Joe Chel­liah im­mor­talised

Renowned mu­si­cian Joe Chel­liah has his life chron­i­cled in all its glory in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By n. RAMA LO­HAn

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.

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