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Malaysian pop

Malaysian pop (Malay: Pop Malaysia) or abbreviated as M-pop or Malay pop refers to popular music forms in Malaysia. Although popular music in various languages such as Mandopop are popular and have been produced in Malaysia, Malaysian pop refers to music recorded primarily in the Malay language in Malaysia.

Malaysian pop covers a diverse musical genres, such as pop, rock, hip hop, electronic, and R&B music.

Origin and influences

Malaysian popular music has its origin in local musical tradition and popular European music styles. Some of the early musical styles, performers, and songs of Kroncong and lagu-lagu rakyat (folk songs) were common to the musical culture of Malaysia and Indonesia.[1] Starting in the 1920s, local social dance and entertainment music such as asli, inang, joget, dondang sayang, zapin and masri were adapted by Bangsawan troupes to Anglo-American dance band arrangement but keeping the local folk character, and developed into modern Malay popular music.[2] The Bangsawan troupes originated in the 19th century as a form of opera called Wayang Pasir that developed as an adaptation of Persian theatre brought to Malaya by performers from Bombay.[1] They portrayed stories from diverse groups such as Indian, Western, Islamic, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay with music, dance and acting in costumes. The musicians were mostly local Malays, Filipinos and Goans. Famous early singers such as Temah, Tijah and Dean often incorporate Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian elements in their songs.[2]

Western popular music has continually influenced Malaysian popular music since its early days. In the pre-World War II era, songs based on Anglo-American and Latin-American dance music sung in Malay were very popular. These songs were accompanied by dance bands that became known as orkes Melayu (Malay orchestra). The orkes Melayu, which influenced dangdut, was played at dance halls in amusement park, bangsawan shows and other festivities. Early singers were often Filipinos originally brought to Malaya by the British to form the Selangor State Band (a military band), for example Soliano, D'Cruz and Martinez.[2] In the 1960s and 1970s, influenced by Western rock bands, a modified rock combo called kugiran (an acronym of "kumpulan gitar rancak", meaning rhythmic guitar bands) often accompanied singers. From the 1970s to 1980s, a Western orchestral sound also became popular as musical accompaniment in albums, which is widely assumed to be due to the influence of RTM Orchestra.[1]

Other musical forms such as Indian, Islamic and other Asian popular music have also exerted their influences at various times, and many international trends in music surfaced in Malaysian pop. Hindustani music had a long influence on many traditional types of music in the Malay Peninsula, for example in the use of instruments such as the tabla and in the vocal styles of the singers. More recently, music of J-pop and K-pop have become influential.


Early era

The first recording of music in Malaya was made 1903 by Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company who was sent to record local music in Asia.[3] During the colonial period, Singapore was the center of Malay music industry and recordings were done at the EMI studio there, but the center began to shift to Kuala Lumpur after the Malayan independence in 1957, especially after the secession of Singapore in 1965.[3] Until the 1960s, few records were produced locally, and recordings of the singers and film stars done in Malaya were pressed in India and the records sent back to Malaya for sale.[4]

P. Ramlee, the best-known of the early popular singers in Malaya

One of the earliest modern Malay pop songs was "Tudung Periok", sung by Momo Latif, who recorded it in the 1930s.[5] Many of the singing stars became popular through Malay films in the early era. In the 1940s and 1950s, singers who achieved popularity through their films and recordings were P.Ramlee, R. Azmi, Jasni, Ahmad C. B., S. M. Salim, Saloma, Momo Latif, and Nona Aisha.[4] Some of these singers had Bangsawan or Kroncong background. The songs of this era were influenced by foreign music styles such as those from Latin American dance, Hawaiian and Indian films. They are also mostly romantic in nature, in what might be called the "hatimu hatiku" ("your heart, my heart") syndrome, and for decades Malaysian pop music were dominated by songs with words like sayang (love), cinta (love) and gadis (girl) in the title.[4]

The most important of the early singers was P. Ramlee whose career spanned the late 1940s through early 1970s. He became the most popular Malay singer and composer with a range of songs such as "Azizah", "Gelora", "Dendang Perantau" and the evergreen "Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti". It has been estimated that he wrote over a thousand songs and recorded around five hundred, some of which still remain popular today.[6]

1960s: Pop Yeh-yeh

In the 1960s, pop music influenced by Western guitar-band called 'Pop Yeh-yeh' came to the forefront in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Pop Yeh-yeh ruled the Malay music scene from 1965 to 1971. The music and fashion of The Beatles and other British rock and roll bands during the 1960s were a strong influence of the pop yeh-yeh bands and also generally influenced the Malay music industry of that period. In fact, the term "pop yeh-yeh" was taken from a line from the popular Beatles song, "She Loves You" ("she loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah").[7] The term "pop yeh yeh" however was never used in the 1960s but used much later when such music was revived in the 1980s by M. Shariff & The Zurah. It might be that music journalists of the 1980s coined the term.

The first local song in the Pop Yeh-yeh vein was a song called "Suzanna", sung by M Osman in 1964. During the height of the pop yeh-yeh craze, a lot of the bands that were formed tried their best to mimic The Beatles in their look, songwriting and performance style. But still the musical style was taken from The Shadows and The Ventures. Usually the bands known as kugiran consists of four members who sings on top of handling the basic four musical instruments (two electric guitars, electric bass and drums). Most of the bands were formed in Singapore but also in Malaysia. The southern state of Johore and Singapore were the hub of activity for these bands. Most of the recordings were done in Singapore such as at the old EMI Studio at MacDonald's House in Orchard Road and many small studios owned privately.

The acronym "Kugiran" was first known to the public through Radio Singapore's weekly Top Chart "Lagu Pujaan Minggu Ini" which was hosted by the 1st Malay DJ M.I.A. (Mohd Ismail Abdullah). It was understood the acronym "Ku-Gi-Ran" was the idea of a subtitling officer, Daud Abdul Rahman. It is also said that it was P. Ramli who coined the term to differentiate it from the combo styled Malay bands of earlier times. "Kugiran" comprises 5 piece band members and a vocalist, one lead-guitarist, one bassist, one rhythm-guitarist, one organist (keyboardist) and a drummer.

The formation and development of these kugiran's encouraged the establishment and existence of various recording companies in Singapore in the 1960s and a lot of these songs were recorded on vinyl and sold well commercially. Some of the singers who made their name during that period include M Osman, A Ramlie, Jeffrydin, Roziah Latiff & The Jayhawkers, Adnan Othman, Halim "Jandaku" Yatim, Afidah Es, J Kamisah, Siti Zaiton, J. Sham, A Rahman Onn, Hasnah Haron, J Kamisah, Fatimah M Amin, Asmah Atan, Orkid Abdullah, A. Remie, Zamzam, Salim I, Kassim Selamat, M Rahmat, A Karim Jais, M Ishak, Hussien Ismail, Jaafor O, A Halim, Azizah Mohamed, S Jibeng and L Ramlee. Other popular rock and pop bands of the period include The Rhythm Boys, The Siglap Five, The Hooks which featured A Romzi as their lead vocalist (they scored a hit with the song "Dendang Remaja"), Siglap Boys, Les Kafilas, Cliffters featuring Rikieno Bajuri, Impian Bateks featuring Rudyn Al-Haj with his popular number "Naik Kereta Ku" and a cappella like "Oh Posmen", "Gadis Sekolah" etc., The Swallows featuring "La Aube", "Angkut-angkut Bilis" etc. whose vocalist was Kassim Selamat and the EP was featured in a radio station in Germany. There, "La Aube" was in the German pop chart. Almost all the above-mentioned artistes were Singaporeans. The most popular ones from the Malaysian side of the divide must include L. Ramli, Roziah Latiff & The Jayhawkers, J.Sham, Orkes Nirvana, The Sangam Boys and Les Flingers. The music and lyrics were usually composed by the bands themselves. The band leaders were also the producers of the albums of the period.

The golden age of pop yeh-yeh started to dwindle in 1971. Since the fall of the popularity of pop yeh-yeh, the center of the Malaysia music industry shifted up north from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. A lot of composers, songwriters, lyricists, singers, and producers started to gain foothold not only in Kuala Lumpur but also in other cities including Johor Bahru and Ipoh to grab the opportunity of the emerging and rapidly changing Malaysian music industry.

1970s to 1980s

DJ Dave, Hail Amir and Uji Rashid introduced Hindustani-influenced music in the 1970s. Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, the market for local recordings and artiste was in big demand, bands and musicians performing in clubs and pubs were contracted to record. Although The Jayhawkers led by Joe Chelliah was the first wholly non-Malay pop band to record Malay pop songs as a precursor, it was in the mid-1970s that later non-Malay artistes, bands and businessmen ventured into the Malay music industry. Bands like Alleycats, Discovery, Carefree and Cenderawasih took the lead to modernize Malaysian Pop music; solo singers like Sudirman Arshad, Sharifah Aini further push the music to its peak. Between 1979 to early 1980, the emergence of blues outfit/band called THE BLUES GANG in Malaysia specialising in blues and hard rock/heavy metal outfit/band called SWEET CHARITY from Singapore have changed the Malaysian music scene.

Before the mid-1980s another genre of music appeared. This time it was slow rock, heavy metal, hard rock and the blues. Popular bands from the west like Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Def Leppard were some of the major influences for these Malaysian bands.

M. Nasir previously a Singaporean played a leading role in shaping rock music in Malaysia as a song writer and producer for a period of almost ten years. He produced local rock bands like Search and Wings and took them to their highest level of Malaysian rock music. Piracy in the form of duplicating cassettes and CDs became rampant and uncontrollable around this period as sales of these items soar which was supported by the country's wave of economic success.

Between the mid 80s and early 90s, R&B and Pop music became the focus of the urban youngsters. This music was cosmopolitan and catered to a professional and educated crowd. In 1985, Sheila Majid a singer groomed by engineer/producer Roslan Aziz made a debut album called "Dimensi Baru" which was financed and produced by Roslan Aziz himself. With a lovely mellow voice together with a bunch of creative musicians like Mac Chew and Jenny Chin both influenced by R&B, fusion and jazz achieved their dreams and set a new direction for many Malaysian R&B artistes to come. This was evidently clear when her second album EMOSI was released in Indonesia and earned the BEST R&B ALBUM in the prestigious BASF awards in 1986. This historical release has changed the facet of the music industry.


File:Siti Nurhaliza.JPG
Siti Nurhaliza also known as Malaysian pop princess

In 1991, an environmental album recorded by Zainal Abidin, songs written by Mukhlis Nor and produced by Roslan Aziz was released. This was received very positively by the public and the international music scene especially in Asia.

In the mid-1990s, a rap group 4U2C with 7 young boys was introduced by ZMAN Production and producers Man Senoi & Mam Rap. They had made a big hit in the market and received few gold and platinum while KRU, a vocal group composed of three brothers among others developed Malay rap and hip-hop.

In 1996 a school girl by the name of Siti Nurhaliza from a rural town Kuala Lipis in the state of Pahang released an album produced by a talented pop music producer named Adnan Abu Hassan. This album of Malay Pop genre was a huge success. She included different genres such as Malay pop, R&B and Malay Traditional music in her later albums with much success. This singer is now very popular in the country.

Between mid-1990s until the early 2000s, nasyid pop music which was a form of Islamic religious which utilized a vocal group and accompaniment of only percussions music entered the market. Developed by vocal groups like Raihan, Rabbani and Brothers, the music genre got a lot of support from people in rural areas and religious fans.

The 2000s and present

During the early 2000s, introduction to a new form of entertainment called "Reality Shows" revived public interest in music entertainment. Shows such as Akademi Fantasia and Malaysian Idol allowed the public to choose their own stars by sending SMS through hand phones at the convenience of the audiences. This excited the public because they were involved in the making of a celebrity and could choose who they wanted instead of having record companies create & distribute artistes.

Jaclyn Victor, Mawi, Stacy Anam and Hafiz are champions that still topping the charts but most winners are only seasonal fad earning reality stars the moniker Artis Mee Segera (Instant Noodle Artists). Comparing from the past decades, pay TVs and Internet have affected the musical taste of young listeners that prefers foreign music.

In the late 2000s, unsigned Malaysian artists who rose to fame on YouTube and indie music bands such as Hujan, Gerhana Skacinta and Bunkface changed the Malaysian music scene. However this does not represent the active live music circuit by singer-songwriter performers in pubs and cafes. Yunalis Zarai, a former cafe singer pioneered the acoustic singer-songwriter trend and record labels are rushing to debut similar acts recently such as Ana Raffali. YouTube changed the Malaysian musical landscape in the 2010s. Instead of SMS votes, music lovers gave birth to YouTube stars by the number of views, Najwa Latif and others are just some of the Internet stars crossover to the industry.

YouTube also helped expose unknown foreign music such as J-pop and K-pop to Malaysian audience. The success of K-pop worldwide influenced record companies to try repackage the successful Malaysian Boy band and Girl Group formula from the 90s such as Feminin or 4U2C and bring it to the 2010s. Current active groups are All Star Jefri, Dynda, V.I.P, Max 24:7, Gula-Gula, Forteen, P.O.P and TIGA.

Music Piracy

By the late 1990s with the Internet increasing user base, downloading mp3 files through Napster was rampant. Pirated CDs were sold in fly-by-night shops and illegal CD hawkers at night markets. Priced at 1/4 of the original price, legal CD albums were no match for these pirates.

Many factors has caused the Malaysian music industry declined:

  • Excessive piracy (piracy is not a new phenomenon in Malaysian music market, it has been a phenomenon since the 1970s, with pirated vinyls and audio cassettes sell at the half of the price of the original product)
  • The revenue for Malaysian music industry decreased from over RM300 million in 1997 to only RM60 million in 2009
  • Many local record labels out of business
  • Illegal downloads
  • The price of original cassettes and CDs decreased
  • The number of local artists active in the music industry dropped from over 200 in 1997 to less than 100 in 2009
  • Local record labels has forced local artists to produce album themselves
  • Many local albums released after 2006 have less songs (mostly 5 - 9 songs)

As a result, Malaysia along with its neighboring country Singapore are countries in South East Asia where illegal music copies outsells legal ones. Sales of domestic and international repertoire are in the same levels in both countries compared to other South East Asian nations.

The piracy of music CDs has caused all original albums sold in Malaysia, whether local or foreign to be attached with an original hologram sticker since 2000 before it can be sold. At the time of introduction, it only covers audio CDs, cassettes and music VCDs. In 2003, the sticker was updated with hologram feature and now also covers non-music video releases and video games. Also, in 2004, the certification levels were down from 15,000 copies and 25,000 copies to 10,000 copies and 20,000 copies for an album to be certified as Gold and Platinum, respectively.

The encouragement from the Malaysian government towards privatization of broadcasting stations received support from the public. An array of new radio and TV stations were built. Legal ringtone downloads were an unexpected success to music companies. A music single ringtone downloaded 100,000 times are commonplace.


  1. ^ a b c Patricia Matusky and James Chopyak. "Peninsular Malaysia". In Terry Miller, Sean Williams. The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415960755. 
  2. ^ a b c Patricia Ann Matusky, Sooi Beng Tan (ed.). The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk, and Syncretic Traditions. Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 403. ISBN 978-0754608318. 
  3. ^ a b Patricia Ann Matusky, Sooi Beng Tan (ed.). The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk, and Syncretic Traditions. Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 402. ISBN 978-0754608318. 
  4. ^ a b c Craig A. Lockard (1998). Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. University of Hawai'i Press. pp. 217–218. ISBN 978-0824819187. 
  5. ^ She: a tribute to the women of Malaysia. Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. 2005. p. 69. 
  6. ^ Craig A. Lockard (1998). Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. University of Hawai'i Press. pp. 218–220. ISBN 978-0824819187. 
  7. ^ Tom Schnabel (March 26, 2013). "Pop Yeh Yeh, 1960s Music from Singapore and Malaysia". PRI's The World. 

See also