It’s all in the lyrics
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 22 Mar 2013
WHEN you listen to a song, what is it about that song that would hold your attention for four minutes?
Pete Teo’s Here In My Home.
What about it that made you want to tap your fingers, sway your head, strum an imaginary guitar?
Is it the catchy tune, the powerful voice, or the poetry that would ensue? Could you paint an image with the words? Could it bring you back to a past you had forgotten? Could it reach into your inner soul and ‘speak’ to you?
I grew up liking music and had liked many songs but I suppose the first time a song ever made a real impact on me was “Zombie” by The Cranberries.
I was only nine when it came out and at first I was attracted to the rock; the way the guitar strummed into a power-charged intro and then slows down as Dolores crooned, “Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken.”
But it wasn’t until a few years after did I really understand what the song is about. “Zombie” is not a complicated song and doesn’t have complicated lyrics; it was one of the first songs I picked up on the guitar.
But good songs don’t have to be complicated; what makes it stick is the message or meaning, what it’s trying to convey.
But if one was to strip away the chords and the beats, what would happen to the lyrics? Would they still be able to strike an emotion or a thought? What would happen then, if we were to take the lyrics and interpret it via other forms of performance?
A couple of weekends ago, I spent my Saturday night watching students from the March 2012 intake of Sunway University’s Department of Performance and Media perform a devised theatre performance dubbed “The Playlist”.
The show was staged by the students themselves and is the outcome of a seven-week long Theatre Project course where they select, research and devise texts from Malaysian lyrics and employed theatre approaches to breathe new interpretation into the lyrics.
The outcome? A kung fu fighting mamak stall (Mamak Tang, 1998), a manga love crisis (Kantoi, 2009) and a political play on identity and the sense of belonging (Here in My Home, 2008) among others.
Intrigued by their performance, I decided to get some insights from the students.
Karen Hii, who performed movements aligned to a recital of the lyrics of “Racist” by Brian Gomez, said: “I find it interesting because we can do a lot of things to convey a message; for example, using projection, transforming props and interpreting through movement. At the same time I find it challenging because we need to push ourselves to create new pieces with limited resources and time.”
I can imagine it’s a hard feat to accomplish as a lot of songs out there are limited in terms of lyrical creativity.
They may be good songs with good beats, but the lyrics tell us nothing. There is a lot of repetition and songs are very ‘internal’ in nature, whereby songwriters write about how they ‘feel’. There is a lack of storytelling and observation in our lyrics.
By exploring their own creativity, the students avoided being too literal with the lyrics.
Fahad Iman, who played a discriminated employee who rose against the overbearing boss in “The Revolutionary Hum” by Mia Palencia, said: “I learned about seeing things in a ‘bigger picture’. We would come up with different ways of performing the lyrics, but we tend to forget about the bigger picture, for example, does the meaning of the lyrics come through in the piece, what is the intent of the character, what are we actually saying and why? We should also understand what we are doing and research. For example for the piece on “Mamak Tang” by Ah Niu, the group went to a mamak stall and paid close attention to the soundscape around us. Basically if you do something without seeing the bigger picture, then there is no substance to what you do.”
I’m one of many urbanites who grew up listening to mostly non-Malaysian artistes and only got into it just a few years ago.
It’s not difficult to shy away from our own local talents; major radio stations in the Klang Valley play predominantly Western music and we are more familiar with American artistes than we are with local ones.
Some of the students, too, would not have chosen to listen to Malaysian songs until they worked on the assignment.
Picking songs ranging from P. Ramlee to Zee Avi, the students found a deeper appreciation towards Malaysian music and artistes.
Sean Lee, who played the cheating husband and narrator in “Dengar Ini Cerita” by P.Ramlee said: “We learn a lot about Malaysia through the lyrics by Malaysian artistes. It was their passion and love for our nation that spoke through the lyrics. To me, these lyrics tell me that Malaysia is no different from the rest of the world. We have the same problems whether in our own personal relationships or politics as the rest of the world. But what is unique about Malaysia, is that we have our own culture in a multi-racial nation. And that makes our songs really interesting as it speaks to all races. ”
He added: “But the most valuable experience is that I was able to recognize and appreciate a talented pool of talented artistes who dare to spread their thoughts and idealism through songs that are sometimes controversial, but deep down in their hearts they just want to make Malaysia a better place.”
The airplays are filled with rubbish music and songs with dumbed down lyrics that good songs are getting harder to come by.
Which I suppose is fine since at the end of the day it boils down to the individual’s taste in music. But I think music also plays a larger role that just mere entertainment. In the 60s and 70s, the songs that were being produced were reflective of the social setting of that era. They were commentaries, observations and protests of socio-political events. They shaped, and were shaped by social movements that were taking root around the world.
However, the Malaysian music scene largely struggles with finding its own “voice”.
Local artistes emulate songwriting styles and influences from the US or the UK that we don’t sound any more different than them, when in fact, we have enough local issues to fuel our creativity. We hardly experimented with our own traditional and local influences either. Take for example “Hijau” by Zainal Abidin; the reason why it’s such an epic Malaysian song is because he wrote about a global issue through local lenses, incorporating a distinct cultural influence in his songwriting, the Kelantanese language.
As Fahad observed: “I feel like some of the songs are thought-provoking and some are of quality that can stand internationally. But it is only a few. I feel that the local music scene should take risks instead of being safe, because being safe is boring and it doesn’t push the envelope.”