Malaysia's 2020 lockdown and the massive outburst of Raya songs

MAY 31 — When the movement control order (MCO) was extended until June 9, well after Hari Raya Aidilfitri, one of the jokes that came out was a call for a ban of the P. Ramlee classic song Dendang Perantau.

Written in the 1960s, it is thought the song was written to express his yearning to return to his hometown while his career was at its peak in Singapore. 

Decades later, this song has become a Raya anthem of sorts for those who left their hometowns for a better future.

Such is the power of nostalgia to elevate many Raya songs to evergreen status. Academic Faisal Tehrani wrote last week in his column Lagu raya Saloma haram on those songs spanning the 1950s to the 1970s.

With this legacy in mind, a question relevant to the Malay pop culture scene has been — can we, and have we produced a new modern Raya classic that will stand the test of time?

As if to answer this unspoken challenge, the Malay pop music industry produced a massive number of Raya songs this year — which you can argue happened because, or in spite of a gloomy 2020 where the holiday season was pretty much made non-existent by Covid-19.

A look at Malay radio channel ERA's Lagu Baru Nak Up chart which tracks trending songs, Raya tunes make up around 85 per cent of the chart, many of them from lesser-known singers.

With the Internet already banishing the gatekeepers of the music market, the partial lockdown has now liberated the industry for many to try their luck, and the Raya season seems to be the perfect time to make one's name.

The gamut runs from nasyid pop duo Akhdan (Ceria Lebaran) to dance reality show contestant Chubb-E (Lebaran) to Putrajaya event space BoraOmbak's house band Adzrin Azhar and The Uncle (Anak Uncle Beraya).

Among the more notable tracks are the bedroom production of rapper Zeil with Megat Rahim (Khilaf Syawal), and Airinna Namara in a duet with Dutch singer-turned-local resident Jalil River complete with a grating Western accent (Menjelang Hari Mulia), and her own Britpop-tinged collaboration with guitarist Syakir (Better By Raya).

An easy way to steal attention is by covering evergreen songs, and record company Sony Music even put out a whole EP with its up-and-coming artists, with names such as Khodi and Aisha Retno putting jazzy spins on classics such as Ku Pohon Restu Ayah Bonda and Menjelang Hari Raya, while choral group Bahiyya Haneesa delights with an a capella rendiition of Suasana Hari Raya.

From Singapore, singer Aisyah Aziz also put out a cover of Suasana Riang, under the name of Esah and The Boys.

Elsewhere, you find record companies milking their own stable for collaborations, and pushing new talents to join established names.

Sufian Suhaimi joined Aries Music's effort with Aiman Tino, Fara Hezel, Fieya Julia and Luqman Faiz (Suasana Hari Lebaran), while Bob Yusof joined Werkit Records with Asmidar, Meeyojoe, Fadhli Zaihan and Siti Mariam (Inilah Hari Raya).

But two collaborations stole the show.

The first was from World Peace Entertainment, whose subtle spiritualism makes it the perfect fit. Its Harmoni Aidilfitri presented a multi-ethnic combination of rising stars Ismail Izzani, Naim Daniel, Daniesh Suffian, Sean Lee and Kidd Santhe — with falsetto-accented chorus and traditional melody atop kompang-backed beats.

Up against that was the release from Rocketfuel Records, which almost has a “rebel”, non-conformist attitude. Sufi Rashid and Ara Johari led the song Senyuman Raya with Usop, but its feature rapper Loca B was the one who kept the song bouncy and chirpy with her sing-song verses, befitting its theme.

Several artists and bands have also taken the opportunity to stage a comeback, to varying degrees of success.

Turn-of-millenium R&B legends Ruffedge offered the funky Riang Ria Raya with a certain mix of disco and G-funk backing their harmonies which was very well received.

Meanwhile, 80s crooner Jamal Abdillah came out with two songs: a debut duet with his son Osama Yamani (Hari Raya Menjadi Saksi) and a folk ditty collaboration with Shiha Zikir and Peja Kando (Moh Beraya). Both had promise, but were ultimately forgettable.

Weirdly enough, 90s “rock kapak” chart-toppers Ukays and Zamani of Slam also released Raya singles (Minal Aidin Walfaizin and Syawal Ini), but sounded as if they had never left the decade. Both songs were as dreary and flat as you expected.

The same was unfortunately presented by two bands who made their names with the revival of that same “rock kapak” sound: Xpose and Azzara Band (Gema Syawal and Bahang Raya). They sounded woefully out-of-date, with nothing fresh to add to the genre.

One unexpected comeback was Rima Rashidi, who last sang a Raya song in 1993. She released Selamat Hari Raya Dunia with a messaging tailored to the epidemic which had promise, but it was unluckily marred by the amateurish recording session.

Several other songs also latched onto the anxiety and loneliness presented by the pandemic and partial lockdown, such as Baby Shima and Floor 88 with the remade Tak Dapat Raya Lagi which cautioned against going out in a series of charming advice.

Dayang Nurfaizah also collaborated with TV3 and Celcom for Di Pagi Raya Ini, whose video paid tribute to Covid-19 frontliners; the lyrics expressed a longing to spend the Aidilfitri morning with loved ones.

This longing was also expressed by Aina Abdul, who continued her streak of delivering very depressing and heart-rending tracks, this time with Syahdu Di Pagi Syawal, a song about missing one's parents on that same morning.

In any case, one does not need to present particularly traditional or folkish tunes to deliver some good Raya songs. Bayu excelled with Kita Raya Kita (a reference to the self-care hashtag #KitaJagaKita during the pandemic), while Singapore's Zalelo and Izat Ibrahim conveyed the wish to not be alone during Raya over lo-fi guitar and beats (Berteman Di Hari Raya).

Another surprise came from little-known AABP Music, releasing a cute ode to video calls (Video Raya) by Lailatul Aida, Zairul Nadzwan and Huqum.

In the end, the questions posed at the start of this article can only be answered decades later in hindsight, but I do believe that the likes of Yuna's Raya Oh Yeah (2013) and Hael Husaini's Bersyukur Seadanya (2019) will be future classics from this last decade.

And with such rich pickings in 2020, some of these one would also likely be listened to for ages.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.


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