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