SINGER-songwriter Azmyl Yunor started out as a busker Down Under in Perth back in 1997. Since his return to Malaysia in 2000, he has tirelessly supported and developed the local independent music scene, and has gigged on a regular basis. Azmyl has also organised events such as the singer-songwriter showcase KL Sing-Song, which is back for its fifth installment from 29 Oct to 1 Nov at the Annexe Gallery at Central Market, Kuala Lumpur.
Azmyl is currently recording two albums: a self-titled one backed by his live band, The Sigarettes, and a solo follow-up titled Warga, due out by the end of 2009. He is also a member of another band, Ciplak.
He was also one of the co-founders of the Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia (EMACM), currently based at Studio in Cheras KL (SiCKL), which hosts experimental and fringe acts. He is an academic by day at a private university college in the field of communication and cultural studies.
Azmyl talks about his childhood, upbringing and identity in this e-mail interview with The Nut Graph on 5 Sept 2009.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Azmyl: I was born in Kuala Lumpur at Pantai Medical Centre in January 1977. I grew up in Adelaide, Australia, where my parents were continuing their studies, until I was about four years old. I was pretty frail as a child and had a surgery there (it’s the earliest memory I can recall). The first language I picked up was Aussie-slang English, which was funny when we returned to Malaysia.
I grew up on Lorong Gurney, Kuala Lumpur, where my parents and younger brother Azree, who is eight years my junior, lived together with my maternal grandparents. Since I was the only kid around the house until I was eight years old, I was kind of spoilt. I often had the solitude to let my imagination run wild. I had an imaginary friend who always got on my nerves.
Azree and I went to Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Jalan Gurney (1).
When I was 11, we lived in Berkeley, California, as my father, Yusof Husin, an entomology professor, and mother, Norani Abdul Samad, a microbiology professor, took their sabbatical academic tenure at the University of Berkeley. I had no idea of the significance of the place, both in terms of counterculture and an academic institution; the only America I had been exposed to was on TV via The A Team and Magnum P.I..
I was taken by the syllabus at the elementary school I attended — we were learning about the justice system, slavery, whales, seals, line dancing, you name it! — compared with the “buka muka surat…” syllabus we had in school [in Malaysia].
My first friend there was an African American, and I had my first transnational crush on a Jewish girl in Remedial English class (which was like a mini United Nations). A couple of months after we left, a huge earthquake hit San Francisco.
My family moved to Bandar Baru Bangi when I was 12, which was quite a contrast to KL then. I went to a private school in Batu 9 in Cheras since my grades were declining and I had trouble focusing. In Sekolah Jalan Gurney, which had a majority of Malay [Malaysian] students, non-Muslim students had to leave the class for Pendidikan Moral; but when I went to private school, I was in the minority and the Muslim kids had to leave class. It was quite refreshing to me at the time since it made me conscious of the different experiences of segregation.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My maternal grandparents were of Minangkabau ancestry from the regency of Tanah Datar in West Sumatra, Indonesia. My grandfather, Abdul Samad Idris, was very interested in history and was a cultural activist; he wrote a book about the Minangkabau adat perpatih. I think his early training as a journalist drove his curiosity.
My maternal grandfather was very active in the Independence movement. He was also a trader, padi farmer, and rubber tapper in his late teens with his brother. He eventually entered politics and became a member of the cabinet under prime ministers Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn. He passed away in 2003. His great grandfather was a silat master and warrior by the name of Pendekar Sampan, who was killed in a war against the British at Bukit Putus in Negeri Sembilan.
My grandmother, Asiah Husain, was a homemaker, and since I was the first grandchild on my maternal side, I spent a lot of my time with her and used to accompany her to Pasar Keramat and Pasar Chow Kit. I also served as her English translator whenever the need arose. She passed away last year.
Both my maternal grandparents were from Sri Menanti, Negeri Sembilan. So I grew up in a household where the Minang loghat was spoken daily and was very colourful.
My paternal grandmother, Ruhah Moin, was the second youngest of five sisters, and was of Javanese ancestry from the city and regency of Pekalongan, on the northern coast of Central Java, Indonesia. She was a centenarian who lived to 101 years old and only passed away this year. My paternal grandfather, Husin Md Jim, was of Bugis ancestry, and was a farmer, fisherperson, housebuilder and shaman. He also taught the village kids to read the Qur’an. He was well into his 50s when my father was born.
I know very little of my grandfather since he passed away when I was seven. He was the eldest in the family, and had to take care of and raise his four younger siblings — two sisters and two brothers — singlehandedly when he was 16 and his father, Tok Jim, passed away. I’m told Tok Jim, my great grandfather, was the village head of Kampung Parit Moin 1 & 2 in Bagan, Batu Pahat, Johor, and was also a farmer, house builder and shaman.
I always enjoyed and looked forward to trips back to Batu Pahat and relished the rustic life and environment (and the house my grandfather built with his bare hands) — something I didn’t get to experience in KL. And of course, I enjoyed Singaporean TV programming, which had better movies (this was pre-Astro!) via the elongated TV antennae common in that part of Johor.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
The main Jalan Gurney (now Jalan Semarak) area was a lot more colourful then, since there was a sprawling village nearby called Kampung Bawyean, which consisted mostly of Indonesian migrants. I used to wander around with the son of an Indonesian labourer who was close to my family. We also used to play in the yard of Alliance Francaise with another friend whose father worked there as a caretaker. The Pusat Latihan Polis and Padang Tembak were nearby, so in the evenings you could hear gunshots from the practice range in the distance.
Which stories do you hold on to the most from your family?
My maternal grandmother was very bitter at her father for not allowing her to continue her studies when she finished school, and whenever she spoke about it, she would get very emotional. She had done well in school and wanted to be a teacher, but her father was against it since he had already sent her elder siblings to continue their studies.
Then there’s the story of my mother, who was stranded by herself in a ward at the KL Hospital Besar during the 13 May 1969 riots. She had arrived there the day before for a surgery that was eventually postponed. She recalled the skyline scattered with smoke and sirens, and seeing bruised and bloodied people shuffled in one after another in the same ward she was in.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
The more I discover my roots, the more aware I become at the construction of the “Malaysian” identity and how it’s such a paradox at times. The stories that go beyond national identification, that remain relevant beyond cultural and religious background, the ones that connect with being human in this mad and beautiful world, are the ones that stick with me. You don’t have to look far. All families have their stories, which make up the greater, and often lost, narrative of the country. We all share a common thread, we’re just weaved differently.
We have to keep those stories alive, in songs, memoirs, photos, films, poems, novels, research, whatever means … and pass it on, celebrate it.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
The most prominent would be race and religion, being a Malay Muslim, since it carries a lot of ideological baggage in this country. I was brought up colour blind, so I personally feel the concept of “race” is contrived, a postcolonial hangover. This became more evident when I discovered more about my ancestry. For example, historically, the Minangkabau, Javanese and Bugis were never categorically “Malay” as a “race” (they still aren’t in Indonesia) until about the arrival of the British.
Some of my relatives say that when they were young, they were teased by other Malays for being Javanese and so forth. Which begs the question: what does it mean to be “Malay”? I personally feel that being “Malay” is purely cultural, not a “race”. This whole “race” thing doesn’t hold ground with me, since the more I probe, the more it resembles a hegemonic cage and a semiotic conundrum. I’m also disheartened at how Islam has been politicised and misinformed by drivel and rhetoric in this country. It’s a shame.
Above all, the best I can do is to be able to distinct between the sensible and senseless.
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