Making Malaysia Truly Proud

02 October 2017

With a couple thousands songs under his belt, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Nawab has helped build a reputation for Malaysian popular music, at home and abroad.

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Nawab may not be too well known among the young, but the nation’s most prolific composer, and a gifted saxophonist, has been a pivotal figure in Malaysia’s early popular music history.

Born Ahmad Khan Nawab Khan in George Town, Penang, on 6 April 1933, he’s the first child of Pakistani immigrant Nawab Khan Rana Khan and local Malay Juhara Bee Fakir Maidin. His father, a musician, arrived in Malaya with the Indian Army and stayed on, joining a bangsawan troupe and playing the clarinet in Penang’s municipal band.

“I love my parents so much and I always did what they told me,” says Ahmad. Tall, lean, and an energetic fellow for his golden age, we meet him during a performance at Penang House of Music, held in conjunction with George Town Festival.

At first, Ahmad’s father didn’t want him to play, because he knew too well how hard a life it could be. But after failing standard five, Ahmad tried to enrol in a vocational school in Batu Lanchang but was turned away as the institution had already reached its quota.

“It was thanks to my mother that I convinced my dad to let me pursue music,” adds Ahmad. He wanted to play popular songs, but his father, who never had proper musical training, insisted he study music theory first. “He was really worried for my future; he used to scold me when he found me rehearsing the pop songs I loved. ‘You must be like an old tree and have solid roots,’ he used to tell me.”

Ahmad Nawab’s 1982 LP, Mengenang Dirimu (left) and his 1979 sophomore LP, Ahmad Nawab. Both are instrumental albums.

In 1949, Ahmad was only 16 when he joined the Penang municipal band as a clarinet player, mixing with other more professional musicians, and learning music in a more systematic way. A year later, he moved to Kedah, joining Alor Setar’s police band. That’s were he found a book on American big-band leader Glenn Miller, and learned about the many ways a musician can “freelance” his way into the business.

Inspired, Ahmad started composing, arranging, writing lyrics, producing albums and even writing film scores and conducting orchestras. His first song, Bintang Malam, was written looking up at the Kedah moon – that first song is still one of his most famous.

Ahmad Nawab with his first album, Saxsational – Pop Instrumental, released in 1978.

In 1952, he returned to Penang and joined George Town’s municipal band. Like his father, he played third clarinet. “I wanted to play the saxophone very much, but it was too expensive, and I only earned $90 [Malaya and British Borneo dollar] a month,” says Ahmad. “I used to grab the band’s saxophone during breaks and practise.”

Ahmad finally managed to buy a used sax after he started playing for $4 a night at Penang’s New World Park, back then a social club where foreigners and Malaysians mixed.

After playing his fair share of gigs in Penang, Ahmad moved to Kuala Lumpur when he received an invitation from Ahmad Amin, a well-known musician at BB Park, Kuala Lumpur. “Back in the late 1950s, KL was like New York. It was the place to be an artist, ripe with many opportunities. Today it has changed so much,” remarks Ahmad.

Ahmad Nawab’s instrument of choice.

Life in Kuala Lumpur, however, was also tough for a freelance musician. Ahmad, who recalls leaving Ahmad Amin and playing at the Embassy Hotel, almost starved for three days when the club closed down. But then an acquaintance, veteran musician-composer Alfonso Soliano, gave him a spot in RTM’s Puspati Orchestra. At the time, Ahmad was the first Malaysian to play the baritone saxophone professionally, and never looked back. He became a pivotal figure in the entertainment industry, working as a full-time composer, arranger and producer with major labels EMI in 1975 and WEA in 1978.

In his career, Ahmad composed over 2,000 songs, staying active in the local music scene for six decades. He laments how the industry has changed over the years. “Today there’s small interest in popular music and singers, and I never liked rock kapak and that noisy modern music.”

Over the years, Ahmad Nawab has won numerous awards for his contributions to the music industry.

Ahmad is also often associated with actor, director, singer and composer P. Ramlee, with whom he had a long-time friendship. In P. Ramlee’s popular 1965 comedy Masam Masam Manis it was Ahmad Nawab doing the actual saxophone playing behind the scenes, but P. Ramlee’s expert fingering led many to believe he was also a saxophonist. For this, Ahmad calls his old friend “a genius” for pulling off something many actors could not.

For Ahmad Nawab, there are at least another 70 or more singers from around the region who have recorded his songs, among which are Kau Kunci Cintaku Dalam Hatimu, Antara Matamu dan Mataku, Sabar Menanti, Tiada Maaf Bagi Mu and Wajah Kesayanganmu.

In 2006, Ahmad Nawab became the seventh recipient of the prestigious Anugerah Seniman Negara.

“But the one I’m most proud of is the score I wrote for the jingle of Malaysia Truly Asia [in 2000],” says Ahmad.

“I had promised my father that I would write music for the whole world. That song… I didn’t have money at the time; I called the studio saying I only had RM100 to use for the recording. Then I invited singer Khadijah Ibrahim to come over and lay the vocal tracks. ‘I cannot pay you now,’ I told her. We made a demo for the tourism department and they accepted. That song has been translated in many languages, including Arabic, Italian, German, French.”

“I knew that I had finally made my country – and especially my father – proud”.

But Ahmad has plenty more to be proud about: he was the first Malaysian to release a string of instrumental albums with funk- and Latin-inspired tunes; he’s won prizes for best musical film score, and received numerous awards including the Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM), Anugerah Seniman Negara and Anugerah Seni PARFI from Indonesia, for his contributions to the music and entertainment industry.

In addition to winning awards, in 1996 Ahmad received the title of Datuk with the Pingat Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri, as well as the Pingat Panglima Jasa Negara from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 2004. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia.

“Not bad for a Penang boy who couldn’t get into school,” smiles Ahmad Nawab, pulling his shimmering saxophone closer to his chest.

By Marco Ferrarese
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi


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