This is the first of a series of posts by Gordon Pan on the origins of Western band culture in Sabah.
It was around the middle of the year 1960 when the sound of twangy guitars and thundering drums reached the airwaves of North Borneo (Sabah) through a recording by the Shadows titled Apache. That sound was so exciting that it plucked the heartstrings of nearly every adolescent who heard this song.
The strongest receptors of this song were probably those who lived in the most multi-cultural and multi-racial part of Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) where the British colonialists, Kadazans, Chinese, Malays, Filipinos, Indians, Eurasians and Anglo-Burmese all lived next to each other. This was Tanjung Aru. An area of Jesselton where most government staffs were housed and English was the common spoken language due to the multi-cultural nature of its residents. La Salle School was also inside this precinct. That song released under western music and from England found its biggest audience there.
Musical genes were also abundant in Tanjung Aru. The cultural mix of Kadazans, Malays, Filipinos and Indians were naturally musically gifted and the exposure of guitar driven music played to a constant rhythm was like a duck taken to water.
There was an exclusive circle of young schoolboys who were so engrossed by the exciting sounds they heard that they began to learn the song note-for-note, worked out the chords, bass lines and drum patterns to emulate what was then recorded by sophisticated equipment of the day.
Peter Pragas, the man who was instrumental in bringing live music to be seen and heard in North Borneo (Sabah), introduced “Talent Time”. This was a yearly event where amateur singers and musicians got a chance to compete under different categories in a talent contest not unlike today’s American Idol or X-Factor.
The first of such installments, saw youngsters armed with guitars and drums to compete under the Band Category. A group of students from La Salle school who called themselves “The Rebels” went on stage and regurgitated the song Apache. They were an instant hit and naturally won. This band became the pioneers of modern music and it was a turning point where orchestral dance bands will eventually fade into the background.
The Rebels comprised of Charles Lim on lead guitar, George Lai on rhythm guitar, David Wang (fingerstyle guitarist Roger Wang’s father) on tea chest bass and Alfie Quioc on drums. One of the reasons why this band stood out from the rest was because they had electric guitars. While the Shadows all had Fender guitars and Vox amplifiers, the best and cheap alternatives in the back waters of Jesselton, North Borneo were the German-made Hofner guitars shaped almost like Fender models and with a lot of tweaking can almost emulate the tone of the real thing. The “Rock Axe” had arrived!
The Tanjung Aru neighbourhood began spawning aspiring youths in hope of getting together to form bands. The place was abuzz as to who bought the latest instrumental record, who had learnt the melody note-for-note and who was getting together with who to form a band. Since not all the latest records in the hit parade were guitar instrumentals, vocals became a secondary ingredient to complete a band. Most bands did not have a permanent singer but they were quite happy to accompany anyone who would sing with them so long as the repertoire was dominated by guitar instrumentals. The late Tony Thien was one of these freelance singers with an early Elvis set list among other hits of the day.
Come the next year’s installment of Talent Time, a surprise entry of unknowns took the trophy home. The band comprised only of three schoolboys doing their rendition of Cliff Richard’s “Thinking Of Our Love”. The singer was David Lim, Henry Ng on lead guitar and Richard Ng on rhythm guitar. The Ng brothers were complete strangers in the guitar arena and was later discovered that they were from Singapore but with North Borneo parentage. The elder, Henry, was a natural who picked up his rudiments from Singapore. He used a basic Hofner Club 40 and created a tone almost identical to the guitar sound on the original record. He was at once hailed as the top gun in that arena.