HIS worn hands curl over the drum sticks and Ithnin Pa’at, fondly known as Nan, is ready to make music again. Keeping count, he taps his sticks together and the music begins. And just like that, a timeless tune echoes through the room and I’m immediately transported into the era where shaggy hair, beatnik attitudes and swooning girls once dominated the music culture of a bygone era.
But no, there’s no John, Paul, George or Ringo behind the instruments. And there’s certainly no time-travel machine that got us into the swinging Sixties. On the contrary, in front of us on a makeshift “stage” are a couple of uncles in their 60s in a spartan studio atop a guitar shop in Batu Pahat, playing old-school music which reverberates through the quiet night.
Batu Pahat, you say? Yes, Batu Pahat. That small, oft-bypassed town where temples dominate the landscape and life slowly grounds to a standstill after 11 pm. Where, of all places, musical uncles get together to create music and bring together old mates. A reunion of sorts focused on the common ground of foot-tapping, feel-good tunes of their youth and a friendship that goes way back into their childhood.
Meet Rubber Band. Named after that all-too familiar elastic contraption, Rubber Band comprises a group of old friends and acquaintances who get together on a regular basis to make music. “It’s more of a meet-up and catch-up session with friends. with some music thrown in,” begins “Sandman” Seah Kok Hwa with a laugh.
GATHERING OF FRIENDS
Gesturing to the space around him, the bespectacled Seah adds: “This guitar shop is a meeting point where we meet and get together to jam and keep our music skills from getting rusty.”
What sort of music do they play? “What sort do you think? I mean, look at us!” he exclaims, before turning his gaze towards two of his stalwart albeit greying band mates, James Moh (or “Uncle James” as he’s fondly known) and the reticent Nan, their resident drummer, both of whom are seated around him for this interview.
A pause and then he answers: “Mostly rock and roll! Some Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and just about any type of songs we love and grew up with.”
For the youthful-looking Seah, music was a hobby that he fell back on once he retired from the various businesses he was involved in, which included oil and property. “I absolutely love music; the whole era of concerts and rock legends that I grew up with.”
The former businessman found that falling back on his first love was a good way to spend his days post-retirement. His Sandman Guitar Centre, which he has been running for the last 10 years, selling quality branded acoustic, classical and electrical guitars, bass, amplifiers, acoustic and electronic drums, keyboards and other accessories, is a testament and tribute to his days as an avid music fan.
“Back in those days, it was so hard to source for a guitar string in this town. At least now these musical paraphernalia are a lot more affordable and easier to source,” he says.
The 60-something (“Don’t say our ageslah!”) soft-spoken Seah explains that he provides the space and some of the instruments, while his band mates are tasked with simply showing up with the enthusiasm to craft out a repertoire from the 1960s and ‘70s.
Smiling, he adds: “I try to slip in songs that I like into the mix, and then the rest take the trouble to learn them by ear! We make it a point to keep our Tuesdays free so that we can play together and enjoy some bonding time. We have our regular kaki.”
Continuing, Seah tells me that the members are all in the same age group and love similar genres of music. “So we play and sing together but we’re not professionals lah except for maybe Nan over here,” he says with a grin, pointing to the quiet drummer sitting next to him.
The love for music and friendship go back a long way for some of them. For Seah and the more gregarious Moh, it’s one that can be traced as far back as when they were 10. “James (Moh) and I were friends back when we were in Standard Four. You can say he’s my oldest bandmate and friend!” says Seah, chuckling. “We used to imagine ourselves as part of the Beatles. He was Paul McCartney while I was George (Harrison)! Sometimes we switched!”
Chuckling heartily, Moh chips in: “We used the desk or empty cans for drums to keep the beat.”
With a twinkle in his eyes as he recollects those “wonder years”, Moh adds: “Those days, there were no formal music lessons available. We learnt to play by ear, listening voraciously to music.”
At that recollection, the two end up spending the next few minutes of our interview reminiscing and laughing over the “good old days” as Moh puts it. It’s clear that the camaraderie and the easy laughter between the two point to a friendship that continues to burn strong.
The duo also remembers with great fondness music books such as Hit Parade, which showcased current hits (by current, they mean way back when music books were all the rage before the birth of the ubiquitous Internet, YouTube and MTV). Recalls Moh: “These books were sold at the Mamak newsstands and we’d buy them so that we could learn how to play the latest songs.” What about their instruments? I wonder aloud.
“My uncle gave me my first acoustic guitar so I’m very thankful for that,” divulges Seah, while Moh chips in: “I bought mine from my schoolteacher for 30 dollars; money which I saved up. Back then, that was a princely sum to part with for a kapok (a cheap local brand) guitar.”
The more exuberant of the three, Moh goes on to describe their playing skills then as being “barely there”! “We were all learning and we could only sometimes muster up the chorus. We didn’t care then. after all we had our instruments, so we just hantamlah!”
Meanwhile, for Nan, the only professional musician in the group, his early foray into music was certainly interesting. Not having a drum set of his own, he actually made his own “drums”, putting together several kerosene and biscuit tins to play on during his early days.
“I’d put a layer of sand on top, cover it with cloth and that became my snare drum,” he adds, to the laughter of his friends. His reticence subsides as he animatedly tells us that the makeshift instrument led him to playing with the “big boys” once his talent was discovered. “I eventually got invited to perform for an event. I was the only boy in shorts while the other musicians were a lot older but that was the beginning of me playing ‘real drums’!”
THE MUSIC LIVES ON
Needless to say, that was to mark the beginning of Nan’s music career, which still continues to this day. Both Seah and Moh are especially proud of Nan who, according to them, remained the only full-time musician while the rest had their own day jobs so that they could put food on the table.
“He’s had plenty of experience playing in clubs in Batu Pahat,” says Moh with a little pride, before adding: “Batu Pahat isn’t quite what it used to be in its heyday. Do you know that this town was known as ‘Little Paris’ back then? Nan was thick in the scene, providing the beat to the lively music played in this town!”
And he’s not exaggerating about this sleepy town. The “Little Paris” of Malaysia was famed for being a “red-light town”, boasting a robust nightclub scene in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. After several concerted clean-ups by the state government in the ‘80s, the seaside town also referred to as Chiselled Rock has grown to be a lot more sedate, with only one or two bars of such kind left now.
“Nan still plays with his own band, as do some of our other band members,” says Seah, before adding that Nan helps out at his music shop regularly. “He’s been with me for a decade now, ever since I opened this place.” Soon the other band members start arriving one by one, some with wives in tow. Greetings fly back and forth as they troop into the centre. Although it’s not a Tuesday, they’re chuffed to be here to show off their skills to a group of intrepid journalists all the way from the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur.
The roll call of Seah Kok Hwa (lead guitarist and vocals), James Moh Heng Hai (vocalist), Lim Kim Guan (rhythm guitarist), Jimmy Ong (bassist), Jeremy Tay (keyboardist), Swee Tee Kuek (rhythm guitarist) comprising Rubber Band is complete.
Everyone is here and under the steady hands of drummer Nan, the band begins with Seah belting out a rousing Beatles favourite, Come Together.
Suddenly, we see a glimpse of Batu Pahat as it used to be — colourful, thriving and very much musical.
As long as this small sleepy town has music running through the veins and memories of its inhabitants, you can be sure that the beat will never stop and the music will never fade.
Sandman Guitar Centre, 75, Level 1,2 & 3, Jalan Rugayah, Batu Pahat, Johor.