan than I’m Singaporean. I went back and forth between Australia and Sabah for years, before deciding to stay here. ”

Once Johnny got back here, he eased back into the musicians’ world.

“When I was in Australia I had a chance to meet a lot of good musicians. I got to listen to them while they were talking, and some of them were very deep into music. Eventually I realised, ‘Geez, it’s not just about words and knowing the song’. Singing is not just melody and words. You got to listen to chords, I mean, if you want to improve yourself as a singer. Eventually you will know what chord is coming up ahead because you are used to the changes. This is where I think a lot of the advantages goes to the blues and jazz singers. They are very much into chords, and their voices become like an instrument.

“This is especially important for singers like me who don’t play an instrument. I’ve got to understand the musician’s side, what he’s going to do. I’ve trained my ears to ‘feel’ the chord that’s coming up, so that I know exactly where I’m going into. I think that’s very important.

“As a singer, you need to understand your voice. To know your voice. If you have a voice like Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zepplin, don’t try and do a Tom Jones. Understand your voice and pick up a style of your own.”

Johnny likes people who work at their music. He talked about one of our local keyboardists, Suaddy Rasman. “Now, he’s good, and he’s one from the school of hard knocks. No teachers. He learned his skills from hard work. I sometimes think, being an educated musician is good, but somewhere along the line you must have the feel. The feel, and good ears.”

Another example is Man Keedal. “Man says the recording studio is your MAHKAMAH – the COURTHOUSE. That’s where you cannot block, he says! In a recording, every note will stand out. The last few days he was at the recording studio at Mega Boogie, I noticed this guy is a perfectionist. He will stay up all night to get some little thing right, and he has the EAR , a good ear for music. Although he is not drumming, he has the patience to tune the drums, to make them suitable for the recording.”

Johnny sings plenty of blues at the Kampung Ketiau Blues Centre in Putatan [their nickname for a friend’s home which has a beautiful jamming studio] and at Mega Boogie’s studios in Alamesra. He’s also started occasionally singing some jazz standards at the Jesselton Hotel in Gaya Street.

Johnny likes to visit his children in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi. When we met up, he had just come back from his young son’s birthday. He’s got two young sons there. His only daughter, Aysha Toft, is studying at the Hasanuddin University in Makassar. “She just finished her first year, doing Fisheries. They do a lot of outdoor activities and she spends time in Kendari – which faces the Pacific Ocean, and fishing is a big industry there. She’ll get a lot of practical experience to see what’s going on there.”

Johnny said that Aysha also sings, plays the guitar and writes her own compositions. Nice to see she’s got Daddy’s creative streak in her too. 😉

Johnny Toft’s got a lot of growl in him yet. “I guess ‘Summertime’ has become my trademark song, and music is in my blood. Even if I stop performing, I’m always going to be listening. You can’t stop listening, or you’ll lose touch completely.”

But we’ll ain’t heard the last of him, that’s for sure. Blues Man Tofty. We’ll be seeing you around…

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6 Comments

  1. Whoa, I didn’t know that this guy is actually an awesome musician! Bee Gees, Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas & Papas, s I enjoy listening to some of their musics since I was a kid.

    1. Tom, he might sing some blues n oldies with me at Bella Italia soon. I’m the resident pianist at Jesselton Hotel. Thursdays Sonny Bahari plays wonderful blues with me. Come when you are free. 6-8pm Thursdays.

  2. hahahaha 😀
    his my daddy 🙂
    love you dad,,, I’ll keep playing music n singging to continue our generations 😉
    Your the best Papa

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