If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘pop yeh-yeh’, it’s time to get cosy with it. Because electronic musician Safuan Johari and performance artist Rizman Putra – collectively known as NADA – are taking the retrolicious Malay pop, deconstructing it, and then reassembling its sounds to create a nostalgic aural tapestry. 'Pop yeh-yeh' itself is named after that famous Beatles tune ('She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah') and was popularised by local and regional acts in the ‘60s. But enough talk. We'll hand the reins over to Safuan to explain more, and even tune us in on a few of his favourite tracks from the era.
How did this collaboration between you and Rizman Putra come about?
NADA started in mid-2014, and it was totally far off from what it’s become today. Rizman approached me to collaborate on some music for his solo show/exhibition in a gallery. We were jamming things out as an electronic duo – definitely more futuristic than the nostalgic monster we’ve created now. The exhibition got cancelled, but we managed to perform the same set at the Esplanade Concourse.
Immediately after, Rizman was asked to present a work for another exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre. That was when the whole idea of creating a fictional group came up. It was about looking back at the past from a Malay’s point of view. In terms of choosing the ‘60s to ‘80s as a working period, I think enough time has passed for us to conjure something in an attempt to make it believable.
'Half of my output was created with all these old Malay samples, while the other half was straight-up heavy beats electronica'
The concept behind NADA reminds me of Max Lane [Safuan's previous music project]. Do you see this as an extension of that?
Before NADA, I found Max Lane a bit schizophrenic. Half of my output was created with all these old Malay samples, while the other half was straight-up heavy beats electronica. So I was getting a bit confused myself. Now I can neatly separate the two approaches. With that said, I see it more as a breakaway than an extension.
Do you also see NADA as something of an ‘archival project’?
Sometimes I think we do appear that way. But I think it’s not safe as we’ve erased the line that separates fact from fiction.
How and where do you go about digging up these old Malay tunes?
From everywhere, really, in both digital and physical formats. I’ve been trawling for old Malay songs online for years. I’ve got a list of blogs I visit – these guys digitise all the songs they’ve found on records. My dad used to have an extensive record collection, but he gave them all away when I was a kid. When it comes to knowledge of the scene back then, I don’t know anyone who was deeply entrenched in it. I get the info in bits and pieces from whoever’s willing to share. And as it goes, we make up a lot of things along the way.
'The bulk of the music we sampled was produced and recorded in Singapore, so I think it’s important for us to rediscover these songs and celebrate them'
Are they predominantly from Malaya or are you interested in Indonesian styles, too?
The entire Malay Archipelago. We even have a number that samples a Thai song. And I’ve started buying old Chinese records. Its influence and my interest in it are slowly expanding.
Why do you think such tunes should be unearthed and given a new lease of life?
The bulk of the music we sampled was produced and recorded in Singapore, so I think it’s important for us to rediscover these songs and celebrate them. We once had a thriving music industry and these tunes are a solid reminder of that.
We'll be honest: we know close to nothing about ’60s Malay pop. So how would you characterise it?
Pop yeh-yeh was the driving force of music in the ‘60s. Cliff Richard and the Shadows came to Singapore in 1961, and shortly after, many local bands were formed. Musically, it sounds very raw and catchy with fuzzy guitars. And everyone in the scene seems to be dressed in sharkskin suits.
Besides Malay pop, what other genres are in the NADA radar?
I’ve been paying close attention to record reissues for old African and Middle Eastern music. This ranges from Senegalese Afro-Cuban and pre-Islamic revolution Iranian music to jazz and funk from places like Ethiopia, Morocco and Algeria.
Listen to Safuan's curated playlist
1. 'Sejak Kita Berpisah' by Kartina Dahari
'I really love keronchong (both a genre and a ukulele-type instrument), as it exudes tranquility. When I need to ease my mind – or if the weather gets too hot – I just need to put on a keronchong record and everything will be all right. This is also my favourite song by the late and great Singaporean singer Kartina Dahari, whose voice is amazing.'
2. 'Mak Itty Mak Illa' by The Swallows
'My favourite pop yeh-yeh band! Their songs are mostly in Boyanese, an Indonesian dialect from Bawean island, where my maternal grandmother was from. The Swallows are probably the most hedonistic-sounding Malay band to ever exist. In some alternate universe of NADA-land, these guys could be part of New York’s CBGB movement. But I think they had a hit in Germany or something.'
3. 'Tahukah Sayang' by P Rosnah and The Siglap Five
'Beth Gibbons, if you’re reading this, please get in touch. In NADA's universe, trip hop was invented in Jurong, and Portishead’s Dummy was sung in Malay filled with samples such as this.'
4. 'Mengapa' by Sarena Hashim
'The band that backed this song was The Quests, and [its guitarist] Reggie Verghese co-produced the EP together with another legend, music composer Kassim Masdor. It was already an inclusive scene back then, where music triumphed everything else.'
5. 'Dulu Dan Kini' by Titiek Sandhora
'The only Indonesian song on this list. It has an ethereal vibe and is the kind of sound that I think many current indie bands would die for. Definitely a timeless piece.'