ESTABLISHED in 1946, Radio Malaya began in Singapore, before relocating to Kuala Lumpur in 1950. Consider that this was during a time when national identity and unity was promoted at an all-time high, and Malaya was just waiting to go independent.
Then, the radio was a necessity. It accompanied people whether at home, the coffeeshop, or the barbers, and helped with nation-building and bonding.
This scenario is a stark contrast from today; fifty-eight years on, we have multiple options like BFM, Era FM, Melody FM and a plethora of sounds in the air waiting to be channeled. Today, we no longer rely on select few tastemakers to bring us sounds from distant lands and the music of our neighbours.
Without the need to carry out national propaganda, radio has been free to compete for audiences and commercial gain. But at what cost? Grab the person next to you and ask them if they know about ronggeng, or how a seladang sounds like.
“Tunku Abdul Rahman was big on national consciousness,” explained author of Rosalie and other love songs and renowned composer, Saidah Rastam. “He’d suggest to Ahmad Merican to go to churches and find singers there for the Merdeka Choir, just people of all stripes and colours to sing as one and express the hopes of the new nation.”
Led by Tony Fonseka, the choir needed singers who understood the choral tradition. Those who sang in the asli style had no inkling of what it meant to be bass, tenor, soprano or the roles required in a choir.
“Tunku formed the choir to sing our new lagu kebangsaan. At the time we gained independence, many were unaware that we were going to be a country.”
It was a Sunday in Galeri Ilham, and Saidah was present to speak about Radio Malaya.
Radio Malaya was great!
Saidah, guest speaker of the day, told us that Radio Malaya had three major achievements during its time.
1. It was the first radio station to have broadcasted music to the whole country.
As mentioned, the station brought people together and helped them appreciate the culture of their diverse Malaysian counterparts. The people of Johor for example could now hear what their brethren in Kelantan were spinning, and sounds collected from all across the land were shared to the people.
This was Malaysia in audio, and no local radio station today remain as dedicated to nation-building as Radio Malaya was in the late 50s. Prior to Radio Malaya, the last radio station to operate in the country was the Penang Wireless Society’s station ZHJ, which began broadcasting in 1934.
2. It built an orchestra from scratch.
This one’s particularly funny considering we’ve never had an orchestral tradition.
“I cannot emphasise how huge an achievement this was,” Saidah chided. “After the war, this kind of hubris was a predecessor of hubris to come, but in hindsight it was very good that we did this.”
In order to be taken more seriously, Radio Malaya actually put together an orchestra in two years thanks to the combined efforts of Alfonso Soliano and Ahmad Merican. They did this by grabbing people from various places — musicians at the time largely played at nightclubs and amusement parks — and getting them to learn through Alfonso, the prodigy who introduced bebop to Selangor.
“As we played symphonic music, we started having international aspirations,” she continued. “In two years we managed to build an orchestra, and it makes you wonder: what else could we do?”
3. It archived the diverse music and sounds of Malaya.
Advances in technology resulted in field trips — now that microphones could finally leave studios, Radio Malaya went around the country to capture sounds unique to the land. From the singing windmills which chase away ghosts, to the angry bellows of the seladang, Radio Malaya documented as much as possible for its archives at the National Music Library (NML) which was established in 1957.
Today, Radio Malaya has become Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM). It sits in Angkasapuri, that 10-storey building along the Federal Highway linking Kuala Lumpur to Petaling Jaya — Saidah likens it to a “fortress on a hill”.
It’s an unforgettable sight if you’ve ever driven on the highway; foreboding and gray, Angkasapuri also houses the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM). It’s a far cry from the days Radio Malaya used to operate from Tanglin Health Clinic or the Federal House.
But in this building, there are tonnes of very valuable, cultural audio out of reach from the public.
“Records are kept in a restricted area of the building, and rightly so; there are vaults which hold Malaysia’s entire repository from the nation-building period,” Saidah informs attendees. “RTM also made some of these into souvenir records for special guests and diplomats, but these were by and large not made available to the public.”
At Galeri Ilham, Saidah also shared with audiences a magical music experience.
James Boyle once brought over his father’s open reel tapes, and the data transfer process took hours. These were high-stake operations; most of these tapes could only go through the transfer once because of their frail condition and sensitivity. The end results however took her back to a lost era, one which today’s leaders seem particularly disconnected from.
“To me,” reasserted Saidah at the end of her talk, “music is a big deal. Our music heritage is a big deal.”
We wiped away tears, enjoyed some Hamzah Dolmat, and vowed to change the future.
ILHAM Conversations: Radio Malaya & Seladang Sounds with Saidah Rastam took place at Galeri Ilham on 29 May 2016. Join the conversation and keep up with our Twitter account using #seladangsounds! Image of seladang via Phalinn Ooi.