Rides again

Malaysia’s favourite blues band Blues Gang hits 40 and prom­ises to start its an­niver­sary bash next year.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By N. RAMA LO­HAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

WHEN Amer­i­can fid­dler Hart Wand recorded Dal­las Blues in 1918, al­most a cen­tury ago, he wouldn’t have fath­omed the rev­o­lu­tion he set in mo­tion. That per­for­mance an­nounced the ar­rival of the blues in its most recog­nised for­mat, the 12bar, which laid the foun­da­tion for the genre, al­low­ing it to reach any cul­ture that ap­pre­ci­ated rhythm in mu­sic.

The soul of the blues would later em­anate from the deep south of ru­ral Amer­ica in the post WWI years, even­tu­ally giv­ing birth to rock ’n’ roll. Like­wise, in the south of Malaysia, the blues grew and mi­grated up north to the cap­i­tal by way of a bunch of in­di­vid­u­als tired of 1960s pop and weary of the 1970s rock jug­ger­naut.

And what did they do about it? They dug deep into the sounds they heard as young­sters on the ra­dio and their LP col­lec­tions, cour­tesy of 1960s Bri­tish blues boom ex­po­nents like John May­all’s Blues­break­ers, Alexis Korner and Fleetwood Mac, mixed it up with their rock sen­si­bil­i­ties and eth­nic roots, and con­ceived Blues Gang in the end. It’s hard to be­lieve, but the na­tion’s fore­most blues pur­veyor turned 40 this year. Yet, it all seems like only yes­ter­day!

Time has cer­tainly flown by for the quin­tet, too. But the band’s clas­sic line-up, com­pris­ing Ito Mohd (vo­cals, harp, sax­o­phone), Ju­lian Mokhtar (gui­tar, vo­cals), Ab­dul Ghani Datuk Abu Talib (key­boards, gui­tar), Jim Madasamy (bass, vo­cals) and Shaik Karim (drums, vo­cals) is back for a 40th an­niver­sary jaunt.

Back in 1973, dur­ing the band’s ge­n­e­sis, all this was nary an inkling of the times ahead. Bass player Madasamy still re­mem­bers those early days lu­cidly.

“Karim, Mat Dol­lah (orig­i­nal gui­tarist Ah­mad Ab­dul­lah) and I started play­ing to­gether in the late 1960s. We had no money to even own our own in­stru­ments,” he said over a round of tea re­cently.

The story goes that drum­mer Karim (who played bass then), a childhood friend of Madasamy’s from Kam­pung Pasir, on the fringes of Jo­hor Baru, en­rolled his band Chang­ing Time – based in Wood­lands, Sin­ga­pore – in RTM’s Juara Ku­gi­ran band com­pe­ti­tion in 1972. Un­for­tu­nately, the band failed in the first round.

Us­ing in­stru­ments from the de­funct band, the boys duly slipped into the Sin­ga­porean live cir­cuit for a year.

This was in the pre-Blues Gang days, when Madasamy, Karim and Mat Dol­lah went by the men­ac­ing moniker Mes­sen­ger From Hell.

Man­ager Abang Ali pre­dictably sug­gested a name change.

“James Gang in­spired us, and we wanted a tough im­age, like the Rolling Stones, so we knew we wanted the Gang part in the name,” said Madasamy, laugh­ing as he re­called those hal­cyon days.

“In the end, putting blues in front (of the name) seemed the nat­u­ral thing to do be­cause we were hard­core blues guys, to be­gin with,” he added, in­ti­mat­ing that counter cul­ture was frowned upon then ... par­tic­u­larly in Sin­ga­pore.

The band sol­diered on in the face of ad­ver­sity, even bring­ing on a rhythm gui­tarist, Hatta (whose full name es­capes the band now), for the ride but would suf­fer for it later. The hottest place to play at then was the Anzuk Club, the army base for Aus­tralian, New Zealand and Bri­tish armed forces per­son­nel serv­ing in Sin­ga­pore.

“Hatta didn’t drink, but got drunk at our first gig there. Dol­lah had to pull his gui­tar cable out to stop the noise he was mak­ing. When Hatta re­alised what was up, he kung fu kicked all the mi­cro­phone stands on stage,” Madasamy re­called. The rap­tur­ous ap­plause the band got was not enough to se­cure a sec­ond gig, though.

The band ended up cross­ing the Cause­way back to Jo­hor Baru in 1974 with lit­tle fan­fare or for­tune. The guys held down day jobs to keep their heads above wa­ter – Madasamy was an elec­tro­plater chroming bi­cy­cle rims while Karim worked at a bis­cuit fac­tory.

With no ma­jor shows then, the band de­cided to move up to Kuala Lumpur. Hav­ing ac­quired Ito and Ghani the same year, Blues Gang spent its time at the band’s house in Medan Da­mansara (which then man­ager Zainal Arif­fin had ac­quired for the band), hon­ing its craft.

Ito, who spoke freely of days gone by re­cently, re­vealed that Blues Gang was just what he needed.

“I was just out of ITM (In­sti­tut Te­knologi Mara in Shah Alam) and blues was the mu­sic I was into ... Muddy Waters, Rolling Stones, though I was into Grand Funk Rail­road and James Gang be­fore that.”

The mix gelled well and the band had its first taste of the big time at the tail end of that same year when the Rhythm & Blues Fes­ti­val at Sta­dium Ne­gara in Novem­ber pre­sented the-now quin­tet with the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to test it­self in front of a size­able au­di­ence, al­though the band had to beg for its half-hour slot. Blues Gang pulled out all the stops, per­form­ing Johnny Win­ter and Rolling Stones tunes, steal­ing the show in the process.

Fi­nally, in 1977, the band got a break but had a rude shock ini­tially at its au­di­tion, where af­ter play­ing a bunch of blues tunes, the owner sug­gested a name change and adopt­ing more com­mer­cial tunes into its reper­toire.

Blues with blus­ter: Fans of the band re­mem­ber this line up best, com­pris­ing (from left) Shaik Karim, Ito mohd, Jim madasamy, Ju­lian mokhtar and ab­dul Ghani.

The band’s club, K blues mu­sic House might have been a riot, but it sank as quickly as it sur­faced.

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