Carl Hamm is from Richmond, Virginia. He’s a young radio DJ who has started raising awareness and passion on Malaysian and Singaporean artists of the Pop Yeh Yeh era to his audience. His anthropological and musical quest led him to the far reaches of the Internet, and, of course, to the real thing, in Singapore and Malaysia. Read the spectacular and touching story of the making of ‘Pop Yeh Yeh: Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia 1964–1970’ compilation.
Hi Carl, you’ve been investigating the Malay psychedelic rock movement of the 1960s and 70s to compile Pop Yeh Yeh, released by Sublime Frequencies. How did you dive into this project?
Hello there! Yes, about 8 years ago, right around 2005, I started seeking out music from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – partially because of my interest in what was happening on that side of the world due to the terrible tsunami of 2004. I started buying vinyl EPs from Ebay sellers – mostly 70s singers at first – people like Zaleha Hamid, Rahimah Rahim, Anita Serawak, and Sharifah Aini – and some Indonesian singers like Tetty Kadi, Lilis Surjani, and Elly Kassim – but then soon discovered the earlier Singaporean/Malaysia rock bands called Pop Yeh Yeh too – which I really fell in love with. I guess maybe it reminded my of classic Western 60s rock, but had melodies that were more interesting to my ears.
At the same time, I connected online (via MySpace and Blogger) with a couple of people living in Singapore and Malaysia – young people playing in rock bands, who were also just going to school or working – and they pointed me in the right direction to find out more about bands of Singapore and Malaysia (this is one of the questions I often ask people about – music!)
Later, I found the music forums and websites like Popok.net and Muzik Nusantara and started asking members and bloggers of these sites for more information – I became friends with one member in particular – Ghaz – and he was kind enough to send me information about the bands via email in English! This really helped encourage my interest in the music. And I think he was equally happy to tell someone from America about Malaysian music.
As I started to build my collection, I was also playing a lot of this music on my weekly radio show “If Music Could Talk” on WRIR – Richmond Independent Radio. Listeners seemed to really enjoy this pop music from the East – and a lot of people would ask me about the music. This also really made me want to learn more about the artists. It is important to be able to tell people some background about the artist when you’re playing it on the radio and since there wasn’t much information available, this was difficult at first.
Then, regarding the album idea, I knew that Sublime Frequencies was releasing a lot of music from Indonesia and Thailand on their label around that time, so I decided to suggest to them to let me put together a compilation of Malaysian rock.
You visited Southeast Asia for your musical quest. Was the crowdfunding campaign you set up a good kick starter for this travel? How did you organize yourself, to meet the right people, to go to the right places?
I pitched my idea to go to Malaysia and Singapore on a website called Kickstarter. I had seen an artist I really admire (Wunmi) do this to fund her trip to Nigeria and Ghana to make an album, so I thought, why not? I can do this for my trip to Singapore and Malaysia! Kickstarter accepted my proposal (they said they really liked my idea) and so I started raising funds there. My goal was basically just enough to pay for the plane ticket and hotels – 3500 USD. My sister Xeni Jardin happens to be a world famous blogger and tech journalist and she really helped get the word out about my project by way of the website she is co-founder and writer for: boingboing.net.
It turns out that a lot of people who would end up helping me were actually readers of her blog – and many others were listeners of my radio show. Several people living in Singapore and Malaysia offered to help me make connections once I got there – including Aidil of the Malaysian pop band Couple, and several other people.
Also, I had contacted Cikgi Yusnor Ef through a person named Andy who writes a blog about Singapore 60s music – and Cikgu Yusnor Ef agreed to meet me in Singapore as he was there when I arrived working on a historical project about P. Ramlee and Jalan Ampas studios. Once I met up with Yusnor Ef, and later, Adnan Othman (through Aidil), it was a lot easier to find the other artists. In total I met about 19 different artists – including Afida Es, Jeffridin, Dato A Rahman Hassan, Datin Azizah Muhammad, S Mariam, Fatimah M Amin, Orchid Abdullah, J Sham, A Halim, Hasnah Haron, Joseph Chelliah, Adnan Othman, M Ishak, Zam Zam, Kassim Selamat, M Fadzil, and many others.
What was the best encounter for you?
It’s hard to choose which was the best meeting for me – each 60s artists I met in Singapore and Malaysia had a different personality that I admired. Everyone was so generous and welcoming to me. I had a lot of help from Yusnor Ef, Adnan Othman and Dato A Rahman Hassan and Joe Chelliah. I think my favorite experiences were: accompanying Adnan Othman to a wedding gig; meeting Cikgu Yusnor Ef at his home in Woodlands, Singapore; attending Dato A Rahman Hassan’s grandson’s cukur jambul where I met S Mariam, Orchid Abdullah, and Fatimah M Amin, as well as Datin Azizah Muhammad. Having lunch with Hasnah Haron, A Halim, and M Fadzil at Hasnah’s house was really wonderful (I interviewed them that day too). Also meeting Zam Zam and M Ishak and Osman Arrifin of LIFE records (thanks to Yusnor Ef) at a restaurant in Kampung Melayu in Singapore. It was also really inspiring to meet Zaleha Hamid and interview her in an outdoor setting which was reminiscent of one of her old EP covers. Being called up on stage to by Anita Serawak to do a lip synch duet was also quite exciting and totally unexpected! Of course, some of the best moments were just sitting and listening to the artists reminisce and tell their story as they remembered it – each artist I met had an incredible story to tell and I wish I had had more time to spend talking to each one of them – especially the ones who are gone now.
Would you say that this compilation is an exhaustive portrait of the Pop Yeh Yeh scene? And is the Pop Yeh Yeh movement still influencing the contemporary music scene in Singapore or Malaysia?
I definitely would not say that it is an exhaustive or complete portrait in terms of the music selected. There were many important artists who unfortunately weren’t included. Licensing issues made it difficult to get permission to use many of the better known songs – so I chose songs by artists who I had contact with – and songs that I loved to listen to. And it’s important to include some of the lesser known artists too I think. I hope to do a second volume and maybe even a third to represent artists who were not included on this one – and there are many. A few people have already asked me why I didn’t include other artists who are considered very important in the Pop Yeh Yeh era. The truth is, it just wasn’t possible to get everyone’s permission – so I went with the one’s I could. A future second volume will hopefully cover more of these artists.
However, I would say that the liner notes paint a good picture of the history of the era. I’m pretty happy that the label agreed to print all those pages of notes and photos because even if the list of songs is incomplete, all the top artists are at least mentioned even if their music wasn’t included.
I don’t know how much the Pop Yeh Yeh music influences modern Malaysian and Singaporean artists. It seems that the pop music of America has had a big effect in recent years. But I know there are some young people who love and respect that era. I don’t listen to enough modern music coming out of Malaysia and Singapore to say for sure – but I do think some bands have taken inspiration from their Pop Yeh Yeh predecessors – how could you ignore it? Those 60s bands were incredible.
Have you met new acts on the local music scene in the two countries? What are your thoughts on the actual music there?
Honestly, I haven’t given enough time to listening to new acts from Singapore and Malaysia. I definitely like some of the groups I heard through friends living there like Couple (Aidil and Ariana both helped me in so many ways, their band is really great and they are really cool people). Also in Singapore: Stellarium, Etc., Force Vomit, Padres, even some of the metal like Rudra and Suicide Solution or old school Singaporean hard core punk rockers Stompin Ground. Teh Tarik Crew were cool back in the day. I also like Indonesian groups Sore, and Padi. And then theres the more traditional sounding Malaysian pop like M. Nasir, Sheila Majid, Siti Nurhaliza. I like them too. I like Yuna a lot too. And Zee Avi is a great artist as well.
I know there are so many other newer groups I need to check out. Next, I think I’ll make more of an effort to get myself up to date with the current bands – and I hope to share their songs with people over here too by way of my radio show: If Music Could Talk – Sundays at 7pm EST on WRIR – podcast links here.
Carl’s compilation ‘Pop Yeh Yeh: Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia 1964–1970’ is released by Sublime Frequencies, and distributed by Ujikaji Records in Singapore. Order your copy by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org!