Datuk Peter Pragas

When I first visited Datuk Peter Pragas, he welcomed me with a gentleness which made me feel quietly delighted and humbled. We shared a plate of biscuits and soft drinks at his daughter Jeanette’s home, off Jalan Bundusan.

The living room was heaving with evidence of the Datuk’s musical achievement in Sabah: newspaper articles, publications, trophies, photographs with eminent public figures; documented accolades about Sabah’s adopted music maestro and fusion composer.

Peter Pragas and his daughter Jeanette Pragas
Datuk Peter and his daughter Jeanette

In 1957, Datuk Peter was living in Kuala Lumpur, working as a music director with Filem Negara. He came to Sabah for a holiday, or North Borneo as it was then, and fell in love with the native music here.
Staying with his sister in a government house in Jesselton, Datuk Peter listened to the grass cutters outside his window.

“The music here influenced me to come back. It was so beautiful, but also very simple. The grass cutters – in those days they didn’t have machines to cut the grass around the houses – they used to come round, singing their folk songs. The songs were beautiful, but quite limited in range. They were pentatonic melodies (where five notes make up an octave) and just verses.

“I imagined what it would be like to give them a chorus. To embellish and make extensions to this native music.

“The best place for me to join was RTM Sabah. At that time it was called Radio Sabah. They didn’t have a post, but my director said he would create a post for me, if I would please come. So on his word, I said okay. Unfortunately for me, to start with, they put me in Division Four. Four!”
I didn’t understand the significance of this. Datuk Peter explained that we were talking about salary grades.

“Division Four was very low, it was RM450 a month at that time. Whereas in Filem Negara I was in Division One, that was RM2000 a month.” That was in 1957.

“Anyway, I joined Radio Sabah. I wasn’t so interested in the salary, because I was interested in the music.”

Radio Sabah then entered a period of development under a Music Director who would remain there for 23 years.

“So! I started a band.”

The Datuk created the first radio band here, called the Sabah Serenaders.

Peter Pragas Malaysian pianist composer standing at a grand piano wearing white tuxedo
Photo courtesy of the Pragas family

“Some of the band boys were from Burma and Singapore. They were very good and very professional. They played guitar and all those Western instruments.
“But of course I also had a group that played local instruments. I joined them together. I took the local music, blended it and gave it a chorus.”

So Sabah fusion was born, as Datuk Peter joined the sounds of the bungkau (jaw harp), suling (bamboo flute), sompoton (a mouth organ made of bamboo pipes and a dried gourd) and others with those of Western instruments.

His composition Kanou Sumazau (Let’s Dance) became the signature tune for Radio Sabah’s Kadazan service.

Datuk Peter started the first talent competitions here, in the 1960s, called Radio Talentime.

“As long as I was in radio, I did these programmes. Talentime was going all around Sabah. Later on Bintang Radio came out of KL. But I was still in charge of Sabah, and we went all around, having these shows and competitions. We picked out the best people, and then paid them to work on programmes.”

Datuk Peter’s goal was two-fold: to find music talent in Sabah, and to beautify the local music.

“I had a radio programme every week, and the people loved it. The newspapers even reported that people said the music was beautiful.

“I used to teach the police band. They were locals from Sabah. They were more or less the best, lah. I taught them Notation, and they learned very fast. Some became really good, and some went on to get a certificate in Music Education. One of them is Ambrose Mudi. He was one of the best. The government sent him overseas to study.”

There were other ways in which Datuk Peter was able to increase the pool of musicians under Radio Sabah.

“Radio Sabah used to bring in musicians from the RTM KL Orchestra. KL sent us the musicians who were about to retire. We were a kombo, a mini orchestra. But we became bigger and bigger. Eventually the standard of music in Sabah – the local music, the Dusun music – became very, very good.

“Now it’s fantastic. If you listen to their music, it is beautiful; very, very good. Sabah people are very, very musical.”

Datuk Peter said Music Education in Sabah is not available to the general population.

“There is no widespread music education going on here. You have Yamaha, Concept Music and a few other groups which teach music. What do they teach? Piano, organ and sometimes drums. No local communities have access to music education. Only people with money, they have access to learning music.

“The Chinese schools have groups which are orchestra size. They already play like that.”

RTM Sabah would have difficulty sourcing locally to build a full orchestra.

“Where will you get an oboe player from here? Even in KL, they still have to import some musicians. The day will come when we have an orchestra here, but it will come slowly.

“Orchestras have set sizes, they can consist of 35, 72, 105 musicians… It’s very costly. For RTM Sabah, an orchestra of 35 would be just nice. When you have an orchestra, you can split it into kombos. The kombos can play for many different functions, you don’t have to always use a full orchestra.”

I asked Datuk Peter what has he enjoyed most about his musical life in Sabah?

“I loved to teach the guitarists who didn’t read music. I used to play new chords to them on the piano. They had to listen, and to learn. This is what I loved to do.”

What about success and money? Did you think about that?

Think of making the music first. The money comes later.

Peter Pragas Malaysian composer and pianist wearing yellow shirt
Datuk Peter Pragas. Photograph by James Cheuk

[Excerpt from: Funk, Joanna. SabahSongs: Contemporary Music in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2013. 11-13. Print.]

Note: Datuk Peter passed away in 2014, so I include the post I wrote on the SabahSongs blog then.

Datuk Peter Pragas: Composer, Pianist (1926-2014)

When bass player Moses de Silva tagged me in his Facebook status update, I learned that Sabah’s composer and music director Datuk Peter Pragas died on June 30, 2014, aged 87.

From my laptop in Brisbane, Australia, I saw the continuous stream of condolences to the Pragas family on my Facebook newsfeed, which is my window to the musicians’ world in Sabah, Malaysia.

The personal tributes to the first Music Director of Radio Sabah were notably similar: gentle, kind, humble, understanding, a wonderful band leader. They referred to him as Sabah’s musical legend, and all believe that his legacy will live on. I have no doubt that it will, since Sabah’s musicians are especially respectful of their elders and acknowledge the good contributions of members of their community.

Talking with me in 2009, he described listening to the grass cutters singing outside his sister’s house in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), while on a holiday there in the 1950s.

I found the music so beautiful, but also very simple. The grass cutters – in those days they didn’t have machines to cut the grass around the houses – they used to come round, singing their folk songs. The songs were beautiful, but quite limited in range. They were pentatonic melodies (where five notes make up an octave) and just verses. I imagined what it would be like to give them a chorus. To embellish and make extensions to this native music.

In 1957 Datuk Peter left a lucrative career in Kuala Lumpur as a music director with Filem Negara, to take up a post with Radio Sabah for a fraction of his former salary.

In his 23 years as Music Director of Radio Sabah and later RTM Sabah, Datuk Peter fused the sounds and structure of that native music with contemporary Western music and raised the profile of Sabah’s music and its musicians across the country. Similarly, he created the first talent shows in Sabah in the 1960s, providing much loved entertainment for decades and a invaluable platform for artists from all over the state.

I could say much more about Datuk Peter, whose composition for piano “Kanou Sumazau” (Let’s Dance in the Kadazan language) has opened the Kadazan radio service for almost 40 years. But really, his most remarkable qualities have already been celebrated by my musician friends all over Facebook: Datuk Peter Pragas was a gentle, humble and wonderful person, and knowing him has been an honour.

A few hours after I posted this, Gordon Pan said in a thread between a few of us:

“On some weekends I would follow my parents together with their friends (including Uncle Bill Funk, Joanna’s father) to the local charity dance at the Community Centre in KK.

“Peter and his band would be providing the dance music. I can clearly remember he used to play the piano and also a clavioline (a first generation electric keyboard). The other two gentlemen I can remember were Mr. Marino and Mr. DeCruz on guitars. Wow, what a band !!!

“That was way before Kenneth Boon, Charles Lim, David Wang (Roger’s dad), George Lai and myself ever decided to form any kind of band. The late Peter was certainly the pioneer. I am proud to have played with him in the early days.”

“You see Joanna,” he added. “We were all somehow linked to him through music.”

Even before I was born. Such is the closeness of Sabah.

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