Joe Chelliah immortalised
Renowned musician Joe Chelliah has his life chronicled in all its glory in his autobiography.
THERE’S a fine line that separates confidence and arrogance. Renowned (and in some circles, considered legendary) Malaysian musician Joe Chelliah treads this divide like a skilled tight-rope walker. He knows the musical landscape of yesteryear like the back of his hand. More than that, he is also acutely aware of the failings of the education system, having served as a teacher from the 1960s through the 90s when he opted out of government service.
Little reason for him to pretend to be a greenhorn because that he certainly is not. And why wouldn’t Chelliah have the right to blow his own trumpet, too? After all, he’s been there, done that, and bought the proverbial T-shirt.
In fact, during a recent interview at a hotel in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, he found no reason to be bashful when he proudly claimed; “If you don’t know me, you can’t claim to be a musician in Malaysia.”
It’s this sense of conviction that endears him to most circles and finds him reviled by others. After all, there’s always a price to fame, isn’t there?
The Times & Chimes Of Joe Chelliah, his autobiography, narrates the story of a man born into the esteemed Naadar community from South India, who grew up in post-war Malaya in Nordanal Estate in Johor, carved a niche for himself as a respected musician with Roziah Latiff and The Jayhawkers, while maintaining a career as a school teacher and music educator.
Putting 66 years of his life into a book was never going to be easy. In the process, Chelliah has had to bare his soul, admitting though that 10% of the material never made it into the book for political correctness and privacy. However, like all capable authors, Chelliah gave his mind free reign. “I’m a thinker and an educationist. I’m always mulling over what’s wrong. I’m a voracious reader, too. It’s as simple as this, if nobody reads, then nobody writes. If I don’t record this, who will?” reasoned Chelliah, who changed his name to Johami Abdullah following his marriage to Norhamidah Abdul Hamid in 1970.
Then he launched into a tirade distinguishing today’s generation from his, adding on a poignant observation: “I’m a product of my time.”
Throughout his book, Chelliah recalls intriguing events in his life. Some of the most charming recollections are that of his youth, his bachelor days in the swinging 1960s and fatherhood. He mentions being smitten by a cousin from India, his dad’s athleticism (his father could complete the 100-yard dash in 9.98 seconds ... something he initially doubted himself) and the use of a Moulinex blender when raising his children in the 1970s.
Clearly, the research must have been a daunting task but Chelliah puts it down to desire and drive.
“I’m not just sitting around as a retiree. While I’ve been afforded the luxury of time, I feel this still all comes down to time management. Time is not going to land on your lap – you have to make it. It took me five years to write this book. There was a lot of editing and reediting,” he confessed, explaining that all this was achieved while he continues to hold a job as an events manager (he’s the general manager for NJ Entertainment Consultants).
Like other sexagenarians, Chelliah has lived through some of the most exciting times in Malaysia’s history, especially two of the most significant decades in modern times, the 1960s and 70s. Yet, he doesn’t get all misty-eyed at the mention of the decades that gave us the stylophone and Concorde.
“There was nothing particularly special about that period. I mean, the same way we’d be reminiscing on Starbucks or whatever in 30 years’ time, is the same way I’d recall the 1960s and 1970s. However, it was a time of different values; we had more respect for our parents then ... it really was a different world.”
Unlike most youngsters who discover and pursue their musical gift while still in their early teens or so, Chelliah’s muse only came acalling when he was approaching adulthood. “Had I pursued music earlier, I think it would have compromised my education,” says the father-of-three, who takes great pride in his education under the British regime.
While he would go through a few musical acts in the 1960s (starting off by playing the bongo in his brother’s Indian classical ensemble Kalaivanar Orchestra, which exists to this day), it was while backing singer Roziah Latiff that his band The Jayhawkers struck it big, recording four albums from 1965 to 1969.
“I got into music by replicating rhythms on Milo and Everyday milk tins (tied together as bongos). I used to improvise different rhythms (which got him playing calypso flavoured tunes like Island In The Sun and Marianne). I took up the offer to play bongos in my brother’s band so I could play the real instrument. After that I played bongos in my friend Benny Jackson’s band and within five years, I was a recording artiste,” said Chelliah, who is also handy on the drums, bass guitar and keyboards, among others.
Chelliah looks back at those days very fondly as they made him the man he is today.
“I’m happy to just be recognised as a humble guy from an estate who achieved something. I appreciate being recognised as a musician. Musicians like Michael Veerapan have played alongside me, and its not uncommon for some of them to refer to me as maestro or sifu, although I’m no fantastic musician,” he offered, clearly struggling to integrate his humility and haughtiness into a cohesive whole.
When we think of Malaysian greats from the different aspects of the music world, Mike Bernie Chin invariably crops up for concert promotion, Roslan Aziz for production, Datuk Freddie Fernandez for Betarecs studio and music organisation Karyawan. And then there is Joe Chelliah, musician and music educator. The Times & Chimes Of Joe Chelliah is published by Marshall Cavendish and available at all major book stores nationwide.
Marital bliss: Chelliah and wife Norhamidah Abdul Hamid. They have three children.
Tux and ties: Roziah Latiff and The Jayhawkers circa 1967. Joe Chelliah is third from left.
Roziah Latiff and The Jayhawkers in 1966.