Growing Up In Trengganu

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #4721

The sounds you grew up with always remain no matter how far you've travelled, how changed your circumstance.

I grew up in Kuala Trengganu to the sound of Singaporean beauties waddling duck-like in the afternoon sun, sultry women of light ebony that caused heads to turn. They came in lyrical adulations, straight out of a blaring horn-shaped speaker that was placed in the upper storey window of the Bhiku Coffee Shop that was the meeting place in our community of fishermen and market vendors, petty clerks from government offices and even the occasional hajis with their skullcaps wrapped in tailed turbans. Children were there too from the neighbouring houses, but my parents were of the strict type who'd never countenance this business of being at a loose end around the marble-topped table of the Bhiku establishment. My visits there were short and business-like, mostly in early morning, to do the family errand of buying the roti canai (Malaysian pancakes) that were lifted piping hot from the plate and rolled up in pages of yesterday's news, most likely the Jawi version of the Utusan.

Some afternoons I'd walk past the Bhiku coffe-shop from some other errands and would hear those songs again, sung by R. Azmi in his enormously popular, teasing tone. Hitam manis, hitam manis, pandang tak jemu, pandang tak jemu..., that sweet dark lady, always a joy to behold. And then the disc would turn again on the radio requests programme: it would be R. Azmi again, singing Macam itik, pulang petang, dia jalan melenggang...itu dia Nona Singapura. Duck-like she waddles in the afternoon, this lady of Singapore that is mine. I knew them all by heart because the requested songs were played out loud, and our house was in the direct blast of the Bhiku magnum-sized megaphone.

Today, scouring at eBay I found an image that took me back to those sounds - a pre-printed song-request postcard that a listener sent in to the Penang Branch of Radio Malaysia, requesting a song called Senyum Dalam Tangisan, (A Tearful Smile) by Mahani Rahmat. As I'm familiar with neither singer nor song, no tune came lilting into my head as I read details of the request with great fascination and looked at those stamps of the — please note spellling — Trengganu that I knew and loved. A post-card that came from Kuala Besut, a tiny town not ten miles from where my father was born, now put out in auction by a company at the other end of the earth, in Columbus, Ohio. Song request postcard

Looking at the title of the requested song I expect it was a little doolally doo-lah of a heart forlorn, and a smile for all that, even when the object of your love's gone. How sweet and sad the sound.

This was - and still is to a large extent - the plight of the Malays in song: pining always for some lost love, or for some unreachable one admired only from a distance. But until very recently, love wasn't the only thing that afflicted them. They were underpaid for a start, and they did what they did for, well, a song; and R. Azmi was no exception. In song he sounded like an easy, playful lad, but life was hard for him as an itinerant person. Soon after our family moved from Trengganu I was told that he'd died at a young age, not in some comfortable home among a family he loved, but in the home of some kind soul who'd given him room for the night. He was a man who lived in a suitcase which contained all he had, which included a fresh shirt still wrapped in cellophane. How could a man whose voice came so liltingly sweet from the loud-speaker in the Bhiku place, one who gave so much joy to my little town, have met such a tragic end? My heart was ripped when I heard that.

song-request from Trengganu.
How the sounds came rolling back when I read that song-request postcard that's resurfaced in - of all places - the eBay web-page. The coffee-shop, the little town where I grew up, the lilting voice of R. Azmi, and the many faces that still live in my mind. Kuala Trengganu was a hybrid place of many faces, of many sounds - Tamil music from the radios of the Southern Indian spice vendors, Hindi music from open windws; the raucous banter of the fish-mongers, and the bustle of the Tanjung morning market that brought down the orang darat (people from upstream) with their firewood, their handicraft, and their vegetables, and baskets of fruits from the Trengganu forests.

There was a sound for each part of day that went regularly like clockwork - and the most reliable of this time-keeping was the azan, the call to prayer, that drifted in the wind at certain times of day. At dawn, when the streets were empty but for some stray dogs and when the air was fresh and quiet, my father would be the first to rise in preparation for his early morning walk to the Zain al-Abidin Mosque. He'd go about his business to the early sound of the tarhim, and then, just at the start of the azan he'd start his walk to reach the mosque just in time to join the early-morning congregation.

The azan of the Bilal Sa'id was especially sonorous and melancholic in turn, and I remember occassionally walking with my father to the Mosque as the wind carried it fade and loud in the crisp air of the morning. My mother once told me that a friend of hers would be reduced to tears by the weight of introspection every time she heard the sweet, mournful call of Lebai Sa'id urging the faithful to prayer at the break of dawn. O God is Great! Better to be in prayer than sleep!

[Note:Bilal is the name given to the muezzin in a mosque in honour of Islam's most famous black convert, Sayyidina Bilal Ibn Rabah, a freed slave who became the Prophet's caller to prayer and his constant companion.]

Notes On A Card:

Raja AzmiI cannot read the date-stamp on the envelope, but from the spelling, my guess is it's probably the sixties, though knowledge of the song would take us closer to the actual date. Someone, probably the producer of the "Teruna Dara" (i.e. Youth) request programme, had scribbled "Chinta Sejati" (True Love) on the card. The requested song, Senyum Dalam Tangisan was probably not available, hence the substitute. What I also find interesting is that you had to give your Radio Licence (Lesen Radio) number to request a song! [Right, R.Azmi]

Please contact me if you know anything more about R. Azmi.

March 17, 2004