A group of waist-high kids being adopted by a music mentor, to be tutored at his home? Seems unthinkable doesn’t it? Moses De Silva, a double bass player in Kota Kinabalu, was my translator in this interview. Warning: a bit of politically incorrect joshing between school friends here.
In early 2010, Moses De Silva said to me, “There’s someone you really should meet. He’s called the Abah. He’s a very simple guy, an ordinary school teacher who lives in Kudat.
“He adopted some kids, financing them with just his own money. He taught them music in some special way and when they grew up they all became fantastic musicians. One of them – Raimon – works at RTM (public broadcaster Radio Televisyen Malaysia) now. You must talk with him, even if I have to take you to Kudat and translate for you. This guy is very special – he’s like one of Sabah’s unsung heroes.”
This sounded like a very personal story, and I wondered if the adopted musicians would let an outsider meet their Abah. I said to Moses to leave it for a while.
About eight months later Moses called me. “Eh, Joanna, the Abah is here in RTM with Raimon. Can you come? Where do you live? I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was standing outside my home; straight out of the shower and hair dripping wet, holding my camera and recording devices. I was going to meet the Abah of the Kidz from Kudat.
CIKGU SHARIFF KASSIM – THE STORY OF KIDZ
Extraordinary things happen in quiet places. In Kudat, at the Northern tip of Borneo Island, a young boy used to walk an hour-and-a-half from his kampung Onduon to his school in Sebayan.
At school, among other things, he played a melodion and recorder in music club, until school teacher Cikgu Shariff Kassim decided that 10-year-old Raimon bin Sukudat could learn to play a bass guitar, and become the first member of the virtuosic rock band KIDZ.
This is an interview with former RTM Kombo guitarist and now Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) music lecturer Raimon, and his Abah, Cikgu Shariff.
Cikgu (which means ‘teacher’ in Malay) Shariff was a performing musician before becoming a teacher. In that latter role, he came across a lot of children playing music.
“I noticed that young people were playing music without any purpose: kids playing at bus stops, at the side of the road, underneath their houses.”
This spurred Cikgu Shariff to form a band of children, and teach them music using his own approach.
“Each child is unique, comes from a different background, and will learn in a different way. Also, from my experience, every performance in front of a crowd is also different, and therefore the idea of learning music is a far more dynamic concept than merely learning from using music theory.
“If you look at children in a group, when someone plays music, there are always some kids who will follow. They pick up an instrument and start to copy. So it’s quite obvious which ones have real potential.”
Raimon wanted to live in Cikgu Shariff’s home to learn music to the maximum extent possible. Initially, his parents and the community in general were suspicious of the teacher’s motives. But Raimon was determined to go, and eventually Cikgu Shariff adopted Raimon legally, as he did all the members of KIDZ.
KIDZ was formed in 1997. The original members were:
- Matlan (Raimon) – guitar
- Mok – keyboard
- Lee – drums
- Awin – bass
- Black – 1st vocalist
- Farid – 2nd vocalist
- Ateq and Ameng join KIDZ in 2004
From this point, Cikgu Shariff became their Abah: their father and their mentor.
Apart from playing music, the KIDZ children attended school, did their homework and the household chores. Raimon said life in the KIDZ family was something like this:
7.30am: go to school
12.30pm: Return to Cikgu Shariff’s home in Sebayan and prepare the family’s meals
2pm: practise music or do homework
Evening, help the house chores before bedtime
Raimon said music practice was intense. Raimon started out as bass player but later became the lead guitarist.
“Abah told us what to learn. Every day we had to learn a minimum of three new songs. If can, five. When practising, everybody would be watching Abah’s face, trying to guess, ‘How is it? Is he happy or not?’ He would be sitting in the middle, while all of us practised. At that time, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it!
“I don’t really know how to describe how my Abah taught us, but we learned by ear, and I can say it was like a military style!” he added.
Cikgu Shariff said teaching from books is very limiting. In Malaysia, music theory is taught in textbooks similar to Grade I, II etc. He said he used these books on KIDZ, but felt it was not enough.
“The scope is too narrow: it doesn’t cover the information you hear, or the dynamic processes going on in your mind, because you are continuously receiving and interpreting musical data.”
So with KIDZ, Cikgu Shariff experimented with his methods. “I taught them without theory, and without much structure (spontaneously), to give them the chance to rely on their minds and their ears.
“So, if they are backing up a singer, once they hear the singer they automatically know what style it is, what key the song is in and can anticipate what chords to play. It is a whole, larger picture, and automatic for the whole band,” he said.
Moses said these young KIDZ had extraordinary music skills compared with the standards of most adult working musicians.
“The rhythms they handle and the music genres they know were so wide. They were so young, and they played songs by Dream Theater and Casiopea, songs that we had difficulty playing, even when we were at UMS.”
Cikgu Shariff said, “Certain children have what I call a larger musical IQ. Their minds can cope with a lot and you can get more out of them.
For instance, when you teach somebody the concept of music notes, if you teach with theory only, it’s like you are asking them to play inside a box. With the KIDZ, I teach them by helping them understand what is going on inside the music, along with the theory, and most importantly, with musical feeling.”
By the time Raimon was in Primary 6, KIDZ were performing all over Kudat: Kota Belud, Kota Marudu, Tuaran, playing weddings and other functions.
Raimon said, “From Form 1 until I completed my university degree, RTM Sabah was always calling us to play, as session musicians.”
Moses concurred. “KIDZ are considered the Number 1 sessionists for RTM. Their record from five or six years ago still holds today – they played 72 songs a day!
“There is a local legend, about one time when Raimon was practising. This is when his guitar was still taller than he was! (Then Kombo Leader) Ronald James came up to him and actually grabbed his hand to look at it, and said, ‘Wah, how can such small fingers go that fast, ah?’”
“In Form 3, we went to KL (Kuala Lumpur) because we planned to do a recording,” Raimon said.
“During one of the practice sessions for the album recording, the boss from Warner Music – I can’t remember if it was Tony Fernandes or Rudy Ramawy – came to watch because he had heard about this band of kids from Sabah. Next thing we knew, Warner Music put KIDZ under their label, and my Abah and (agent) Rafflesia were like the management team.”
Warner Music produced the album.
“We had planned to do a thrash metal album, but Warner Music didn’t like it. They wanted to do commercial pop music, so we just followed them,” Raimon said.
He didn’t really like the album. They had one hit from it, ‘Demi Cinta’, which was written by Malaysian songwriter Ajai, and most people will know KIDZ from that song. Raimon said songwriters on the album were Ajai, M. Nasir, Anuar Razak, Marlin, and Cikgu Shariff.
Recording began in 2000 and the album was released in 2002. Warner Music wanted KIDZ to stay in KL, since it would be easier to record more albums and maintain their popularity. But their Abah refused, being more concerned about the children’s studies and connection to their real families. So they returned to Kudat.
Then KIDZ played the Hard Rock Cafe in KL. Matlan was 16 and Ateq was just in Form 1. The German heavy metal band Scorpion launched their ‘Acoustica’ album at the Hard Rock Cafe, and KIDZ were billed to perform after them. The A&R rep was late, and when the band tried to get in, the bouncers wouldn’t let them, until someone in charge confirmed that they were performing artists.
“Imagine! To be 16 and play the Hard Rock Cafe! It’s a musician’s dream!” said Moses.
But Raimon said, “To us it wasn’t like anything big. We didn’t go ‘Wah! We’re playing Hard Rock Cafe!’ Just like, ‘It’s ok for us to do this now.’ We just follow only.”
Cikgu Shariff had taken the children out of school for one month to go to KL and record the album. He took a lot of criticism for it, and the children’s families complained that the children’s grades would suffer. Raimon himself was in Form 5, it was a crucial time for him.
Raimon said, “When I heard that the teachers were complaining about my Abah, I wanted to show them that they were wrong. After the final exam, I was one of the top students in science stream. Back then, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.”
“After Form 5, I was invited to the Labuan matriculation campus. I wanted to go, but my Abah said I was too small to be going out to Labuan! So I stayed back and took Form 6 science stream. In the final STPM exam, I was the top student in the year.”
Raimon applied to do a degree at UMS. He filled in the form online, going through the available options. So, Medicine first, Chemical Engineering second, all the science options. He reached the eighth and last choice, when he saw there was Music at UMS! He thought for a moment, then he made Music first choice and moved all the rest down.
When he got home, Cikgu Shariff asked him, “So what did you fill in?”
Raimon said he picked Medicine and all the sciences, then added, “I put Music also, lah, but I put it last…”
When Raimon was offered a place in UMS to study Music, Cikgu Shariff was still reluctant to let him go away, because he was so small! But UMS was not that far away from Kudat. “He still treated me like a baby,” Raimon said.
Moses laughed aloud, remembering how they met.
“The first time I saw Raimon was at the UMS audition. He came out of the audition room: so small, with his really long, yellow hair and moustache, and jeans. He really looked like one of those kids at the bus terminal, with big yellow hair and a Megadeth T-shirt. That kind of look, lah!
“Then, at registration, I saw this small boy sitting on the chair: clean-cut hair style, boring long-sleeved shirt, with his neck-tie and his bag. I thought he was somebody’s son, like someone went for registration and left his kid there!
“A friend of ours, Betsy, recognised him and started talking with him. I was with Teddy Chin Jr. Betsy wanted to introduce us to him.
“Raimon said, ‘Saya Raimon, Raimon bin Sukudat dari Kudat!’ We starting laughing! And he actually called us ‘Bang, like Abang.’ Betsy said he’s from KIDZ. So I had to remember he was 20 years old. He looked like he was 15!
“So of course, Raimon was the school… joke!” Moses recollected with unbridled and totally politically incorrect mirth!
“He started teasing me about my colour, where I’m dark you know, and in dark places they can’t see me. I started teasing him about his size and his teeth. So it became me, him and Teddy. Teddy was fat. So we were a good combination: The Dark One, The Short One and The Fat One.”
These days, Raimon helps the Abah teach a next generation of children. The band is called BELALANG (Grasshopper). The youngest member is 12.
“The bassist is my brother! He plays a 6-stringed bass,” Raimon said.
The other original KIDZ members work at Kombo Jabatan Penerangan, which is the Kombo (mini-orchestra) working for the Information Ministry.
What does Cikgu Shariff want for his KIDZ?
“I don’t expect anything. I already have the satisfaction of seeing them leave home and make their own way.
“Take Matlan (Raimon). He has finished his training, and now he’s working for Kombo RTM, so I feel good because Matlan is giving back something to the community, and it means I did my job well also.
“This applies not only to children who went into music, but other ones I taught, who became teachers, policemen, whatever. That is enough for me. It is the way of a teacher to feel like that. Teachers don’t expect anything, they just teach. I am happy seeing the KIDZ excel in their fields, and to be good human beings welcomed and accepted in the community.
“There is still demand for KIDZ, especially in Indonesia and West Malaysia. But things will not be as intense as when they were young.
“Would I like them to continue my work? Yes, I would like that. But what I do takes a lot of sacrifice and dedication. It’s not suitable for everybody. It would have to be up to each individual. They have jobs now.”
Raimon is philosophical.
“For me, KIDZ is actually my Abah’s heart. He is really in us.”
Raimon is gentle, dignified, friendly and infinitely talented. He is an example of Grace and Genius born from a simple kampung in Sabah. (At the time of going to print, Raimon is now a music lecturer in UMS.)
Moses summed it up.
What you see in the KIDZ is what you see in their Abah. He is a very down-to-earth person, and very humble. He is Sabah’s unsung hero.