Rollin’ Good Times with Papa Rock

They call him Papa Rock: Singapore's Malay rock pioneer, Ramli Sarip. — TODAY pic
They call him Papa Rock: Singapore's Malay rock pioneer, Ramli Sarip. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, May 31 — We’re backstage at the MediaCorp TV Theatre during a break between rehearsals and a live recording of the revamped music series Rollin’ Good Times, and Malay rocker Ramli Sarip is plying us with his take on what makes music work.

“Music is about heart and feel,” he begins, in that famous growl of his, as he stares intently at you. “If the music tak kena (doesn’t hit the mark), then tak kena. And you don’t need 13 or 14 chords — you need just two or three chords like what Dylan is doing. His songs don’t have that many chords and his voice isn’t very good, but he’s a legend.”

If there’s anyone in Singapore’s rock history who can also be called a legend, that would be Ramli himself. Often called “Papa Rock” by his fans, he and his band Sweet Charity helped kick-start the Malay rock scene, not just in Singapore, but in Malaysia too.

Born into a large family — Ramli was one of 10 children — the musician grew up listening to traditional Malay music at social events. His father was the head of their kampung and had taught him the importance of appreciating his culture.

In the late ’60s, Ramli and schoolmate Rahman Sarbani, along with Ramli’s kampung friends, brothers Wahid and Joe Salim, decided to form a band called Funky Jewel. That name didn’t last long and the band morphed into Sweet Charity.

Having landed a regular gig at Ocean Bar in Sembawang, the band played nightly for about five years and was paid S$850 (RM2,307) a month, income that supplemented the members’ day jobs. Its reputation soon grew and apart from playing at clubs, the band would also perform at various social events, from birthdays to weddings, and organise its own “dance nights”.

“That’s why we had fans even before we recorded our albums. And not just Malay fans — we had Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, everyone ... Every time we played, we learnt to adjust (the set) accordingly to the audience’s reaction. From there, you learn what people like, what they don’t like. That was the strength of the band.”

Another strength was that the band didn’t play only rock music.

“Maybe we were a little ahead of our time. Our rock band is quite funny, I find, because we used to play all kinds of music,” he says.

“We played music that a rock band usually would not play: Joget, dangdut, asli ... I love rock and roll, but I also love ethnic music. On the surface, it may sound like rock but, underneath, it’s the ‘blues of the east’. It’s not real blues, but it has the emotions of the blues.”

The big stage

The band would play on bigger stages, such as the prestigious National Theatre in the early ’70s, which played host to several rock concerts. Fans would swarm to watch Sweet Charity play and tickets would sell out.

“That’s one (place) I miss. They shouldn’t have torn down the National Theatre. All the rock stars played there. It was so nice, that environment,” recalls Ramli.

Sweet Charity’s success on stage led to a record deal with Warner Music. Despite a rocky start — the band wasn’t satisfied with its self-titled debut album — Sweet Charity carried on and was later rewarded with several hits, including Kamelia, Musibah and Pelarian.

“We were very lucky because we played what we liked and people bought our albums. We were even given the chance to record an English album. But at the time, we didn’t have the right producer. That’s what held us back. That and because we were also touring Malaysia. Maybe, we should have recorded that English album!” he muses.

Despite being a bona fide recording group, Sweet Charity continued to play at weddings and parties. “That was the only way to get near to the fans and sell your albums,” said Ramli.

These days, people are still buying the band’s albums. Sweet Charity’s records are among the most expensive in the resale market, especially the vinyl versions, said a representative of Joe’s MAC (Music, Art & Collectibles) in Kuala Lumpur.

“Most of our albums, especially those on vinyl are collector’s items. Now, they cost about S$250. The boxed set is selling for about S$3,000. The cassettes cost about S$180 and the posters that were given free now cost about S$150,” says Ramli incredulously, before adding: “It’s a nice thing that people like our stuff.”

However, Sweet Charity’s bubble would eventually burst.

In 1985, after more than a decade of gigs, hits and successes, Ramli decided to go solo. The band carried on with a new singer before eventually calling it a day.

“It was the scariest moment of my career,” Ramli recounts.

“But the elements, the chemistry, they didn’t work anymore. That was when the band was bent out of shape. Everybody had their own lives and families, too.”

Ramli’s solo career led him to shuttle to and from Malaysia, and he showed detractors who said he wouldn’t make it that he still had it in him. His first solo album in 1986 sold 25,000 copies on both sides of the border. Ramli’s follow-up album Bukan Kerana Nama sold twice that number.

Thanks to his musical versatility, Ramli was never short of work.

“My music covers many areas — folk, rock poetry, world music, rock and roll — so if anybody wants ethnic music or a rock show, we can do that.”

Leaving Singapore and working in Malaysia proved to be a good thing for Ramli as it opened him up to new experiences and discoveries. “It’s just like still water — if the water doesn’t move, it goes bad. So it’s a good thing that people like me, (music icon) M Nasir and some others from Singapore all went to Malaysia.”

Words of wisdom

Looking at the music scene today, Ramli says he’s impressed by the amount of talent to be found and more than happy to share any pearls of wisdom he has learnt along the way. The young musicians have a huge platform these days, but he cautions: “Whether they can hook the audience and have staying power is another story. That is the challenge there. The bands have to get good — not just sing, but also perform and deliver, so people will trust you. Otherwise, you’ll be a one-hit wonder.”

For Ramli, music is a serious business and musicians have to make sure they know what they’re in for should they choose to make this a career. “In the beginning, yes, you play for fun, you don’t think about the money. But when you know that you have to pay bills and spend time and energy, then it becomes different. They have to know that at some stage, it will become ‘serious fun’.”

Lessons he learnt when he was young helped ground him during the heady years of success. “There is no place for sex, drugs, and alcohol if you respect your art. This is the downfall of many talents who think these are part of being an artiste,” he once declared.

If there’s one thing Papa Rock has learnt in the decades that have marked his career, it’s that musicians should never neglect their fans. “Once again, I consider myself very lucky. I’m enjoying it more now than ever before. You know, sometimes when I’m walking down the street, some schoolchildren will approach me, ‘Pak cik, you are the one on TV?’ That’s very touching. You can get good reviews but, at the end of the day, it’s the people, the fans, who put you there.”

And yes, musicians should also be thankful for the talent they have. “You must remember: Don’t be arrogant, work hard and rock and roll! Just perform, don’t show off! We were fortunate. I don’t have a beautiful voice like other singers, but I think that when I sing, you can feel what I am trying to convey. It’s a gift. You cannot borrow or buy it from somebody. It’s real. Just be careful. Not everybody can play and not everybody can sing. So be respectful and thankful for that.” — TODAY

* Ramli Sarip will appear on Rollin’ Good Times tonight, 9.30pm, on Channel 5.

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