Malaysian Diary (I): The Legend of P. Ramlee

Even a week in Malaysia is a rich and varied experience. Along with members of the Choir of Trinity College and a number of staff, I have just spent the last few days in and around Kuala Lumpur, where we met with alumni, parents and friends, shared experiences with educators and leaders, and generally soaked up the experience of a vibrant mix of cultures. As Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence (“Merdeka”) this is an important time for the nation to reflect on its identity.

Trinity has had students from Malaysia since before that time, and in recent years has had many in its Foundation Studies program in particular; but this is the most significant effort the College has made to engage alumni, friends, parents and others connected with us.

The Choir performed two concerts at the new Kuala Lumpur Cultural Centre, and seem to have come close to rock star status with enthused audiences. After singing arrangements of Shakespeare by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and versions of hits from the Beatles and Burt Bacharach, they presented their own cultural mix of folk songs of various origin, to warm applause. The audiences were quite surprised and thoroughly delighted however, when these two dozen young Australians broke into a jazz-tinged version of Malay folk song “Jong Jong Inai”. Still louder cheers met a medley of popular music from the opus of Malaysian actor, director and composer P. Ramlee. One comic segment in this finale depicted (so I am assured – my Malay is mostly limited to food) three “dowdy bachelors”; three rather younger and more eligible Trinity choristers stepped forward for the roles, to wild acclaim.

P. Ramlee seems always to have the epithet “legendary” when Malaysians mention him. As a kind of mid-twentieth century renaissance man of Malay popular culture, he has elements of what Australians attribute to Barry Humphries, Peter Weir and Slim Dusty, rolled into one. One of Kuala Lumpur’s major streets was renamed after his untimely death, and one half of the huge shopping centre at the base of the massive Petronas Twin Towers next to it is accordingly the “Ramlee Mall”. In at least one store inside, I heard some of the same Ramlee music piped in to accompany the consumer pursuits of a very different Malaysia from the one in which he first became popular. The legacy and legend of P. Ramlee are one complex image of contemporary Malaysia; his music and following link the emerging post-colonial nation of 1957 to the gleaming achievements and aspirations of 2007.

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