Friday, May 20, 2011

Terima kaSIH, Alleycats, for forging unity

Stephanie Sta Maria
When they sing the invisible lines of race and creed fall away.

KUALA LUMPUR: Alleycats vocalist, David Arumugam, has a confession. His trademark shout of “ terima kaSIH” wasn’t born not of gratitude but because of pure fright.
It was 1981 and Alleycats was staging its first performance at Stadium Negara. The six-man band had just released its fourth album, “Alleycats 4” but were unaware, that unlike the first three albums, this one had become an overnight chart-topper.
“We were living in Hong Kong at that time and honestly we didn’t know,” David, 61, explained. “Our job was just to deliver the album. Whenever I called home my father would remark that our songs were very popular and that was it.”
His first clue of their popularity was the choice of concert venue. David had watched international acts perform in Stadium Negara and was startled that Alleycats were asked to play there.
The magnitude of the concert began dawning on him when Alleycats was ushered into a press conference. It was their first taste of stardom and it “scared the hell out of us”.
David’s panic mounted and peaked when he stepped onto the stage to be greeted by a roar from the packed stadium. The petrified singer stepped up to the microphone and blurted the two words that were destined to become an Alleycats’ signature.
“We had been playing in hotels and bars in Hong Kong and had never seen a crowd that size before,” he laughed. “It was overwhelming and the words ‘terima kasih’ just leapt out. So listen guys, it was a case of fright, OK!”
That may have been initially so but in the ensuing sellout concerts those words of thanks were laden with deep appreciation and gratitude for a legion of fans as unique as the band they cheered on.

Booming Malay Market
When Alleycats’ fans converge, the invisible lines of race and creed fall away. They don’t question why a band of Chinese and Indian musicians collaborate with Malay songwriters to sing Malay songs.
Similarly Alleycats didn’t question their recording company’s suggestion to perform Malay numbers in order to break into the booming Malay market. As David said, there was no harm in it.
“Alleycats embodied the 1Malaysia concept all those years back,” he smiled. “We were bringing people of all cultures together through our music. That’s the way it’s supposed to be anyway.”
Has he ever been chastised by the Indian community for singing in Malay instead of Tamil? David was genuinely horrified at the question.
“No, no, never!” he exclaimed. “The only question they ask is when my Tamil album will be out. And I tell them when I have a good songwriter. But we sing Tamil numbers as well. We don’t let down any of our fans in that sense.”
Indeed every Alleycats performance is a fusion of different languages. David himself speaks five languages including Hokkien and Cantonese. The former he learnt growing up in Penang while the latter he picked up during Alleycats’ nine years in Hong Kong.
“All these languages have benefited me in that I can converse with all my fans,” he said earnestly. “And it was a great advantage when we were still in Hong Kong and had to celebrate every major festival with our Malaysian fans there.”
But cross-cultural celebrations were nothing unusual for David and his brothers who were raised to embrace diversity. David recounted the Deepavali of childhood where he had to carry a tray of cakes to each house on his street.

One Big Family
Christmas meant following the neighbours to church and spending the night so they could wake up to presents the next morning. Chinese New Year was synonymous with neighbourhood steamboat dinners and Hari Raya with a grand kenduri.
“Our Chinese neighbour was well off and had a telephone so we gave their number to our relatives in case of emergencies,” David added. “And if there was one neighbour with a car they would immediately step forward to drive to the hospital. We were truly one big family.”
What does he think of the changing times? For a brief moment David ceased his animated gestures and absentmindedly patted his famous afro. Then he sat up a little straighter and blamed the country’s current state of racial affairs on technology.
“During my childhood all the neighbourhood children would gather at the field in the evening to play police and thief, rounders or football and even make our own toys!” he said. “My favourite memory is when we held singing competitions while banging on empty Milo tins.”
“The best singer, which was usually me, would win 10 cents. But the best part was that all the races sat together like siblings. Now the younger generation is more interested in technology than human interaction. They prefer playing games to watching the news. It’s not good.”
Alleycats is marking its 43rd birthday this year with the release of its 30th album and a 1Malaysia comeback concert scheduled for September in Istana Budaya. But David still has one more dream left in him. He wants to build a Alleycats museum to preserve the band’s journey and work.
“I’ve been thinking about this for the past six years,” he said. “I’ve been talking to many people about it in the hope that someone will express an interest before its too late like it was for Sudirman and P Ramlee.”
“They were legends but no one bothered to preserve their work. I’m not looking to leave a legacy behind. I just want to create a place where people can enjoy themselves. Where the broken-hearted and despondent can find solace in our music.”
-- FMT

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