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An Interview with a Malaysian Guitarist: Az Samad

Composer and musical maestro Az Samad has performed all over the world, but his most recent works have been emotive of his time spent in Malaysia. Manveen Maan speaks to the musician famed for his ‘fingerstyle’ playing method, and discovers what makes him tick.

How and when did you first start playing music?


I started playing guitar in Form 4 (Year 10) and that led to guitar lessons, which in turn led me to pursue music full-time. A friend introduced me to [’90s grunge band] Nirvana, which was the complete opposite of the R&B music that I was listening to. I enjoyed the different levels of energy in their music, but it was really the MTV Unplugged in New York album inspired me to want to get a guitar, because that was an acoustic album.

See Also: Getting To Know Prema Yin, a Malaysian Singer

My grandmother kindly gave me RM80 to purchase my very first Sunburst Blue Kapok guitar, and after three months, my dad noticed I was still intent on playing so he bought me a classical guitar on the condition that I took classical guitar lessons. My parents were very supportive, and bought me supplementary learning material.

Who or what were you earliest influences?


A huge influence was (the late guitarist) Michael Hedges. For years, I listened to his albums, which were rather difficult to source since this was all before the advent of YouTube. It was only after I first travelled to UK for a workshop and met (Irish fingerstyle guitarist) Eric Roche that it started making sense to me. Eric taught me probably more by example than anything, and I started playing and composing in DADGAD (Celtic guitar tuning). It’s surreal when you think about how one week can change the trajectory of your life, but that’s how it was for me. Following that, I decided to pursue fingerstyle guitar and studied the music of guitarists like Thomas Leeb, Alex De Grassi, Tommy Emmanuel, Jon Gomm, and Don Ross.

You studied music at the famed Berklee College of Music (in Boston, USA). What sort of learning experience did you have there?


I actually wanted to go to Berklee in 1998, but that was around the time the economic crisis hit Asia, making it twice as expensive to study in the US. In hindsight, although I delayed my studies to Berklee, it actually made me more prepared for the experience. I feel that because I actually had a first degree (from the International College of Music), I got more out of the Berklee experience, enabling me to take more advanced classes and study different subjects that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had gone earlier, as initially planned.

While in Berklee, I got the chance to study with slide guitarist David Tronzo who really influenced me. He has guided a lot of my own work, especially with my improvised solo guitar recordings from Emo Attack Turtle, love letters EP, and most recently The Amsterdam Recordings.

Why did you decide to go into traching after college?


I love teaching. Ever since I was young, I’ve had a knack for figuring out how things work. That is something that I bring to my students today – breaking things down into simple steps. Technology has also helped my teaching in many ways. I have students who learn via Skype from the US, New Zealand, and Singapore, and even had a student come all the way from Christmas Island for a two-week guitar learning stint in KL! It’s great that the Internet has played such a pivotal role in my journey as a musical educator.

Why did you decide to return to Malaysia?


Kuala Lumpur is definitely the place to be. I’ve been back for almost three years now and it’s been an amazing journey. I’ve performed with the top orchestra here (the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra) and in festivals all over Malaysia. I’ve also conducted guitar, ukulele, and music workshops in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, and been a judge at Short + Sweet Musical Malaysia and the Boh Cameronian Awards. I’ve also had my music featured in a film, and organised an Open Mic series.

How do you think the local music scene has developed over the last decade?


It’s grown a lot and I think is more connected now because of social media and the Internet. It’s also getting more diverse lately. Local acts that I like include Tempered Mental, Pop Shuvit, Estranged, Froya, Kyoto Protocol, Bihzhu, Hameer Zawawi, and Amir Jahari, among others. The music scene now has more collaborations and touring abroad, and a more diverse pool of styles and genres being explored.

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How would you describe your sound?


For my solo project, I play original instrumental acoustic music inspired by jazz, pop, rock, blues, and funk. For my trio (Az Samad Trio), it’s mainly instrumental jazz that borrows from the pop music I grew up with. I find that as I progress, I’ve been digging deeper into the music of my childhood – a lot more Malaysian influences and a lot of ’80s pop and ’90s hip hop.

What or whom inspires your music?


I see the dedication my dad [renowned laureate A Samad Said] has in his writing. He writes and then spends a lot of time editing and refining his work. That taught me to be patient and slowly develop my musical craft. Currently, I’m working on developing a Malaysian fingerstyle guitar style, influenced by traditional Malay music and pop music. My dad makes up words all the time. That inspires me to create my mash-up, a language that combines jazz, Malaysian music, and pop into my own style.

In general though, I am inspired by people I meet, places I’ve been and memorable experiences. Other musicians also make me excited to try new techniques and sounds. The band Little Tybee has gotten me back into percussive tapping on guitar because of all the amazing sounds Josh Martin (the guitarist) gets from his guitar.

Your newest album is called Squirrels in Space. How is it different from previous ones?


Squirrels in Space is a whole collaboration with British multi-instrumentalist and singer Richard Moss. I first met him back in 2003 and we recorded a duo album in the UK last year. Nothing beats the chemistry and energy of playing music together, and documenting that was beautiful. We named it Squirrels in Space because we’re both kind of wacky and playful (like squirrels are), and being in space alludes to stepping out of your comfort zone – which we both wanted to do.

The songs on the album are compositions written in 2003 and 2004 that have developed over the years. Richard’s beautiful playing on mandolin and bouzouki really adds an extra dimension to the sound. My favourite piece to perform from that is probably Latah Setinggan because it’s a funky piece that was the first song to sort of shape my personal style. Amongst the slower pieces, I especially love Senja Mula Menangis which is a ballad I wrote in Tapah, Perak.

What has been your most memorable performance to date?


Performing at TEDxKL 2013 was really memorable because of all the people I met and the amazing audience. I performed as part of a duo (with Cheryl Tan) called “The Malaysian Music Project.” We re-interpret classic songs from P.Ramlee, Sheila Majid, and Sudirman to modern favourites such as OAG, Yuna, and Mia Palencia.

We wanted to explore a sense of what is Malaysian and current. The Malaysian Music Project also include pieces by art composers such as Saidah Rastam, Lim Chuang Yik and Teng Ky Gan; basically music that generally is not heard on the radio. In choosing to present local art, our duo aims to challenge the audience to also question their own sense of identity, which in a way is reflected in the art that they consume.

Another memorable performance was Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas where I was the guitar soloist at their three sold-out shows. It was great because I performed music that I really related to. I’m a video game child, growing up playing games from Squaresoft (the company that produced the Final Fantasy series).

What have been the defining moments in your career thus far?


The two Europe tours, firstly with American singer-songwriter Tara Linda in 2012 and then my own solo tour in 2013. It was an experience that shaped my future musical and career goals. To constantly expand my audience is important to me. Reaching more people is ultimately what I want to achieve in the coming years.

What does music meant to you?


Music is all about expression. It’s about capturing a feeling or emotion in sound and connecting to people.

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For more information on Squirrels in Space and Az Samad’s tour schedule and other listings, visit www.azsamad.com.

Source: Senses of Malaysia May/June 2014

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