Datuk Peter Pragas: Composer, Pianist (1926-2014)

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

When bass player Moses de Silva tagged me in his Facebook status update, I learned that Sabah’s composer and music director Datuk Peter Pragas died on June 30, 2014, aged 87.

From my laptop in Brisbane, Australia, I saw the continuous stream of condolences to the Pragas family on my Facebook newsfeed, which is my window to the musicians’ world in Sabah, Malaysia.

The personal tributes to the first Music Director of Radio Sabah were notably similar: gentle, kind, humble, understanding, a wonderful band leader. They referred to him as Sabah’s musical legend, and all believe that his legacy will live on. I have no doubt that it will, since Sabah’s musicians are especially respectful of their elders and acknowledge the good contributions of members of their community.

Talking with me in 2009, he described listening to the grass cutters singing outside his sister’s house in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), while on a holiday there in the 1950s.

I found the music 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.

In 1957 Datuk Peter left a lucrative career in Kuala Lumpur as a music director with Filem Negara, to take up a post with Radio Sabah for a fraction of his former salary.

In his 23 years as Music Director of Radio Sabah and later RTM Sabah, Datuk Peter fused the sounds and structure of that native music with contemporary Western music and raised the profile of Sabah’s music and its musicians across the country. Similarly, he created the first talent shows in Sabah in the 1960s, providing much loved entertainment for decades and a invaluable platform for artists from all over the state.

I could say much more about Datuk Peter, whose composition for piano “Kanou Sumazau” (Let’s Dance in the Kadazan language) has opened the Kadazan radio service for almost 40 years. But really, his most remarkable qualities have already been celebrated by my musician friends all over Facebook: Datuk Peter Pragas was a gentle, humble and wonderful person, and knowing him has been an honour.

A few hours after I posted this, Gordon Pan said in a thread between a few of us:

“On some weekends I would follow my parents together with their friends (including Uncle Bill Funk, Joanna’s father) to the local charity dance at the Community Centre in KK. Peter and his band would be providing the dance music.

I can clearly remember he used to play the piano and also a clavioline (a first generation electric keyboard). The other two gentlemen I can remember were Mr. Marino and Mr. DeCruz on guitars. Wow, what a band !!! That was way before Kenneth Boon, Charles Lim, David Wang (Roger’s dad), George Lai and myself ever decided to form any kind of band. The late Peter was certainly the pioneer. I am proud to have played with him in the early days.”

He added, “You see Joanna, we were all somehow linked to him through music.”

Yes, even before I was born. Such is the closeness of Sabah.

Interview with Datuk Peter Pragas, November 2009 in SabahSongs

Datuk Peter Pragas


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