The late Sudirman Haji Arshad was actually the first Malay singer that I actually had a cassette of. The album was Anak Muda and I was in standard four. It was likely that my parents bought it for me from Raymond’s music shop in Ampang Park, and I remembered (I think) looking at the cassette liner notes at my aunt’s house in Melawati thereafter.

I think my interest in his songs stemmed from seeing him singing on weekly variety programmes on RTM which also had comedy segments where he’d be paired with (the late) Yusni Jaafar, apart from the radio of course. Before the advent of actual music videos, these RTM programmes would make their own versions, like Basikal Tua which also featured Yusni in it. I remembered singing along to Toyol which pretty much came out during the days when the Berita Minggu comic strip of the same name by Raja Hamzah was ever so popular.

Toyol – jika kau datang lagi ke dalam mimpi
Aku ajar engkau menari
Toyol – jika kau ada lagi di zaman ini
Aku ajar engkau menyanyi

Sudirman’s songs were pretty varied genre-wise – obvious Malay pop fare was his forte with some of the faster tempo ones being pretty disco (it was the late 70s/early 80s). His ballads were the most memorable among listeners, and I remembered songs like Salam Terakhir and Terasing on the radio in the dorms at boarding school over the weekend. I somehow liked his traditional stuff like Joget Kenangan Manis and some of his covers, which at that time I wasn’t aware of. Covers of songs by the late R. Azmi like Hoore! Hoore! and Kerana Mata were my favourite. And then there was this 1982 Patrick Yeoh film called Kami which starred Sudirman in the lead role of Tookoo, a lad who ran away from home trying to make ends meet in the big city. I saw this tear jerker of a story (not of the typical Malay cinta variety) with my family at panggung Ria, TTDI’s cinema at that time, and to our surprise some of the scenes were shot a couple of minutes from our house.

It was after Hari Raya of this year that I started to revisit what little music sung by Sudirman that existed in my iTunes, thanks to the inclusion of Dari Jauh Ku Pohon Maaf in my Raya playlist. On noticing a few missing songs, I began downloading them from a Best of… selection on iTunes. I also began to check out Wikipedia which contained documentation of his discography, complete with track listing sufficient to satisfy this iTunes song info completist. I was surprised to see some of his earlier stuff were written by the likes of Ooi Eow Jin, which included a very traditional Malay-sounding melody called Gerimis Di Lautan, with lyrics by Habsah Hassan.

Gerimis di lautan
Mendayung sampan ke muara
Mendayung sampan ke muara
Pada rembulan pungguk merayu

Menangis kesiangan
Menanggung rindu pada si dia
Menanggung rindu pada si dia
Apakan daya orang tak mahu

Habsah Hassan went on to pen Sudirman’s later hits like Merisik Khabar. Another pleasant surprise was that my uncle, Raja Kobat, wrote two of Sudirman’s songs. I can’t remember these songs being well known but the poignant Cinta from the 1981 record Lagu Dari Kota comes to mind, the other being the more traditional Teratai Menjelma.

Teratai menjelma menawan hati
Lalu ku petik ku belai ku cium berkali-kali
Lalu ku petik ku belai ku cium berkali-kali

One thing about these older songs, they were recorded with real instruments, complete with brass and strings. And for the first few records, Sudirman had an album out a year, despite the rampant problems with piracy. He wasn’t just a singer of the people but also a flamboyant performer, something you’ll notice if you go through any of his live performances on YouTube. His onstage theatrics may seem dated by today’s standards, but I chanced upon this live performance in Melaka on YouTube. How it reminds me of a different time when Malaysians were a bit less… uptight.

I preferred his Malay songs than his English ones. One Thousand Million Smiles was performed in London when I was a student in 1989, following which he won the title Asia’s No. 1 Performer, but despite that, the song sounded a tad unusual to me – it kinda started like a ballad which was great but when it evolved to a fast interlude after the bridge[1], I was a bit taken aback. Another example of his flamboyant image was his onstage Malaysian flag costume, one of which he wore at the massive Chow Kit Road gig in 1986. I was at school in Seremban at that time, so I can’t remember if the show was televised, but it was massive. And it was free. Have a look at this TV3 segment:

Sudirman would have been in his early 60s now if it wasn’t for his untimely demise at the age of 37. I wonder what his music will sound like if he was still around today. All that is left for me now when I listen to his songs are sweet memories of my childhood and the many things we did as a family. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Paraphrasing Blade Runner’s Eldon Tyrell, his had burnt so very brightly.

[1]I wondered if that fast interlude was written specifically for his dance segment during his performance at the Royal Albert Hall.