There’s always a slight look of confusion among audiences when the Malaysian band Nadir starts to set up on stage. For starters, the band is made up of seven core members. Then, it’s what they bring with them. Apart from the usual suspects — drums, lead guitars, bass guitars and keyboards, the band also sets up an entire ensemble of instruments including saxophones, tablas, sitars, bonang, gambus, yangqins and occasionally, bagpipes among the many.
When Nadir starts playing, the shrugs of confusion very quickly evolve into tapping feet and smiles peppered with looks of wonder and bewilderment. And for the next six to seven minutes, the audience would remain completely enthralled by what they hear: the home-grown band weaves different musical genres seamlessly into a tapestry of Malaysian sounds.
Two years since its inception, the band is finally releasing its first offering. Synesthesia isn’t just a culmination of their unique sound; it’s also an album which echoes the spirit of the nation.
“Growing up in Malaysia, we were raised with a strong spirit of inclusivity and togetherness. You know how we celebrate our differences yet we revere our roots? I’d say Nadir embodies that idea,” remarks Ashwin Gobinath, Nadir’s band leader and drummer.
Celebrating diversity is one thing this band knows a lot about. Seeing a classically-trained carnatic singer perform alongside a pop pianist and a metal guitarist or a neo-soul saxophonist grooving to the beat of a rock drummer is a combination you’d never expect to see on stage.
Deeming it “an unlikely fusion of musicians”, Ashwin explains that collectively, the band strongly believes in the principle of joining forces and brewing ideas together. “We specifically decided to work together with this very diverse group of guys and girls because of their individual style preferences. The magic happens when we all come together and combine our skills. It’s like cooking without knowing exactly what you want to make,” he adds, chuckling.
Cooking seems to be a fitting anecdote for Nadir considering they’ve been hailed as a melting-pot of culture by fans and critics alike. As Ashwin notes, the band was first formed based on musical diversity. The seven, which include Ashwin, Zaim Zaidee (bass), Lor Phaik Sim (keyboards and synthesisers), Santosh Logandran (tabla and percussions), Farique Nadzir (guitar), Stephanie Tham (keyboards) and Adil Johan (saxophone), are all seasoned sessionist with other bands or artistes in their own right. Nadir, says Ashwin, was formed on the basis that each musician wanted to be in a band free of musical limitations and boundaries.
The cultural element, he recalls, only came into play when founding members Ashwin, Zaim and Rashdan wrote their very first tune based on a classic Malaysian nursery rhyme, Ikan Kekek. Nadir then recruited percussionist and carnatic vocalist Santosh Logandran, who added depth to that ethno-sound. “We got him in as a percussionist and then slowly, he began weaving his singing prowess into our song writing. His style and ideas constantly lit our creative spark so much so that inspiration was never ending,” confides Ashwin.
The band was in the midst of crafting its definitive sound when saxophonist Adil Johan was brought in. Adil, who has worked with the likes of Malaysian jazz greats like Farid Ali and David Gomes, pop acts Reshmonu and Hunny Madu, as well as trumpeters Rio Sidik and Eddie Wen, also holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology from King’s College in London. Adil’s extensive knowledge of cultural and world music was the icing on the cake for Nadir. “We then realised that this concept of cultural fusion was a perfect match for Nadir as a band, considering that all of us are people of different ethnicities from various parts of the country,” recalls Ashwin.
For Nadir, the word collective is not taken at face value — the concept is at the core of the band. Great music, Ashwin feels, comes from the collaboration of ideas between people. “Every single person has a voice and something special to say, if you’re listening,” he nods, with a grin.
While he may be the leader of the band, Ashwin is quick to point out that every member of Nadir contributes to the composition and song-writing of each track. This is the kind of collaborative dynamics that the band thrives on. “Having the maturity and experience to take any idea, no matter how wild or crazy it might sound, and sculpting that idea into a gem of a composition, is what makes the process of crafting music so satisfying. It’s just really exciting when you get to hear sounds and musical ideas that you might never even have dreamed off coming from your band mates,” shares Ashwin proudly, adding that the process enhances the ever-evolving nature of Nadir’s sound.
The lush texture of Nadir’s sounds is also a result of another collaborative effort. When the band’s original frontman Rashdan Harith moved across the causeway, the closely-knit collective kick-started the idea of inviting guest vocalists to join them on stage. “We think of it as infusing different flavours into our musical soup!” quips Ashwin.
Over the last year also, local acts like Penang songbirds Bihzhu, Dasha Logan and Sabahan Beverly Matujal have all been featured vocalists in Nadir’s gigs around the KL music circuit. “Every person that we feature brings a unique personal touch to our songs — from their tone and timbre to the performance and stage presence. In a way, it showcases the different side of us as a band too,” says Ashwin who acknowledges that this effort also helps keep the music fresh-sounding.
Ashwin has a mischievous smile carved on his face when he enters the band’s recording studio — a tiny room in his home. There are no high-tech gadgets or plush settings; instead, the room is cleverly decorated with blinds and thick curtains to block out the noise and to control the quality of the acoustics. “We couldn’t afford to book a studio, but since Santosh, Farique and I are all sound engineers, we decided to combine our skillsets to do what we could to record, mix and master all the material for Synesthesia here,” he says in reference to the self-produced album. The only part recorded in a studio, was the drums. “We’re pretty sure if we could have fitted the drums into this tiny room, we would’ve recorded it here too!” The labour of love, from conceptualising the album, to recording, mastering and mixing took nine months. “It’s our baby and it’s about to be born,” adds Ashwin, eyes twinkling.
Synesthesia, a 13-track beauty, opens with the tune the band first crafted in its infancy — Ikan Kekek. “We chose this song as the first track so that that feeling of nostalgia would permeate our listeners’ first impression of the album,” says Ashwin, pointing out that every Malaysian of their generation can relate to this childhood classic.
But the decision to do that, he shares, has a deeper meaning behind it. Continuing, Ashwin says: “Music has the power to bridge the gap between generations, social classes, people of different backgrounds etc. As a band, we feel that with more exposure to this cross-cultural sound, we can reignite the passion for Malaysian music and encourage people to re-visit their musical roots in what is a seemingly homogenised world.”
When you see Nadir perform next, it may look like a lot of things are happening at once — and there are! This organised chaos of diverse instruments and different people can be a lot to take in, but it all results in one harmonious tune after another.
If you think about it, that’s exactly what Malaysia sounds like.