By Juliet Jacobs and Zalina Lee
He’s practically done it all: the West End (Miss Saigon, Rent), Hollywood (Anna & The King), Malaysian theatre (Spilt Gravy on Rice) — he even came out tops in what was, in 1995, the Idol series of its day: the Singapore Fame Awards.
In other words, the proverbial triple threat — and one not likely to go away. In November 2006, Sean Ghazi released his first solo album, Semalam, a collection of “Twelve songs: that are ours, that sound like they are ours — and a new song that sounds like an old song of ours.”
“I thought about this when I was working in The King and I in London, in 2000,” Sean says. “I had a lot of back-stage time then: it was one song in Act 1, one song in Act 2 -- and then I died. So between my demise and curtain call, I had time to think about what I would do when I got back to Kuala Lumpur; I wanted to do something that was relevant to me, to Kuala Lumpur and to Malaysia.”
A fan of the great American Songbook and a lover of old songs, Sean figured: “Why not explore the great Malaysian songbook?”
In With the Old
Soon after returning to Malaysia in 2001 Sean embarked on his research, interrogating family, friends, bystanders, and their father and mothers as to what their favourite Malay songs were. He wanted an album that captured Malaysia’s history in a handful of songs.
“I wanted to revisit these songs,” Sean says. “I just feel some of these songs are really beautiful, and that they need to be heard outside Malaysia. Take ‘Getaran Jiwa’ — it should be up there with ‘My Way’ or ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’.”
The result? “It isn’t quite ‘Malaysia in a handful’ only,” Sean admits. The album not only contains songs by P Ramlee, Sudirman, Jimmy Boyle, Ahmad Nawab and Broery Marantika, but also English and Malay covers of Pink Martini’s ‘Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love’ and the Rodgers and Hammerstein number ‘I Have Dreamed’.
“I wanted to try different things with these songs,” Sean says. “I wanted to marry classic Malay songs with my world — Broadway, big bands. I wanted our songs to sound big and grand and lush, to sound international.”
Work on Semalam brought together an international ensemble: Malaysians Peter Chong (who co-produced), Vivian Chua and Adam Farouk, Canadian Bruce Hurn, and Australians Graeme Brown, George Brodbeck and Guy Noble (who conducted the orchestra during the album’s recording sessions in Sydney) all had a hand in arranging the music.
“I had an idea and musical references for each song,” Sean says. “For example, Doris Day’s ‘It’s Magic’ has the same core progressions as ‘Sabar Menanti’, by Ahmad Nawab and Broery Marantika. You can almost just overlap them and they would jalan together. For us, it was ‘Doris, meet Ahmad and Broery’ — everything rojak — and you have something completely new.”
But would listeners care for Sean’s meticulous re-imaginings?
“We watch the same Shakespeare play done by four different theatre companies because we want to see what each of them can do with it — and to it,” Sean says. “How they make it their own. This album is about putting my own stamp on these classic songs.”
Smooth and Sambal
‘Semalam’, Semalam‘s title track, opens with softly sustained strings and a tinkling piano, foreshadowing the muted entry of a double-bass line like the introduction to The Drifter’s ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’. Sean’s voice curls seductively around the opening stanza, a taste of what we’ll be getting from the next eleven songs.
An original song co-written with songstress Izlyn Ramli and re-arranged by Vivian Chua, ‘Semalam’ weaves a joget theme, played by an electric guitar, flirting lightly with the more predictable orchestral background. Sean’s re-interpretation of Malaysian oldies includes a combination of Big Band swing, Broadway cabaret, and a twist of ‘bossa-joget’.
“I wanted the sound to be down the middle,” Sean says. “I am Malaysian, but not a traditionalist. That has already been done — and done well, at that.” That Semalam doesn’t have anything that sounds too ‘asli’ or ethnic is a conscious decision.
“I think this concept fits well with the image of myself, too,” Sean says. “Pakai suit tapi boleh makan nasi lemak.”
Sean recalls hearing Anita Sarawak’s cover of ‘Dengar Ini Cerita’ when he was a young something-year-old, back in the 1980s. At this point, he had not yet heard the P Ramlee version — but, thanks to Anita, who handed him that bit of P Ramlee’s legacy, he was hooked.
“Semalam is my way of handing these songs to someone, somewhere,” Sean says, “Maybe that someone will one day say they first heard ‘Old uncle Sean Ghazi doing ‘Hujan Di Tengahari’ back in the 2000s’.”
Sean acknowledges that the album, whilst retaining its classic flavour, needed to also be relevant, young and vital — which is why you can see some modern references peppered into the old. Sean’s own cover of ‘Dengar Ini Cerita’ is a good example. A timeless song about a cheating husband, his formidable wife, and a token flighty secretary, modern references like Halle Berry and IKEA are mixed into P Ramlee’s cheeky ditty to give it that ‘today’ feel.
This awareness extended to the production of Semalam‘s very soundwaves. All the album’s music was recorded in analogue, to give it an aged feel; whereas the vocals and the album were finished digitally, to splice a modern feel — “Together,” Sean says, “Presenting the best of both worlds.”
Semoga Semalam Selamanya
Semalam, as a whole, leaves one with that nostalgic, wistful feeling — the album remains ambiguous as to whether it is a lament for days past, or a celebration of it.
“It’s a bit of both, really,” Sean says by way of a reply. “It wasn’t planned that the album would be released now, just a few months before Malaysia’s 50th anniversary — but: yes, it’s a time to look back, learn from before. We were cool, back then; I want that back. And now’s the time to move forward from this place, instead of backwards.”
First Published: 13.12.2006 on Kakiseni