A nation’s song

Beth Yahp

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Merdeka procession in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, 3 August 1957

Rosalie and Other Love Songs
Saidah Rastam
SIRD: 2017
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Saidah Rastam’s meticulously researched cultural history of Malayan music and musicians, Rosalie and Other Love Songs, was originally published in 2014 in a small, private print run by Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the investment fund of the Malaysian government, which also funded its research. Such top-down initiatives often produce gorgeous volumes that tick boxes in terms of cultural recuperation or nationalist ambition and then disappear. But, luckily for us, Saidah’s work has been republished as a handsome book that is as much a groundbreaking ethno-musicological resource as it is an engrossing, often moving and as often heartbreaking story of the mostly forgotten music men and women of Malaya’s early years.

Saidah’s book is also a history of a fantasy Malaya (unimaginable in the realities of contemporary Malaysia) that we may look upon with nostalgic yearning, as indeed Saidah does: a place and time in which intensely productive cross-cultural collaboration, re-invention and appreciation prevailed over state boundaries and the identity politics and racial chauvinism that now characterise any efforts at national representation. It is a story of heady artistic endeavour and also erasure.

Saidah is a composer whose affinity with her topic is infectious. Rosalie takes us from the turn of the twentieth century to Malaya’s post-merdeka (independence) years, tracing a story that is as beguiling as the melody of the song “Ma Rosalie” (also known in its keroncong or pop-yeah-yeah versions as “Terang Boelan”). This song purportedly travelled from the pen of a chansonnier in France to the court of an exiled sultan in the Seychelles, then on to stately pomp in London and Perak, as well as the popular bangsawan music-hall stages of Singapore and the East Indies, before eventually becoming the national anthem of Malaya in 1957.

Around this story, Saidah weaves a rich tapestry of Malayan music from the early years of Tok Pusi’s bangsawan coup in Penang (built upon his ingenious wholesale purchase of props and musical instruments from a wildly popular visiting Parsi troupe), to the cabarets and ronggeng stages of the amusement worlds where joget moden was invented by Hamzah Dolmat and Ahmad C.B.; from the multi-talented P. Ramlee’s “voracious borrowings from many cultures and musical styles” in the golden age of Malayan cinema to the drama of choosing a national anthem at the eleventh hour before independence, after a two-year search. And what an edge-of-the-seat drama it is as told by Saidah, with the aid of photos, news articles and letters from concerned citizens as well as irate, rejected composers like Benjamin Britten.

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