THE citation summed up an authoritatively accurate story about the Blues Gang: “A spirited component of the nation, capable of enthusing souls from around the globe with its own Malaysian style of rhythm ’n blues and rock.”
That line was first contained in an official letter to the group a couple of weeks ago, stating that the Asia Pacific Brands Foundation would confer the BrandLaureate Country Branding Award on the Blues Gang.
That sealed, the presentation was fittingly made on Sunday last week at the Blues and Roots Festival at the Experimental Theatre, Universiti Malaya. Though there was not much fanfare and it utterly lacked the glitter it deserved, the event, organised by Asia World Events and KL Jazz Club, provided a wonderful evening of dynamic blues music, including performances by Whim Jingjit of The Vintagers from Thailand and Chris Ong from Singapore.
The Blues Gang comprises Ito Mohd (vocals/harp), Julian Mokhtar (guitar), Abdul Ghani Abu Talib (guitar/keyboards), Jim Madasamy (bass/vocals), Shaik Karim (drums/vocals) and Azizi Ithnin (guitar).
The BrandLaureate award, presented by the foundation’s president, Dr K.K. Johan, that night, is a truly deserving recognition of a band that has been providing, for the past 40 years or so, a staple of Malaysianised blues rhythm in its recordings, setting new trends along the way.
With that, the group suitably stamped its mark among some of the greats who have previously received awards at the festival, including Americans Ahmad Jamal, Lee Ritenour, Ernie Watts, John Beasley, Everette Harp, Anthony Jackson and Steve Smith, Japanese Hiromi Uehara and Keiko Matsui, British band Incognito, Indonesian pianist and composer Indra Lesmana, and local percussionist Steve Thornton.
For the Blues Gang, the award, which means that the group now carries the blues brand name among bands in the country, is also a culmination of musical perseverance that has kept it apart from many others. Indeed, the group has built an ardent following even outside Malaysia over the years, belting out definitive blues numbers that stand out, whether on record or in live performances.
The award, as a friend had put it, was like a silver cloud in a year when the blues world lost two of its foremost greats, Johnny Winter and Jack Bruce.
I still remember catching the Blues Gang when it first broke onto the scene some time in the mid-1970s, when the band performed at the Rock and Blues Festival at Stadium Negara. Several other groups were also featured in the day-long show, many of whom went on to become recording artistes.
But the Blues Gang mesmerised the crowd with its straight-out unadulterated blues and rock ’n roll, covering staples from the Bluesbreakers, John Lee Hooker, Peter Green and the Rolling Stones.
While many other groups of the same generation broke up along the way, the Blues Gang chugged along, and despite coming out with fewer records now, it continues to make headway by performing and creating waves in clubs, playing Chicago blues, British blues or Delta blues, and numbers you seldom hear on the circuit.
But the whole staying power has a lot to do with the infusion of local elements in the group’s sound , and this is where the commercial success comes in. This has enabled the more listener-friendly tunes to be aired by radio stations and to be played intermittently in gigs and concerts.
“You have, over the years, blessed the domain of music and melodic topography of the nation with your own exceptional blend of tunes by incorporating closer-to-home elements in songs such as Apo Nak Di Kato, (an) accent that uses the Negri Sembilan dialect — astride an array of melodies in the national language, which are unique and unlike any other,” said Johan in a letter to the group.
Ito once told me in no uncertain terms that blues was the mother of all musical genres and, therefore, could be easily incorporated into many styles, including Malay rhythms, and that was the way the group explored along the way.
As for the award, Ghani said: “No other words can describe my thanks and gratitude to blues lovers around the country. If not for them, there wouldn’t be the Blues Gang.”