Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist, ethnographer, and percussionist who grew up in Singapore and now lives in Perth. She used to play classical percussion in orchestras and now sings harmony in church. Reach her at wishcrys.com
This young lady is completing her PhD studies and we ‘met’ on her website. I wrote to ask if she could write an article about Singapore music in the 60’s. She agreed and I must thank her for the kindness to do so. Find out what she reveals and who she really is:
A labour of love: Growing up with Jerry Murad of The Dukes
By Crystal Abidin
My father has five brothers and two sisters, which makes for a whole lot of cousins for my sister and I to play with when we were growing up (and every Raya is a mini logistical nightmare, but that’s another story for another time).
Uncle Murad is secretly my favourite one.
Many veteran musicians in Singapore know Jerry Murad as the front man and lead guitarist of the 1960’s band, The Dukes. My father, Zainal Abidin, was the bassist – he has several magazine covers and vinyl covers from his treasure trove to prove that they were once young, fine, eligible men.
While many great musicians of his cohort have gone on to fulltime jobs in other sectors, Jerry Murad is one of the few musicians who has managed to maintain a career (and raise a family of five) as a professional musician for over five decades.
Here is a snapshot of his life.
I know Jerry Murad intimately.
He is the uncle who showered me with the most gifts when I was growing up.
As a child, I remember weekly visits to Nenek’s house where Uncle Murad and his family live. There was a glass cabinet by the window in the living room, in which my uncle kept all his musical scores, meticulously filed and labeled.
I soon learnt that if I lurked around for long enough while intently peering through the glass door, Uncle Murad would come over, ask what I was “interested in”, and offer to hand on another one of his precious scores to me.
I never really asked for anything out rightly, because I was a polite child. But seeing as how a good third of my current collection of scores were gifts from my uncle, I guess being sneaky and patient pays off.
When my sister later started recording herself on YouTube and playing at gigs, she inherited a couple of guitars from Uncle Murad. It would have been nice if he had a few spare marimbas or vibraphones laying around for me (FYI Uncle Murad, my birthday is in March).
Uncle Murad is also the resident one-man band at every one of my cousins’ weddings.
It is almost a family ritual for Uncle Murad to rock up with his mics, e-guit, portable amps, and miscellaneous electronica at every family function, big or small. He has his signature batik shirts, a badass ponytail, and a library of song dedications for everyone. It only gets embarrassing when at weddings he makes song dedications to all the “single nieces and nephews”, wishing we would “find love and happiness… maybe at the wedding”.
I also know Jerry Murad professionally.
Some time in 2009, I sat down with Uncle Murad and interviewed him about his life as a professional musician for a school project. Today, I revisit these fieldnotes to share some snippets of our conversation.
Crystal: So! How did it all begin?
JM: My scouts days were the best of my life… James Cook Petrol Boy Scouts. We were so famous in school! During camping, hiking, canoeing, we always sang our own songs, so during one campfire, we formed The Dukes, our own band. Then we got famous and signed a record with a record company, and played for many years. But then we grew up, some migrated, some had to work
Crystal: You’ve done this for over fifty years. Is it tough being a professional musician in Singapore?
JM: I already know from the start that it’s gonna be tough in the music industry, you know? I was prepared for it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I just have to face the difficulties. After all, I’m earning money for my passion you know? How many people can say they love their jobs? For me, my passion became my job.
Crystal: Do you think musicians are sometimes under-valued or underpaid?
JM: Well… Sometimes I play past the allocated time, or play even though they cannot afford to pay me my rates. I’m quite flexible, but only because to me the music business is not all about money. If you play solely to earn a living, you will be miserable. I always go all the way, I give everything I’ve got. I’m really just playing because I love music.
Crystal: How do you maintain relations with your clients?
JM: Sometimes my clients are Chinese… so I will secretly prepare a Chinese song to sing without telling them. If it’s for old people, I memorize some Hokkien songs that they all like. When they see a Malay putting in effort to make their event memorable, they will remember me.
Crystal: Has age affected your business?
JM: Asia is very different, they think old people are useless. In the US, you see all these old men, they walk on stage with their walking sticks…these black people…but once they take out their instruments…magic! They are so skilled you know! But in Asia, people just see your appearance first…
Crystal: Any gig that was particularly eventful?
JM: I played for the Hong Kong-China handover… But I played for two bands! My big band and combo band… I was the only one, what a good experience. Before midnight when we played, we were playing for the British… then after midnight, I was still playing, but now for China… who else can say they have played for two countries in one night?
I watched the royal queens yacht passing… cruising to England… hearing the bells ringing at midnight, like the last bastion of the British empire… then I saw the red flags marching in, choreographed so beautifully… really blessed with the experience.
Crystal: Do you have plans for retirement?
JM: I don’t want to stop playing. I want to die with a guitar in my hand, and maybe ‘go down’ to jam with MJ (Michael Jackson) and Elvis!