Growing Up With Jerry Murad of ‘The Dukes’.

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.

Bottom right: Jerry Murad

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”.

Extreme right: Jerry Murad 

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!

This was first published at Singapore60’sMusic on 9 January 2016. Many thanks to Andy Young for the opportunity. See also Singapura Musica: Popular Music in Singapore.

Belonging everywhere and nowhere.

We always expound on the virtues of being a multicultural global citizen of the world.

BUT.

1) This Chinese ethnic org will not recognize my 50% Chinese makeup because my birth cert says I am Malay (so I can’t apply for funding)

2) This Malay ethnic org will not recognize my 50% Malay makeup because I’m not a Muslim (so I can’t apply for funding)

3) This conf grant will not recognize my Asian citizenry because I’m a resident in Australia (so I can’t apply for funding)

4) This women’s org will not recognize my Australian residence because I hold a Singapore passport (so I can’t apply for funding)

Have I reached peak multicultural global citizenry? (No)

Is this just a bad morning of grant application disappointments? (Yes)

Okay. I have purged the bad feels. Onward and forward.

From now on my race is ‘Human’ and my citizenry is ‘Internet’.

This is my grandmother.

This is my grandmother admiring a photograph of her wedding portrait on my iPhone.

“Hey! How do you have this? There’s only one copy! It’s hanging in Uncle James’ house in Canada.”

Ahmah is over 90 but boy is she sharp. I told her I visited Uncle James and Auntie Rachel when I was in Toronto this July.

photo

“You mean you took a plane? For over 20 hours? And you used your phone to take a photo of the photo? Wah you’re so clever.”

I told her I learn from the best. It was extremely precious watching her admire figments of history through a screen; her veiny, wrinkly, scrawny fingers tapping on her image over and over.

“I was only 20 when I got married. Yeye was 22. We were so young. I was very beautiful and fair and my hair was very long. We were so young.”

She points to a frame on her bedroom wall.

photo-1

“You see? That is Yeye. Yeye has gone home. One day I will join him. Some times he visits me at night.”

image

This is my grandmother telling my sister off for wearing torn jeans.

“What happened to your pants? Why is it torn? You should sew it up. Take my sewing kit from the kitchen.”

My sister replies in jest that she is poor; hipster fashion requires validation.

“You have no money?”

Ahmah laughs and smacks my sister on the butt.

“You’re so naughty. Look at jiejie’s skirt, it is not torn.”

Just then, her helper comes in. Ahmah’s ad verbatim response?

“Ah fan, you see? It say it no money. It wear broken broken. It so naughty!”

photo-2

This is my grandmother fishing bills out of her handbag and forcing them onto my sister and I.

“You take lah, you take. Ahmah has money. All your uncles and aunties give me money. I don’t spend so much. So I give you loh.”

As usual, my sister and I turn her down while secretly anticipating the routine wrestle. Never have I seen my ahmah as aggressive and forceful as when she wants to give her grandchildren money.

Once, she stuffed a $50 dollar bill *into* my bra because I had refused her. Another time, she stuffed money into my sock. Yet another time, she pretended to have an asthma attack *and then* stuffed the money down my shirt.

Don’t mess with ahmah.

12074770_10153767656438738_708428518238619854_n

This is my grandmother’s boss face in life.

Especially when she begins to nag me about marriage, love, and life…

“你结婚了没有?你几时请阿嬷喝酒?阿嬷等你等很久。你几时结婚?啊满很乖的,不抽烟、不赌钱、有打工。你要做朋友做久久。选一个就好,心好就好。不要选来选去,选这么多人,心很乱。你这样就好。啊满很好的,你不要放手,放手就给别人抢去。知道吗?”

“Are you married yet? When are you going to invite me to your wedding? I have been waiting for very long. When are you getting married? Sherman is very well behaved: he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t gamble, and he has a job. You must be friends for a long time. Just pick one partner, as long as your heart is happy. Don’t go picking around, dating so many people. Your heart will be a mess. You’re just fine like this. Sherman is very well behaved. Don’t let go of him. If you do, others will snatch him away. Do you understand?”

At least ahmah isn’t nagging me over pimples and beauty regimes this time.

See more of ahmah in Grandmotherly Folklore and Lessons from my grandmother.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the spectacle of death: The first twelve hours on social media

27Mar15 edit: My thoughts on the viral hate here.

24Mar15 0345hrs GMT+1 edit:

Hi folks, I realize this post has circulated far more widely than I had anticipated, roused an extensive array of public sentiment, and been positioned in various ways to rally for different agendas or reflect different opinions. While all this publicity is gaining traction, I’d like to signpost a few things:

1) This mode of data archiving and tracing emergent sentiment in the vernacular is what I do in my job as an academic and media scholar. In particular, I have an academic interest in Instagram. Please feel free to browse through my similar work on #OccupyCentral, #CharlieHedbo, #JeSuisAhmedThe Instagram Purge, and Instagram’s Downtime.

2) I am an academic writing up an analysis on a phenomenon on social media in the space of an academic blog. The analytically clinical tone of the piece has stood out in the wake of much public grieving in which citizens are sharing personal stories, memories, and sentiments of the late Mr Lee, but this post is not a personal story. It is a summary of my personal scholarly observations, and was not deliberately framed to be disrespectful.

3) I am reporting on the early trends and tropes (first twelve hours) on social media among the populace in the vernacular, and some of the ways the coverage by mainstream media disseminated on their respective social media platforms may be shaping this public sentiment. What these popular trends, tropes, and reactions emerge to be or reflect are not within my control.

4) I collected these screen grabs in the first twelve hours following the announcement of the late Mr Lee’s death from Channel NewsAsia Singapore’s Facebook page, The New Paper’s Twitter account, and public Instagram tributes posted on hashtags #RIPLKY, #PrayforLKY, #ThankyouLKY, and #RememberingLKY.

5) I have adopted descriptors (i.e. ‘legend’, ‘draconian’) commonly utilized in the academic research and international press coverage about the late Mr Lee and Singapore. While I have not coined them, I believe the expressions adequately convey the themes I had coded and observed.

Yours,
Crystal

picstitch (1)

The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, passed away at 0318hrs on 23 March 2015 at the age of 91. His death at this time is especially significant as this year is to be Singapore’s 50th year of independence, memoralized as a yearlong national campaign, branded #SG50. The official tribute website for Mr Lee is Remembering Lee Kuan Yew.

Here are some personal observations on the spectacle surrounding the death of a political legend in the first twelve hours on social media. Screen grabs taken from Channel NewsAsia Singapore’s Facebook page, The New Paper’s Twitter account, and public Instagram tributes posted on hashtags #RIPLKY, #PrayforLKY, #ThankyouLKY, and #RememberingLKY.

Today on my social media:

a) International friends discovering Singapore’s draconian structures for the first time and exercising their messiah complex.

b) Local friends sharing excessively emotive write-ups attempting to humanize a great politician to shape public memories.

c) Suddenly, everyone has an opinion on Singapore.

1) Populist memory-making in progress.

2) Mobilizing collective effervescence.

3) Making a list. Checking it twice. Finding out who has demonstrated public diplomacy and who hasn’t. Race you.

Also, international political grieving feels like the adult version of writing in a high school year book.

4) Local politicians pay their respects.

Also, all the cyber-hugs to all my friends in journalism and media who are probably going be working non-stop for the next 72hrs.

5) An official discourse of a life history is organized and disseminated.

6) A draconian politician is humanized.

Also, all the cyber-hugs to all the educators rewriting social studies texts for next year.

7) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Lee’s living legacy and son, manages officious state duties and public grief.

Brainfart: I wonder how all the politicians’ children whom I went to school with will have to exercise public grief when their parents pass away. How are children of politicians schooled into public affectation? Is there an organization or mentoring programme of sorts?

8) Tributes from citizens at the fringes are highlighted.

Also pending, tributes from:
a) Ethnic minorities
b) The lower class
c) Fringed sexualities

9) Popular vernacular tributes are memetized.

10) All. The. Creative. Tribute. Art.

11) Despite his strict command as a hyper-masculine disciplinarian and founder of the state, Mr Lee has also managed to be remembered as a loving husband.

12) And as a counterpoint to his extreme paternalism, he is also fondly remembered by citizens as a doting father to his children.

13) SGAG, the local user-generated version of 9gag, is respectfully taking a break from their usually jabbing political satire.

14) Meanwhile, this is how the most prominent local Internet vigilante group, SMRT Ltd (Feedback), wants to memorialize a legend.

And this is how histories become selectively myopic,
sympathetic populism reigns,
collective effervescence kicks in,
and gods are made.

Biracials speak out! The inside world of everyday chameleons.

This post was first published on PopAnth, 3 February 2015.
A Multicultural Fest flag ceremony. Photo by Texas A&M University via Flickr [CC BY 2.0].
A Multicultural Fest flag ceremony. Photo by Texas A&M University via Flickr [CC BY 2.0].

If you’ve ever been to Singapore and hung out at a coffee shop below a block of flats or a hawker centre, you’re bound to have heard a local order a “Michael Jackson.” It’s quirky vernacular for a concoction of grass jelly (black) and soy milk (white), playing on the late pop star’s changing skin colour over the years. Some say it could also be a reference to his hit single, Black or White.

Biracial neologisms are staple repertoire in this country where there are four recognized national ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others (comprising mainly Eurasians from around the region). For starters, the Malay-Chinese are commonly termed Chinlays, and the Indian-Chinese, Chindians.

Around the world, social groups have produced creative neologisms for mixed race persons in their cultural milieu. For instance, mestizo refers to Latin Americans of Native American and European ancestry; African-Europeans in Brazil are known asmulato; Sri Lankans who historically descended from local women and the British colonialists are termed burghers; South Africans who are multiracial are usually referred to as coloureds; and persons of Japanese-Anglo heritage are known as hafu.

Singapore is a diverse society comprising four official languages and four main religions. Just as “Michael Jackson” is a familiar and convenient reference to a locally concocted beverage, racial shorthand is more a matter of cultural understanding than haphazard labelling.

A body’s visual markers allow for a quick assessment and situation of a person’s identity and status. A visibly racialized body thus informs other people on how to negotiate cross-cultural sensitivities with them in a shared social space.

For instance, this visibility may help inform others of an appropriate choice of mother tongue to be adopted in conversation with a stranger, or whether to extend non-halal food to a “Malay-looking” – and by extension, in most parts of South East Asia, Muslim – person.

Some biracial people have corporeal features that distinctly signpost their mixed heritage to others. These individuals are likely to receive the staple repertoire of “questions of origin”; you know, the “Where are you from?”, “Where are you really really from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, and “What are you?” types.

While these everyday identity politics pose their own set of issues, biracial people who do not look distinctly “mixed” deal with a different problem all together. These are the individuals who find themselves not readily acknowledged or accepted in situations where either of their ethnicities manifest homoethnically, unless they intentionally assert their communal belonging or solicit homophilic affect in some form or another.

I interviewed five Malay-Chinese women in Singapore who felt that their ethnicities were not always recognized in social groups. While “Michael Jackson” does appear on the menu of some eateries, these biracials obviously do not prance and parade around with a “Chinlay” or “Malay-Chinese” label on their foreheads.

As such, they have devised innovative ways of marking their racial master status through the careful calibration of language and bodily practice. In-depth interviews with them reveal that biracials selectively conceal or emphasize different elements of their mixed corporeality depending on the social groups or situations in which they want to position themselves favourably.

Some of these Malay-Chinese persons felt outcast even in their early schooling years. One of them tells me that her language competency was seldom recognized because the Mother Tongue did not appear congruent with her skin tone:

“I used to be quite tanned in Primary School, quite Malay-looking… during Chinese lessons, the teacher always explained [difficult things] to me in English, as if I don’t understand Mandarin. But I even took higher Chinese…”.

Another Malay-Chinese woman candidly recalls her childhood best friends being of Indian and Eurasian heritage because her Malay and Chinese peers had difficultly placing her:

“The Malay kids thought I hung out with the Chinese, and the Chinese kids thought I hung out with the Malays, so I ended up hanging out with every one else!”

How did these biracial persons manage this ambivalence as young children? Well, remember the customary act of shyly introducing yourself to a class of brand new peers and teachers every school year (thankfully, in more than 140 characters IRL)? It seems that tracing one’s family tree and “having to explain your strange hybrid name” is crucial to Malay-Chinese to explain their life history to assert their master racial status.

Some biracials may only be fluent in one Mother Tongue, while others choose to announce their religious affiliations and practises to pre-empt any cultural faux pas to come. So while these annual introductions may be awkward rituals for some of us, they are actually more practical than ceremonial for biracials.

Although these Malay-Chinese persons reported speaking English (the main official language of the country) more so than any other language or dialect, they would selectively sprout a few lines of the Mother Tongue they were not fluent in to underscore their racial hybridity.

One biracial individual whose Mother Tongue was Malay would often find herself among Chinese friends who occasionally slipped into Mandarin. Instead of speaking up, or requesting that they conversed in English, she would instead pepper the conversation with the few broken Mandarin phrases she knows partly to solicit an affective response when they tease her for “trying,” and also to subtly remind them of her desire for acknowledgement and inclusivity. It proved to be a soft but effective prompt to her peers who would quickly code switch to English.

Physical gestures are another element that constitute a racial code. They are mirrored and socialised among children during their upbringing, since these designate one’s bodily boundaries and limits of exchange. Thus, while unseen by outsiders, insiders of the racial group may appropriate subtle gesticulations to demarcate and legitimate each other’s membership. One Malay-Chinese person tells me:

“We [the Malays] always salaam* each other when we first meet, it’s like a signal to show that we are ‘the same’ you know, so as long as I ‘act’ Malay, then my [colour] doesn’t really matter.”

*[The salaam is a salutation of Islamic origin, signifying “peace to you.” It usually involves taking the back of the hand of a senior and bringing it to one’s forehead, heart, or lips. It is commonly practiced among Malays and Muslims. However, when a body’s phenotypic markers do not adequately signify racial identity, insiders may not extend such affective body language to them.]

However, these bodily practises require positive feedback in the form of reciprocation to be deemed successful. Another biracial woman laments:

“When I first came to uni, the Malay kampong [literally translates into ‘village,’ but figuratively stands for a social group in which reciprocal Malay cultural relationality is attached] couldn’t tell I was one of them… when I tried to salaam one of [the boys], he asked me why I was shaking his hand!”

Ethnic identity is not innate or a given, but instead established, learned, and systemically performed through a sustained repertoire of acts. One disciplines their body (and tongue!) into stylizing after dominant racial cues in order to mark their ethnic identity.

But this performance has to be convincing enough so that an audience who witnesses it accepts and recognizes a person as Malay, Chinese, or both. For their lifetimes of cumbersome introductions and awkward manoeuvring of ethnic spaces, biracials have taught us that racial practice is in fact a flamboyant regime that, when rehearsed and naturalized over many years, becomes perceived as second nature and natural.

After all, the vernacular “Michael Jackson” only earned its title after years of circulating in the local imaginary. Bless the first person who ever thought to mix grass jelly and soy milk.