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Let us enjoy our rojak songs

by Tan Sooi Beng
Aliran Monthly 2004:5

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popculture (7K)
Rojak songs are popular among multiethnic audiences
On 17 April 2004, Deputy Information Minister, Zainuddin Maidin announced that the airing of Malay songs with a sprinkling of English words in the lyrics would be banned. Information Ministry was following the guidelines given by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka against the inappropriate usage of Bahasa Malaysia which could “corrupt the national language”. Although rescinded on 7 May 2004, the proposed ban has sparked off a heated debate about whether rojak songs (which mix different languages) can corrupt the Malay language.

start_quote (1K) Rojak songs have been and are able to capture multiethnic audiences because they resonate with the lives and experiences of the people. end_quote (1K)
My intention here is not to elaborate on the debates. What I wish to show is that rojak songs have been in existence in Malaysia since the 1930s and form a tradition which prevails today. These songs not only mix Malay and English but Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil and Arabic words as well. Invigorated by humour and topical concerns, the rojak songs are popular among multiethnic audiences and have played important roles in mediating interethnic interaction and modernity.

Transition and modernity 1930s to 1950s

Multilingual comic songs were first recorded by gramophone companies such as His Master’s Voice (HMV) and Columbia in the 1930s. These songs incorporated topical issues including comments on poverty and problems in colonial Malayan society such as gambling, womanising and the plight of taxi drivers and trishaw men. The lyrics which were relevant and amusing became the focal point for listeners. These songs did not use the Malay pantun (as in bangsawan theatre and other Malay social songs) but were sung in colloquial Malay (pasar Malay) and incorporated English, Chinese and Tamil/Hindustani words. The use of duets and the colloquial multilingual medium reminded audiences of real-life conversations.

Taxi.....Yes Sir.....apa ini (Taxi.....Yes Sir.....what is this)
Taxi.....Yes Mam.....isi minyak (Taxi.....Yes Mam.....fill petrol)
Taxi.....Yes Sir.....apa lagi (Taxi.....Yes Sir.....what else is happening)
Taxi.....Yes Mam.....engine rosak. (Taxi.....Yes Mam.....engine spoilt.)

Sabarlah nona, lampu tidak nyala (Be patient lady, [my] lamp is not lighting)
Number belakang tidak ada (There is no number [plate] at the back)
Gohedlah saja, hari sudah gelap (Go ahead, the day is getting dark)
Jangan takut kena tangkap. (Don’t wait till the rain comes.)

Kena saman saya takut (I am scared of getting a summon)
Saya khuatir lesen kena chabut. (I am afraid [my] licence will be confiscated.)

Taxi Rumba (P 13172, Che Tarminah and Piet S., HMV July 1939) is a lively comic song about the problems faced by taxi drivers. It is performed as a duet between a female passenger and a male taxi driver using conversational Malay and a sprinkling of English words. The song tells the audience about how the passenger takes the driver for granted and orders him around. The engine often breaks down. The taxi driver is frequently stopped by police who takes away his license because his lights are not working properly or his number plates have disappeared.

My darling broke my heart
Yi kar ngo mo sweetheart
Ngo yo lok soon badan ku tak sehat
Ngo pangkau sama nyamo dan moksat.

(My darling broke my heart
Now I do not have a sweetheart
I am ugly my body is not fit
I sleep together with mosquitoes and lice.)
Advice about moral responsibilities were common in the colonial era. A song advising the audience about the woes and consequences of excessive drinking, Yam Choi Chow (Mohd. Yatim, Nam 13, 1950s) mixes Malay, English and Cantonese:

P. Ramlee, who dominated the Malay–language film and recorded more than 350 songs in the 1950s and 1960s, was also known for his multilingual comic songs. In both his films and songs, he combined humour and conversational Malay to portray the contradictions faced by ordinary Malays in a modernizing society. In Mencece Bujang Lapok (film Bujang Lapok, 1957), P Ramlee incorporates humour as he sings about the hardships faced by the unemployed Malay youths in the city. Audiences could laugh at their own faults and outdated customs which were common to other ethnic groups as well.

Everyday problems and identity today

In the post-colonial era, topical comic songs provide an arena for musicians to explore their identities and issues of being Malaysian. These comic songs communicate social concerns including comments on poverty, corruption and even complaints against the government.

Hang Mokhtar is a popular musician of the 1980s and 1990s who parodies the problems of daily life through topical comic songs. Some of us may recall Hang Mokhtar’s Ayo-yo Samy (1987) which addresses then Public Works Minister, Datuk Samy Vellu, and describes how people are being increasingly subjected to the highway toll collection. Sung in conversational Malay with the English words ‘toll’ and ‘ferry’ inserted, the song became so popular it was adopted as a theme song at the opposition Democratic Action Party’s demonstrations against tolls in the late 1980s.

Ayo-yo Samy, Ayo-yo Samy (Ayo-yo Samy, Ayo-yo Samy)
Sekarang orang ada susah hati (People are distressed at this moment)
Tol di sana, tol di sini ([There’s] toll there, [there’s] toll here)
Di Penang orang suka naik feri (In Penang people prefer to take the ferry.)

Ayo-yo Samy, Ayo-yo Samy (Ayo-yo Samy, Ayo-yo Samy)
Tak boleh kasi tol kurang lagi (Can’t you lower the cost of tolls)
Hari-hari bayar tol lagi (Everyday we have to pay tolls)
Nanti saya habis duit gaji. (Soon, I will have used up all my pay.)

Ayo-yo Samy instigated a sequel of others songs (by anonymous singers) with the same theme such as No Way Samy, Sorry La Samy and Thank You Samy (101% Gila-Gila, 1988).

Rampa (short for Rambut Panjang meaning ‘long hair’) is another prominent Malay group known for its rojak songs in the 1980s and 1990s. Rampa’s “songs are about society (and in them) elements of advice, humour, teasing and criticism are mixed (dirojakkan) in a Malaysian musical style” (album cover Koleksi Emas Rampa, 1988). Rampa wishes to “project the lyrics” and make people “laugh while they think”.

Their song, Senasib (Of the Same Fate, 1985), shows how working people of all ethnic groups in Malaysia (such as Malay shoe makers and Chinese and Indian street hawkers) share the same fate and aspirations. They are poor; they hope they can earn enough one day so that they can marry the women they love. Indian nagaswaram, bells and drums, Chinese gongs and drums and Western electric guitars and synthesizers are used to provide the accompaniment. Hokkien and Tamil words are mixed with Malay texts.

I speak Hokkien and Mandarin and
I like eating Wantan Mee, Instant Mee
Why do I have to speak other language[s]
While I am talking to my people
Why do I have to speak other languge[s].

Tell me please what is my culture
Tell me please what should it be
Tell me please where is my future
North, South, West or East
Tell me please how can it be.

You can laugh at me
But I don’t care.
I [am] just looking for my ID
So don’t blame me
For my broken
Rojak Market English.
Chinese pop singers have also begun to use the multilingual technique and the comic song genre to explore issues of language and identity. Ah Gu and The BM Boys are two such singers. Ah Gu or Ah Niu (bull in Hokkien and Mandarin respectively) is the nickname for singer-composer Tan Kheng Seong after his hit song about the story of Ah Niu and Ah Hua. In Speak My Language (1998), Ah Gu uses ‘broken rojak Malaysian English’ and Mandarin to question his Malaysian identity. He is educated in the Chinese medium-school and Mandarin is his first language. He asks why he needs to “speak other languages” while “talking to his people”? In order to communicate with fellow Chinese who attend national schools and who don’t speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects, he has to use ‘broken rojak Malaysian English’.

The BM Boys have also tried to articulate their modern Malaysian Chinese identity through their songs. They sing in Mandarin and often use different Chinese dialects such as Teochew, Hokkien and Hakka. The group consciously adapts Malay words, rhythms and instruments in their songs.

Tong Nian Xiong (Song for Childhood, 1995) is sung in Mandarin using the Malay inang dance rhythm. It incorporates the Malay folk song Lenggang Lenggang Kangkong. The folk song helps the singers to remember the good times they had together when they were young. Parts of the song are accompanied by hand claps commonly employed in dikir barat. Lyrical parts are accompanied by the erhu. Because of the mixture of Malay and Chinese elements, some schools have used this song to accompany muhibbah (goodwill) dances.

Encourage And Enjoy

Rojak songs have been and are able to capture multiethnic audiences because they resonate with the lives and experiences of the people. The multilingual colloquial medium is a natural translation of the everyday language of both singers and audiences. Singers articulate the concerns and problems of the common man. Audiences react by laughing at themselves and at others around them and so experience a kind of cathartic therapy.

Zainuddin Maidin’s attempt to ban rojak songs will not be the last time a self-appointed guardian of purity will try to do this. Even if a ban is enforced, there’s no way that the rojak songs will disappear. This is because they extend beyond ethnic boundaries and can effectively speak of Malaysian reality and concerns. They mediate interethnic communication and challenge ethnicism, which colours too many aspects of our everyday lives. Malaysians appreciate these songs as they enjoy their rojak.

Dr Tan Sooi Beng (Ph.D) teaches ethnomusicology at USM

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