Taken from NST ,May 8 2005
THE NEXT BIG THING:
Magic of an underground folk band FAZLI IBRAHIM
IT’S never easy getting anyone to wake up early on a Saturday morning, whatever the reason.However, the members of Dewangga Sakti were unfazed by their early morning date and showed up on the dot at the Islamic Arts Museum, in time for photographer Choo Choy May to snap a few shots in front of the magnificent, blue-tiled entrance.Dressed in denims and armed with guitars, they look more like a rock group than what they really are — young guys with a penchant for old-fashioned music. Among the leather guitar cases, one espies a pair of traditional rebana of pale yellow nangka wood and taut goat skin, and a mahogany-coloured Turkish style gambus.
After having heard Dewangga Sakti perform “live” at a poetry reading a few months ago, I am totally intrigued by the attempt to marry these traditional instruments with contemporary arrangements and scales. I wanted to hear more but unfortunately there’s no CD in the shops, at least not yet.
Dewangga Sakti is still something of an underground folk band but give them a little time and they’ll certainly give some of the “live” acts out there a run for their money.The group, made up of Zulkifli Ramli (gambus), Mohsen Amdan (vocals), Syamsulfaiz Zainuddin (bass), Wan Aznuwar Wan Azhar (acoustic guitar) and Noor Azmi Mohd. Shariff (percussions), was originally founded in 2000.
After the photo shoot, we drove to a makan place near Bukit Aman where we had for company batik-clad civil servants and traffic policemen in their white kit, taking a well-deserved teh tarik break.Recalling those early days, Zul, then in his final year at the International Islamic University Malaysia, says he was approached by Mohsen, a few years his junior, to write and perform new music with a touch of gamelan.They couldn’t have been a more mismatched pair. Mohsen was a full-fledged member of the university’s gamelan group, while Zul played for an underground outfit called Cryptic Malediction.
Being an avid fan of historical works and old, obscure Malay words, Zul came up with the band’s moniker after reading Sejarah Melayu, a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Malacca Sultanate.“Dewangga means a silken cloth, a valuable commodity and the stuff worn by high-ranking people in those days. Sakti is magical, I just loved the word since I was a kid so I suggested putting them together as the name,” recalls Zul.
Back then, the group’s aim was to participate in an inter-varsity acoustic band competition at Universiti Putra Malaysia. Coming from a university only known for its crop of male nasyid groups, they were clearly the underdogs.They didn’t win any prizes, but the competition was the nucleus of what proved to be a long-term commitment.
Back in the IIUM campus, where performing venues are few and hard to come by, the group started organising concerts interspersed with a bit of acting and comedy skits at the Humanities faculty parking lot at night!“We used gamelan instruments such as the saron and bonang with electric guitars, flutes and other things,” says Mohsen.Even after graduation and settling into the routine of work and, for some, family life, Zul, Mohsen and a few others of the initial group continued to jam together from time to time.“The music back then was experimental and sometimes directionless,” says Mohsen, newly the proud father of a baby girl.
Later, the group chanced upon Samba Sunda, an Indonesian act that combined elements of Sundanese gamelan with other popular music styles such as salsa and jaipong. It was enough to get Zul to start an e-mail correspondence with the group and to meet them at last year’s Rainforest World Music Festival.Their fascination with this ground-breaking music form injected a new spirit into their own. They began to seriously explore the possibilities of marrying elements of acoustic guitars with other traditional instruments such as the gambus and rebana.
At the same time, some of the members dabbled with full-fledged traditional music of some sort or the other.Zul, for instance, went on a musical sabbatical of sorts — he participated in a month-long Gamelan Gong Kebyar training under the tutelage of I Wayan Rajeg at Rimbun Dahan and later studied zapin and ghazal songs with gambus maestro Fadhil Ahmad.
With a new direction, the band followed the time-tested route pioneered by other aspiring musicians in this country — playing at weddings. The going was good, until one particular wedding in Shah Alam nearly put them off playing for good.“We were scolded in front of the guests because of the bad sound system, though it’s more the fault of the organisers than anyone else’s. That show really jinxed us. For almost a year, we met a few times to jam but nothing good came out of it,” says Mohsen, grinning.
Then one of the original members, Raof, left for work in the UK, robbing Dewangga Sakti of an accomplished percussionist. Work commitments got in the way for some and others drifted away. Of the original 15 who participated in the initial show at UPM, only a handful were left.And since one of the earlier aims of Dewangga Sakti was to fuse gamelan sounds with that of other traditional and contemporary instruments, they also suffered from the lack of a gamelan set of their own. Graduation meant they had to sever ties with the gamelan set owned by the IIUM.
However, slowly since late last year, the band stirred again from its temporary slumber.It took some long, teh tarik-fuelled nights but finally Zul rounded up the old gang for a tsunami benefit concert at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan. Dewangga Sakti was back in business. But the band comprised of only three original members — Zul, Mohsen and Syamsulfaiz a.k.a Along.Dewangga Sakti look for and found new people to fill the gaps, restoring it back to full strength.Now, there’s Wan Aznuwar or Wan Klasik, a quiet chap with deft fingers at the acoustic guitar and Noor Azmi or Mie, percussionist .
With the new line-up, the group is also flirting with a number of diverging musical styles. In a recent performance, all the self-composed songs bear the imprint of blues and folk, with a touch of keroncong thrown in.The lyrics have also gone through an evolution. From a band of minstrel balladeers singing songs inspired by old epics and ancient history, their lyrics today reflect an inclination to respond to current events — the plight of the tsunami survivors, environmental issues and the like.
“I think what best describes our music is folk Melayu. We’re bringing a bit of contemporary music into our repertoire but of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of our traditional genres such as inang, joget and asli. You can travel thousands of miles and still come back to the songs you know. Maybe we’ll work more in that direction in our coming projects,” explains Zul.
So, this is another fusion band then?“We don’t like to call it fusion music — fusion leads to confusion. I mean, the wrong kind of fusion causes problems, which elements would you emphasise on and which are the ones that you tone down? It doesn’t have to be like Citrawarna where you put together all the elements of the local ethnic groups just to show that we’re united,” counters Zul.
Where do they scour for ideas for their songs and lyrics?“Sometimes, when you’re stressed out, you just need to reach for your guitar and strum out some melodies, that’s how we get some of the songs,” says Wan.The band plans to start recording in a month or so. However, cutting a record with a major label has never been a priority. “It’s hard doing it this way but I don’t think we should go to a commercial label. We don’t want people to impose conditions on us and change the way we work. We want total creative freedom, which is why it’s best for us to remain DIY,” says Zul.“Most importantly, we want to enjoy what we’re doing,” adds Mohsen.
More than anything else, the planned recording sessions were to make up for some of the lapses of their younger days. Our music makers were never big on record keeping when they started Dewangga Sakti, hence some of the earlier creative output was lost for good.“We’ve played for almost five years but if you ask us about some of the songs we wrote in the early days, none of us will be able to recall much,” says Zul.
What the future holds is still anyone’s guess. But if there’s one thing they’re yearning to create, it’s that old-time magic you get in the music and musicians of yesteryears. “We’d like to follow in the footsteps of those ghazal and asli groups who are still making music well into their old age. We want to leave some sort of legacy to show our kids,” says Zul.Let’s hope they get some of that sakti music recorded soon.