Acclaimed Kelantan- born percussionist keeps tradition close to his heart.
“I BEGAN getting fan mail from the time I was in Form 1,” enthused multi- instrumentalist Kamrul Hussin. Receiving appreciation letters at 13 seems pretty diabolical for a local musician, but not all of us play the gendang, rebab and serunai. In fact, it was this sort of correspondence that scored him his first date – with a goldsmith’s daughter on a night out to the movies.
Of course, all the prestige and respect gained as a budding musician went down the chute when he fell flat on his behind, not knowing how to tip the cinema seat down to sit on.
Pedigree was always there, though. He was playing the rebana and singing by seven, earning the princely sum of RM1.50 for his first professional gig at 10. He was also the first student in primary school to play in a dikir barat band.
However, childhood interest doesn’t always blossom into adulthood passion. But Kamrul has come a long way since his early days in Banggol Gelang Mas, Pasir Mas in Kelantan.
In fact, the musician, schooled in traditional Kelantanese music, has travelled far and wide, well past the comfort of his quaint village. But those worldly experiences have all come from a firm grounding in his traditional upbringing.
“I followed my dad, riding pillion on his motorbike, to his performances around the area, eventually joining his troupe,” revealed the 38- year- old musician.
“My siblings and I grew up with music. My dad not only played, but he made musical instruments, too, so, we were very familiar with all that was happening around us,” he added.
Kamrul eased into the music world taking the percussive route – playing canang at main peteri ( ritual healing) ceremonies, then the gong. “It’s easier to begin by playing with percussive instruments,” he explained, saying that everyone has rhythm, so the playing field is fairly level.
Given his surroundings, Kamrul almost had no chance, but to be involved in the arts in some form or other.
“We had different themed nights every week ... main peteri, silat, tarian inai, dikir barat and so on all the time in our village.”
Mentors, were aplenty, too. Without even having to leave his house, his first and foremost influence is his rebab- playing, singing father, the revered Hussin Yusoff.
The late Pak Hamzah Awang Amat, a National Laureate and Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize Winner, and Pak Nasir Yusoff, would play instrumental roles in shaping his approach to music.
His education process would see Kamrul learning various percussion cultures, like Indian from Kirubakaran Narayana, Chinese from Hands Percussion’s very own Bernard Goh and Latin from Steve Thornton, among others.
And the course of his work has captured him working with the likes of Tan Sri SM Salim, Datuk Siti Nurhaliza at her landmark Royal Albert Hall concert in London in 2005, Zainal Abidin, M. Nasir, Ning Baizura, Ramli Sarip and many more. International collaborations number highly, too, with his work with Sadao Watanabe and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt easily deserving mention.
Kamrul has reached some lofty heights, but he’s no mere dreamer, though. He is a doer, too. Practical knowledge has understandably led him to learn that the fusion of traditional sounds with western music is the way forward in reaching a larger audience.
And he has a gameplan for it, as well, and it’s backbone is very much about contemporising.
“We want to play traditional instruments differently ... do different kinds of songs. For instance, I’ve played the Titanic melody on a Chinese flute,” he shared.
“This approach of colouring the music, makes it less difficult to market shows,” he added.
He recalled how he got a taste for fusion through his musical exploits, intimating that his first ( recognised in the Klang Valley) band was Aseana Percussion Unit ( APU), a band renowned for its good time- music and 1Malaysia- themed anthems. Then he joined gamelan ensemble Rhythm In Bronze.
However, it was the professional training he received at Hands Percussion – which grew from a humble percussion troupe to the entertainment organisation it has become today – which has underscored his career in music.
Today, he proudly leads his family troupe, Geng Wak Long ( Wak Long taken from his affectionate nickname) which had previously featured his dad. Three brothers and a sister- in- law accompany him.
Family- formed work units have not often thrived, but like any kind of human relationship, there is always an ebb and a flow.
“I don’t know them as well as I probably thought. But them going and learning at Aswara ( Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) helped us gel together better.
We have since developed a good chemistry,” said the Aswara graduate and current lecturer in Malaysian traditional music at UiTM ( Universiti Teknologi MARA).
Geng Wak Long has begun to gain traction for its eclectic musical flavours and uniqueness, but he extracts greatest satisfaction in having released the group’s debut album, a collection of traditional songs woven from the mitt of traditionalists and artisans. Everything from the sparse, cheeky intro tune, Tok Selampit, which was tailored for the times to inculcate the buy- original culture, to the free- for- all jam on Medley Bertabuh, Part 1 of The New Authentic Kelantanese Traditional Music Of Malaysia is an invigorating cultural immersion.
The album, as a highlight, according to Kamrul, can only be equalled by the opportunity of having taken the troupe to a highly prestigious festival in Santiago, Spain.
“I’m very pleased that I managed to take them to Womex ( World Music Expo). That was a great experience for all of us.” Kamrul brings his music to Kaleidoscope
4: Drumming Nation, the fourth edition of Hands Percussion’s International Drumming Festival.
Drumming Nation takes place on Sept 10 at the Plenary Hall, KLCC, where he promises a unique experience for the audience.
It is part of Diversecity 2016, the Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival.
“It won’t be just about playing music, but will include performance arts, too. There will be movement, the playing of characters and experimentation with traditional instruments.”
The improvisational nature of the music, according to him, won’t be unlike the spontaneous jam sessions in drum circles.
“It will include drums played, not just as accompaniment, but featuring solo spots as well,” he described the unconventional approach.
Hands Percussion’s Kaleidoscope 4:
Drumming Nation plays at Plenary Hall, KLCC on Sept 10. Tickets, available from www. airasiaredtix. com, participating Rock Corner and Victoria Music outlets, start at RM68. Showtime is 3pm and 8.30pm. Visit: fb.com/hands-percussion, or call 03- 6141 4480 / 012- 502 6883.
Kamrul, a traditional music multi- instrumetalist and academic, has forged a career in the mainstream and cultural circles with his drumming and broad outlook on Malay folk and arts culture. — KIM TEOH