Man at His Best

A Degustation Of Liberal Asian Artists: Chrismansyah Rahadi & P Ramlee

Serving their own brand of beautiful justice that you'd appreciate in the gallery of your heart.

BY Prabhu Sailvam & Zul Andra | Apr 26, 2016 | Arts

Illustration by Carmen Chen

You mean art expounds the truth only to those who can see it? No way! Yes way. Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” still retains its relevance in today’s world filled with rage and unrest. But if there’s one form that continues to hold truth and extends liberation from the clutches of curated television, it is art. Just as much as Scott-Heron’s music revealed the unjust, American musician Sixto Rodriguez’s songs unknowingly served as anti-apartheid anthems in South Africa. If only you could decrypt beyond the subjectivism of what these artists—our selection of Asian musicians, painters and creators—are really saying, we are all gonna be alright in the end. Here's the final part of a four-part series, with Chrismansyah Rahadi and P Ramlee.


Chrismansyah Rahadi

Caught in a stupor of political suppression and genocide, ’60s Indonesia was no place for artists, dreamers or thinkers. Yet, Chrismansyah Rahadi was all of them. And more.

Soft-spoken, lanky and known for a stage persona that is best described as “stiff”, it is hard to address Chrisye with the same superlatives as one would a libertine rock god. In a time when it was de rigueur for bands to dabble in the eccentric and the outlandish, the Indonesian progressive pop singer and songwriting legend was the difference. 

He wasn’t bestowed with the feverish swagger of Jim Morrison, the over-the-top showmanship of Chuck Berry or the smouldering stage presence of Johnny Cage. But when he slung his bass guitar to the front and started to sing, he brought an entire nation to a standstill. A nation that was, by now, reeling from the horrors of dictatorship and oppression.

Maybe it was the ingenuity of his prose or his soulful renditions of love lost. Or maybe it was the way his soft timbre voice weaved effortlessly through the hushed harmonies of fingerpicked guitar—not unlike harp strings touched by the moon.

Music during the ’60s and the ’70s in Indonesia was suffering from a media blackout imposed by the Suharto regime—the scene was awash with airwaves repeating government propaganda ad nauseam. Yet, in overcrowded tea stalls by the slums of Muara Angke and bourgeoisie enclaves in uptown Jakarta, his melodies swirled and sauntered their way into the hearts and the minds of princes and paupers alike. 

But Chrisye isn’t flashbulb-popping famous and will most likely never make it to the gentrified lists of world music greats as dictated by the West. Still, he is cultishly revered with a fervour that only intensifies with time.

Words by Prabhu Silvam.


P Ramlee

In the colourful heyday of ’50s Singapore and Malaysia filmmaking, P Ramlee’s body of work was regarded as the brightest beacon of Malay culture. The visionary singer, songwriter, actor, director and producer is revered as the finest son of the craft. But in his later years from the ’60s, the lights of the multi-hyphenate were dimmed in the hands of the very people that he chose to entertain. Although broke and broken, his artistry continues to be studied and celebrated today.

With roads, a museum and a cinema in Malaysia named after him, P Ramlee was also posthumously conferred an honorary title. There’s even a multi-season musical that pays tribute to his life. 

P Ramlee’s signature artistry lies in his observation of the fragility of the human spirit—dramatized or sung, comically or tragically. In one film, a spectrum of emotions is revealed masterfully. In Ibu Mertuaku (My Mother-in-Law; 1962), what starts off as a romantic comedy turns tragic when the protagonist—an impoverished musician (played by Ramlee) who is manipulated into losing the love of his life—cries until he goes blind.

Whether in the form of horror (Sumpah Orang Minyak, or The Curse of the Oil Man) or humour (Bujang Lapok, or The Three Over-aged Bachelors), Ramlee wrote, directed and acted in most of his works. Although his performance garnered a great audience—his movies are still shown today—it was his music that elevated him as a true artist. With a smooth baritone, P Ramlee’s vast musical knowledge allowed him to compose everything from jazz to ballads, pop to rock.

But into the late ’60s, P Ramlee faced lingering questions over his relevance. With a younger audience opting for TV over theatre and Western pop over local musicians, his star was fading. He died at the age of 44, reportedly heartbroken at how an industry he led left him by the wayside. The last song he composed is called “Air Mata di Kuala Lumpur” (“Tears in Kuala Lumpur”). It was the only song he ever made, and the only one he didn’t sing. Instead, it has been sung by a breadth of Malaysian singers over the years in remembrance of a man that, till today, is incomparable.

Words by Zul Andra.

From: Esquire Singapore's April 2016 issue. 

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