Friday, March 4, 2016

Interview: Carl Hamm on His Latest Pop Yeh Yeh Project

Release Party for Adnan Othman Retrospective this Saturday at Steady Sounds.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 4, 2016 at 12:30 AM

click to enlarge Local DJ and music collector Carl Hamm stands with the legendary Malaysian "Pop Yeh Yeh" musician Adnan Othman. - CARL HAMM
  • Carl Hamm
  • Local DJ and music collector Carl Hamm stands with the legendary Malaysian "Pop Yeh Yeh" musician Adnan Othman.

Carl Hamm has a new musical journey to share.

A committed music lover who is nothing if not diligent in following his passion, Hamm is the guy whose successful Kickstarter-funded trip to Southeast Asia we covered several years ago. You might know him as DJ Carlito from the popular radio show “If Music Could Talk,” which airs every Sunday on 97.3 WRIR from 7 to 9 p.m.

Collecting records from eBay, Hamm fell in love with the Pop Yeh Yeh sound, or the psychedelic rock movement in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1960s. Within five years he became one of its foremost proponents and chroniclers, traveling to Southeast Asia to interview its legends and curate a major compilation. The beautifully packed double album was put out by the respected Seattle label, Sublime Frequencies, run by Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet. They specialize in obscure music from North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

This weekend Hamm is holding a record release party for his second album compilation “Bershukor: A Retrospective of Hits by a Malaysian Pop Yeh Yeh Legend Adnan Othman” at Steady Sounds Records from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The title translates to "gratitude" in Malay. Hamm says the artist chose it partly because it was a hit song on his very first EP. "He also told me that he wrote it during a moment when he was feeling very grateful to God for the life he was blessed with," Hamm adds. "And the opportunity to follow his dreams."

Officially, the album drops today, March 4. In the below Q&A, Hamm chats about how his second project featuring the innovative Pop Yeh Yeh rocker came about and some of the happy connections and lessons he learned along the way. For more, you can hear song samples here and check out his blog about his travels here

Style Weekly: Did your first compilation album, “Pop Yeh Yeh: Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia: 1964-1970 Vol. 1” do well?

Carl Hamm: Yes. [Sublime Frequencies] really went for the second album idea right away because the first sold out really quickly, in both CD and LP format. It’s harder and harder for small companies to deal in CDs these days. But for this double Adnan Othman LP, they still wanted to give me a lot of freedom to put the photos and bio in there. And it’s expensive to do double LP gatefold with an eight-page booklet. But they knew with the first one, I set the bar so high, it was so packed full of info that it would be a disappointment to not have something similar.

I’m sure Alan Bishop respects your passion about the music and the fact that you actually went to Southeast Asia to meet the artists.

Yeah, I think so. Alan seems to trust what I’m doing. He set me up with a graphic designer who helped with layout. A lot of it is a labor of love for all of us. There were 1,000 CDs and 1,000 LPs [of the first project] and Alan told me after production of LP, distribution, all this other stuff, there’s basically nothing left. There’s no money in it. What little I got, I wanted to just pass it over to the artists. So any of the money I’ve seen I am sending back over to Malaysia. I’ve sat down at the bank a couple times now to make wire transfers and they’re like, “who are you sending this to?” [laughs].

Oh yeah, Muslim country. You’re probably being watched for terrorist activity.

Well, I know banks have to keep an eye out for suspicious money transfers, but when I showed them the [album] over at Virginia Credit Union they were so interested. It turned into a cool conversation with the bank staff actually. I still have to send another installment for the first record so maybe I’ll bring them a copy.

This current project was special because I felt like I could show respect to Adnan, get his music and story out there, and maybe bring some attention to his artwork that he’s doing now also.

click to enlarge album.jpg

So what initially made you want to focus on Othman’s work?

He was just one of the many cool Pop Yeh Yeh artists I met. He has always had a certain style that stood out. Each of these artists developed their own unique style – musically, and fashion-wise too. Adnan’s music has just always been some of my favorite – and like many of his peers from those days he is a multitalented renaissance man of sorts.

It all started with me purchasing EPs on eBay just to keep my radio show interesting. I sort of starting zooming in on Singapore and Malaysia because I realized I had mistakenly bought those when I was initially looking for Indonesian music. They’re all sung in Bahasa. The languages of Indonesia and Malaysia are closely linked. Singapore used to be part of Malaysia, they share some culture. So I ended up with a bunch of Indonesian music and Malaysian and Singaporean music – which I later learned people call Pop Yeh Yeh.

Those days, the music scene was centralized in Singapore, where the recording studios were. Many small labels all shared one studio actually, one of the best in the region - Kinetex Studios, which used to be on Wan Tho Avenue. The British left in 1965 and people were still kind of tuned into the British sound through radio. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who was like the British Elvis, played a big concert there in 1964 or '65. After that show, everybody went out and wanted to start rock bands. Cliff Richard’s band the Shadows were surf rock pioneers.

[After raising money on a Kickstarter project] I took a trip in 2010 to find the artists and ask their permission to put out a compilation. When I got there it miraculously turned into so much more than that, people were very eager to help me find these legendary artists. My sister [the nationally known journalist and digital media commentator Xeni Jardin] had posted on Boing Boing and a lot of people responded to that.

When I was in Singapore, Osman Ariffin of Life Records told me I had to go to an album release party for Anita Sarawak (a super-famous Malaysian vocalist) in Malaysia the next day and that all these Pop Yeh Yeh artists would be there.

Sure enough, 20 minutes off the bus, I arrived to see Adnan Othman sitting in the audience. Aidil Rusli, who is in Couple, a Malaysian power-pop band with Adnan’s daughter, Ariana, met me there and introduced me to Adnan. So I’m dripping with sweat, just off the bus from Singapore not having slept well, sitting next to him at this flashy album release party for this superdiva who is like, the Malaysian version of Cher. She calls me up onstage to do a dance routine with her to one of her songs in front of all the Malaysian TV cameras. So my first memory of meeting Adnan was this scary media situation. But then I sit back down and he was like, “Hey. Good job.”

So you hit it off from a personal standpoint?

Yes, but like any friendship you have to be patient and establish trust and understanding. Adnan is an easy guy to like. He had kindly taken my list of all artists I want to meet and wrote down all the phone numbers and addresses of people. Then he picked me up from my hotel and invited me to his house for lunch the next day and he took me all around Malaysia to meet many of his legendary peers.

I had his records already, which I thought were super cool. They were raw, a little more psychedelic with a rough edge. Fuzz guitar. He looked like a really cool guy on the EP covers, really distinct face. So the coolest guy I wanted to meet ended up being the guy who offered to drive me around all over the place. He agreed to let me interview him also, and these interviews were really important to my research because he speaks great English -- partly from having been in the shoe design business and having studied in London.

It was an honor to develop a friendship and sort of mentorship with this guy, he let me go through all his scrapbooks for photos. He gave me so much of his time. I went back in 2014 and he invited me back to stay with him again - this time for a week and a half and he selflessly facilitated much of the documentary filming I was doing.

He’s a musician as well as a painter. My father was a painting teacher at VCU (Glenn B. Hamm Jr.). So something clicked. I think he found a connection with me too somehow. And he has such a great sense of humor and he’s very humble and generous. It must also be a cultural thing, because most Malaysians I met were. And this is something that I’ve heard is a view in Islam, the idea of being a generous host to those in need, helping your neighbor. Some people I talked with had gotten more religious in their later years.

Some of these guys are still dressing like its 1967 but also go to the Mosque every day to pray three times a day. There’s a misconception out there, this image we’re fed of Islam . . . but culture and religion are two different things. Part of the learning experience for me was being in a Muslim country and being welcomed into these beautiful, colorful lives. It was not a problem for a Westerner to be there, they welcomed me openly.

Where would you place Othman in the context of the history of Pop Yeh Yeh?

Well, he was sort of second wave, I’d say. The first wave of people, M. Osman, A. Ramlie and Jeffrydin – those were seen by many as the pioneers. Adnan heard those guys on the radio and said, ‘I could do this.’ He was active from I’d say ’68 to ’71. He cut a bunch of records around the late-60s.

The record sounds great, even better than the last one. Were there any challenges with the mastering?

Adnan did eight EPs and I wanted at least two tracks off each of those for this comp. But I only had four or five [EPs]. There was a guy who runs Gray Past Records, Marthy Coumans – they’re based in the Netherlands, he did a comp back in 2003 that was super small pressing called ‘Steam Kodok’.

The guy was so nice that he shipped five of his EPs through the mail to a person he had never met. I mention this in the thank yous. Another guy from Strawberry Rain records also wanted to do it but told me he was happy that I was already working on it. My connection with [Othman] personally made me the best man for the job I guess.

I think we all wanted the Adnan project to happen for the right reasons.

Once I had all of the records in one place, I transferred those eight EPs to digital file, and did what I could to remove pops and clicks. When I sent it to Mark at Sublime he had a new piece of software that could remove noise without messing up the music. It wasn’t available a couple years ago. So I think these tracks sound so much better because of that. Noise removal but really fine tuning into the frequencies. We did a couple different mixes. I sent a couple back to him, because I had listened to the EPs so much, I could tell when even something little was dropping out. I knew them really well. So I think we had good quality control on this.

Also you’re making a documentary of your trips and the Pop Yeh Yeh scene, how’s that coming?

I have enough interviews and b-roll. I’m shooting for something that will be about an hour along. It’s coming along. I’m kind of early in the process. I filmed a whole bunch of stuff on mini DV when I first went over there. So that’s pretty bad quality, but I did mic everybody well. Three or four of the people I interviewed have already passed away, sadly.

The second time I went over there, I had access to some slightly higher-end cameras, so both trips I was collecting video. It will be a mix of quality and it will hopefully tell the story.

I’d like to go back over but I want to have more footage edited to show them.

Have you been able to get old footage of the bands playing back in the day?

There was one movie by the Shaw Brothers, who did kung fu movies, called “A Go-Go ‘67” that was a Pop Yeh Yeh movie. You can find it on YouTube with subtitles. The copy I have is higher quality but doesn’t have subtitles. It’s really great, there are go-go dancing girls from the opening credits who look like they’re doing calisthenics, with bubbles floating behind them. It’s pretty groovy. They all played these weird Hofner guitars with crazy pick guards and necks, and these dance teams in all black would come out and dance athletically to surf go go.

I met with the people who own [the film]. Went up to an office at the Shaw Brothers building in Singapore and met with a very nice lady who I do believe sincerely wanted to help me. I asked to use clips from it and they wrote back in three weeks and said no. I just wanted to use like 10 seconds of the film, but they had to decline. Which is a shame because that small amount of footage would really complete the film.

But Singapore just celebrated 50 years of independence last year – so all these nostalgic video pieces came out of the wood works for that. And this one young woman did a re-enactment of her grandfather’s group, the Silver Strings with Shirley Nair, performing for one of these tea dances from the '60s, when bands would play in little cafes in Singapore around tea time – sort of an after-school thing for teens. She got young people to dress up like the '60s. So I might be able to do something like that.

Have you heard from Adnan since the album was finished?

We’re trying to figure out how to press more over there locally. CDs are preferred and cassettes are big among young people. So we want to do CDs or cassettes or both. Alan was OK with it as long as they weren’t sold in the US or UK.

Adnan has a big art opening in April at University of Malaya, he’s an incredible painter. And he wants to have a joint celebration of the art show and music. I sent him 20 LPs last week and I haven’t heard back. I can’t wait to hear what he thinks.

Carl Hamm will be playing music and selling records at Steady Sounds Satuday, March 5, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. He may bring some food too.

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