The Renaissance Man of Ipoh

23 December 2015

We speak to the multi-hyphenated Kamal Sabran about his instrument of choice, his work with Alzheimer’s patients, his role in the local Tamil film Jagat and his view on patriotism.

Aside from being a part of the band Space Gambus Experiment, Malaysia’s underrated Renaissance man Kamal Sabran has been directing short films, composing and making contributions to medicine and science for many years. The father of four currently resides in Ipoh and aptly calls himself an artist-designer-musician-researcher.

What made you choose the gambus as your instrument of choice?

I only started playing gambus in 2008. Before that I played guitar for a punk rock band. I think gambus is more versatile and has a more unique sound. It opens up new possibilities for sonic exploration. Other than that, gambus is a part of our tradition so playing the instrument is actually being close to our culture.

I’m part of a band called Space Gambus Experiment where everyone is welcomed to join as collaborators. Our performances usually involve audio-visuals, dance, poetry and performance art.

Who do you think are some of experimental artists that have successfully achieved cultural relevance and commercial success at the same time? Or is that impossible?

Malaysian artist Hasnul Jamal Saidon is working on fusing poetry and traditional instruments together in an audio-visual performance art. The late musician Farid Ali created his own musical instrument called the gambustar by fusing gambus and guitar.

There are some independent art spaces and organizations in Malaysia that are open and supportive of experimental ideas for example DA+C Festivals, Rumah Horror Ipoh, Khizanat, Ipoh Kreative Fest, Sarang Art Hub, Findars and Kapallorek Artspace.

However, it’s hard to say that all of them have commercial success because for me, success is very subjective. Experimental music is opposed to mainstream music. Bu, tthe public is actually becoming more knowledgeable and open to new ideas.

What is the most important thing that Malaysian musicians need to keep in mind when they are making original works?

It’s okay to have a wide variety of influences, whether it’s from Western theory or Eastern philosophy. For me, to be original is to challenge listeners with something new instead of giving them what they like. Art for me is thought provoking; it’s not just entertainment.

You have contributed to and made local films, worked on Alzheimer’s research, and started an experimental art school; is giving back to the community something that you’ve always aimed to do as a music man?

I have always been into art, technology and science. I see this inter-disciplinary approach in art making as a way to create endless creative possibilities that benefit the public and develop the nation. I am always looking forward to working with anyone. Besides musicians, writers, or artists, I also look forward to new collaborations with people outside the art scene like scientists, doctors, or engineers.

You have done research on music’s effect on Alzheimer’s. Has it been put into practical use so far?

My research, Sound Art for Alzheimer’s Patient in Care Center, is a thesis for my Ph.D. The objective of the research is to find out how sound can help patients in their everyday life. We spent several years with patients, observing and interviewing them. From that, we proposed a sound installation called Soundscapes for Alzheimer’s where compositions featured were selected by the patients themselves. We found that several types of sounds can help guide patients to realise and recognise space and time better.

What made you want to start Ipoh Experimental Art School?

Ipoh Experimental Art School is a free art school with an integrated, multi-dimensional approach to art making. We work across art forms such as music, film and design. We welcome all artists, scientists, and researchers to collaborate and encourage the breaking down of boundaries, incorporation of technology, and the creation of new art forms.

What are some of the projects that are currently being worked on at the school?

We just opened a residency program. The artist will stay for a short time, and hopefully produce some exciting artwork that can become collaboration projects with other local artists.

We are also working with a team of DIY guitar builders to come out with an experimental musical instrument that incorporates a circuit bending synth and guitar that’s made from recycled materials.

What attracted you to compose for the local Tamil film Jagat? Tell us about your process in coming up with music for a project like this.

When director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal asked me to score his film, I asked, “Why do you want me to do the music?”. He answered, “Beause my film is not a typical Tamil film.” We did not want to come up with a Hollywood or Bollywood kind of soundtrack. Instead we wanted to bring in local flavours and melodies that represent and portray Malaysia.

Working on a Tamil film is out of my comfort zone. I loved that challenge. I collaborated with 3 other talented musicians from USA and Canada. Eric Hausmann played guitar/sitar, Joe Kinzer played gambus and Ed Hanley played tabla. The choice of musicians was intended to create that so-called “world” music flair by using non-Indian musicians.

Your short film Lumpur consists of interviews from the Malaysian public. What is your personal view on what patriotism really means?

I decided to ask questions to strangers from the public. No script, no plan. Everyone will be asked the same questions: What is tanah, what is air and what is tanah air?

The answers from each individual brought up the concept of life and how to deal with it as a nation. We all know lumpur (mud) is made from tanah (earth) and air (water). The mud itself is actually clean and safe to drink if we have a good method to filter out the bad things.

Malaysia is a multicultural nation that’s built from people of many backgrounds. We are all the same; we need harmony and all positive things. Just filter out the things we don’t need in order to get the clarity to build a better nation.

By Adeline Chua

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