“Do not let people tell you that there is no hope for musicians, that they can’t earn a living. That’s what everybody says, but it’s absolutely not true. If they want an example, I’m the one. I have worked all my life as a musician, and I don’t think I am lacking for anything in my life. I’m not being proud or arrogant here. It’s just the truth. If you are willing to work hard, be disciplined, be willing to learn, be humble, I think you can go far.”
Ronald James, guitarist
Before I left Sabah, I had not managed to interview Ronald James, who has been a main figure in the Sabah music scene for some forty years. Happily, there is Skype. Ronald spoke with me from Sydney last week, in his quiet and unassuming style, and we are now able to fill a big hole in our SabahSongs blog.
Ronald James grew up in Tanjung Aru, Kota Kinabalu, with music all around him.
“My dad played the violin, steel guitar, drums and trombone and my two older brothers had a band. My early influence was Henry Ng, he was the lead guitarist for The Canons, which was a local band popular in the 1960s. He was staying just a few houses away from us. To me, he was a very good guitarist. I liked his finger and picking techniques, his style. The Canons played stuff from the Shadows and the Jumping Jewels. I always went to watch him play.
Then my friend David Chong introduced me to Deep Purple, I was about fourteen then. That changed me, and I have been learning Deep Purple songs for all of my life. My greatest musical influence would have to be none other than Richie Blackmore.”
My dad played a lot of jazz stuff. He was the first person to introduce me to jazz chords. He liked all those jazz standards and he did play with the late Peter Pragas, and with Dudley De Cruz. That’s where I got my jazz influences from.”
Ronald’s brothers learned their music by ear, and Ronald hadn’t been exposed to classical music teaching.
“My brothers all played off by heart. One day I went to my aunty’s house, and I saw her playing the piano. This was different because she was reading music. I actually asked my aunty, What are those things? She said, Those are musical notes.
From then on I started going to the State Library in KK to borrow music books. I went to Phoenix Store in Gaya Street which was one of the only music shops in KK in those days. I used to buy a lot of guitar books, those Mel Bay guitar books, and Shadows books, and I learned from those books. I was about twelve then.
I went to All Saints School, I always played music more than I studied! I always wanted to be a musician. That was just about it. I never considered anything else. My dad tried to discourage me, but he gave up after he realised he couldn’t change my mind.
In 1970 I was 16, we had a band led by Herman Lee. (He’s a civil engineer and he still plays until today.) He was the lead guitarist in the band, and I was the bassist, Roger Chong was the drummer, Donald Thomson was the vocalist. Charlie Yong was on keyboards. The name of the band was Eureka.
Later when we changed members, that band became High Voltage. High Voltage played a lot. We used to play at St Michael’s Secondary School in Penampang, in Gardinier restaurant in KK, where Tong Hing is, and we also played at the kampung weddings.
My dad, Piyadas James, had a friend who was the late Basil Malujang from Papar in charge of Hiburan in Music at RTM in the mid-1970s. He said there was now a part-time kombo in RTM, with Basil playing trumpet. Basil said the guitarist cannot read music, which was a problem. My dad proudly told him, “My son can read music!” So he said, “Why don’t you send your son to come in for an audition?”
I went for the audition. They gave me some music and asked me to play on the spot, they gave me a minute to look over it. I managed to come in on cue and to sight read all the stuff, and I played with them the next week at the Prince Philip Park. The concert was live on-air, on the radio all across the state in those days.
In 1975, Peter Pragas was the head of the music section. He was a wonderful man. The Kombo line up was Basil on trumpet, Zambri Razali – saxophones, Ronnie Singgoh – bass, Hydris Ibrahim – drums. Rahim Kahar – guitar.
I was very happy. I enjoyed playing with them, even though the music was mostly Malay music, some Chinese and some Kadazan music – not Deep Purple stuff! The Kombo style of playing is totally different to rock band music, because we were playing all kinds of forms of music from Sumazau to Cha Cha, to Dangdut.
But I continued the Deep Purple and Uriah Heap stuff outside the Kombo. That was a must!”
Ronald spoke at length about Ian Baxter.
“I had a very nice neighbour in Ian Baxter! We needed a keyboard player when our first keyboardist left, and the first person I asked was Ian because he was next door. Because it was close to his exams, his parents probably wouldn’t allow him to play. So we would drive close to his house, flash the handlight a few times at his bedroom window, he would climb out and go out with us. We would go round the nightclubs and play in a lot of places.
That was around 1977. I feel guilty about this, I probably wrecked his career. He probably could have become a doctor or lawyer or something if I didn’t bring him down the road of music.”
The Kombo (as the state radio station band) provided entertainment during state-wide election campaigns. The 1981 Sabah Centerary Celebration was one such campaign, and the kombo needed a keyboard player.
“I asked Ian if he was interested. He said he’s talk to his dad. His dad said he could do it as long as he continued his studies, because he was going to sit for his STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate) soon. We had to do a lot of practising and a lot of travelling… Ian toured the whole state with us. In those days there were some 40 constituencies, we had to play in almost every constituency where there was a campaign. We would go down there performing with visiting West Malaysian artists like Yasmin Yusuf. A lot of those artists came and went and we backed them all over the state.”
During that time, Ian sat his exam, and continued touring while he waited for his result.
“One day I remember we were on a flight, and he managed to get hold of a newspaper on board the plane. In those days they published all the exam results in the newspaper. Ian he flipped through the newspaper, and saw the results of his exam. He got a 9. The best mark starts with 1, so 9 means a Fail. He was with me in the plane. When he saw that, I remember telling him, Never mind, you got a 9, it looks like a minim. It’s a good sign.
So he flunked! But I’m glad he didn’t curse me. Ian was a great keyboardist and I was very thankful to him. He played very well with us.
I never had the opportunity to go to university or further my education, so I did what I could to learn everything by myself. Later, Ian went to Berklee College of Music, in Boston. He used to call me. Midnight in Berklee is about noon in KK, so he always called me around those times and we used to chat about what he was learning there. He was sending stuff back to me and when he came back he gave me a lot of his books.”
Ronald had always wanted to be an arranger and he was interested in orchestration. RTM enabled him to explore this.
“In RTM, every time they gave me the music sheets to play, I would ask them for the arranging score. I would see how they write the trumpet, the saxophone, note the range of an instrument, ask why the trumpet is a B flat instrument and why the alto sax is an E flat instrument. That was the first time I had been exposed to anything like that.”
The other musicians tolerated Ronald’s curiosity.
“Well, they just let me check their scores, and whenever I asked questions they just answered my questions, that’s all. I took down notes and tried to learn from there. Then after some time I began to do arrangements for the kombo. When the kombo leader, sax player Zambri Razali left in 1979, there was no-one to take over the band. None of the other musicians were willing to do arranging and lead the band. So I volunteered to do it and they let me handle the band until 1989 when I quit. I led the Kombo from 1979 to 1989.
We played Malaysian pop music, Malaysian traditional music, some jazz standards here and there. We followed the station’s guidelines, we were not allowed to perform rock at that time. I didn’t find it difficult to arrange these types of music. RTM has a huge record library, so I would just go and listen to the songs, transcribe them, and then write arrangements.”
Of course, things don’t always go to plan.
“Kombo was playing at Likas Bay. This guy – I won’t name him – was supposed to arrange all our music scores according to the show that we were playing. I was the band leader. Naturally I was the one to give the cue, the drum click, then the band will start playing. But the guy arranged our songs wrongly, the drummer gave us the wrong cue to one of the songs, everybody went haywire. We were playing in front of about 8-10,000 people and it was the most embarrassing moment of my life. We had to stop. The drummer had to put right his score sheets first, then we started again. It was a very embarrassing moment, but funny afterwards.”
Ronald seemed to teach all his life.
“I taught my classmates and friends in school who wanted to learn guitar, they just want me to share guitar chords with them, strumming techniques, how to play this song or that song. I like learning and I like sharing. Seeing some of your students come up and become good, become better than you are, oh that’s beautiful!
Professor Jamil called me to teach at Universiti Malaysia Sabah around 1999 to 2007. I think Raimon (of child rock band KIDZ), he came to me when he was studying Music in UMS, when I was the guitar tutor there. Raimon is a fantastic guitarist. He was already very good when he came to me, so most of what I taught him was more about theory than practical.
The joy of seeing young musicians come up and appreciating that I have taught them music and that I have been part of their music journey, that is something very satisfying for me.”
When Ian graduated from Berklee, he and Ronald set up a recording studio together from 1989-1992.
“Those were the times when we did a lot of backing group work for show artists that came to KK. In the nightclub days a lot of musicians came through KK, sometimes their musical director would come with them, then we just backed them. But sometimes when the musical director doesn’t come, Ian and myself had to handle the music arrangements. You have to play all kinds of styles: jazz, rock, country, blues.
My favourite was the (U.S. Supremes tribute band) Supremes Forever, a group that came from the States. They brought in a musical director, they made us work very hard and the three girls were very good singers. The performance was at Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel. The musicians were Ian, myself, Sofian Ismail was on drums, I think. The bassist was their musical director who was from the States.
When you backed so many artists from Indonesia, Hong Kong, the U.S., Australia, England, and West Malaysia, it gives you a sense of achievement that you can play with such high quality professionals, you know? You have reached a standard of professionalism and people recognise you for that. I think in those days, whenever an artist came to KK, people would see me playing the guitar, backing that artist. That is a very satisfying achievement.
I can’t actually remember the first time I played to an audience. We played so many times, but in those days you have a sense of joy and pride. because when you play, people stand around the band to watch the band play. Especially at kampung weddings, people crowd around you, you feel like a superstar. You enjoy those times.
But musicians are problematic people. They have pride, temper, and differences. There are always fights and arguments, the band always splits, members change. If you try and comment too much about someone’s playing, they don’t like it. You argue about a chord, a chord change, argue about timing, everything. It creates tension. Musicians have to really understand each other to be able to take criticism and comments. In my time, I’ve seen a lot of fights. Not me – I’m not the one who fights. They get angry, they fight, they don’t talk to each other for months or years, then they form another band, the same thing happens all over again. I would not be surprised if that still happens today.
I think it’s mostly because people have a sense of pride. We just don’t like to be told that we’re not good enough, or that we are wrong. When I was first sent by RTM to KL, whenever I played guitar, the man in charge there used to criticise my playing, talk about my chords, everything. I learned from those things. But many musicians hate to be told. They don’t like to be corrected.”
All Saints Music Academy
Ronald left RTM to help form All Saint Music Academy in 2005-6. “It is owned by the church. We had a vision to start a music academy inside the church, to train musicians to serve in church. They are still training a lot of people to play music, starting as young as 5. The hours I spent there were very long, I worked there about six days a week and on Sundays I still have to play in church.
I will be back in KK later this year. All Saints Music Academy is having a concert on Oct 3 2014, and there will be a teachers’ performance, with Raimon, Romeo, Stanley and all those guys performing. They want me to play with those guys. I don’t know if I can still play with them to their standard now, but I will try and learn the songs they have sent me. I will go back there and enjoy myself, just playing with them again.
These days I listen to Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Mark Whitfield, George Benson. I listen to a lot of guitarists and other jazz like Mezzoforte, Spyro Gyra, Yellowjackets. But my favourite is Big Band music. Recently I went to see Michael Buble with his big band here in Sydney. Beautiful music.
As far as the local scene is concerned, I don’t think we should limit the number of musicians coming into Sabah to perform. The thing is, are our local boys willing to work, and disciplined enough to demand that people use them? If you look at Moses‘ group – Elixir. They are doing very well now. I think they’re playing in (Tanjung Aru) Beach Hotel, and playing a lot of places. If that group can be in such high demand, then what about the other musicians? If they’re good, I’m sure people will use them. But we must allow foreign musicians and singers to come in. That is competition, and creates opportunities for people to hear to other artists, and for our musicians to learn. We can learn by watching and listening to other people. Countries like the Phillippines, Indonesia, they have good musicians. If they come in I think we should not restrict them.
I think the younger musicians in KK are getting better and better, because there are so many good music schools around now. It’s not like in the days when I had to learn everything myself. Now all the youngsters have teachers, schools and so many materials to help them. There is competition, and the general standard of musicianship will continue to improve.