Reinvention has marked the Amy Search experience, from mercurial ‘outsider’ to Rock aristocracy.
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“There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air,”
Not since there was music oozing from the studios in Jalan Ampas, Singapore by the likes of P. Ramlee, Saloma and countless others had music held such sway over everything we lived and breathed, from fashion and dress sense to personal sensibility and attitude.
In the 1980’s that “revolution,” was a quiet effort at subverting the prevailing ethos of the time — ‘sameness’ in the name of ‘national unity.’
Musical identity in Malaysia — Kuala Lumpur in particular — had arrived at that moment of cultural duality: an inspired tension played out in the form of the wholesome Sudirman, wrapped dramatically in a Malaysian flag, against the bold stance of the long-haired, skinny jeaned quintet (later to expand) of Search with its part reptilian-part feline lead singer, Amy.
“Kuala Lumpur,” Datuk Amy (Suhaimi Abdul Rahman) recalls of that formative ‘scene,’ “used to belong to the Blues and Reggae. Growing up in Johor Bharu, I would read the Sunday newspapers, which featured articles on Rahim Hamzah and DR Sam (Rasputin), concerts at the Lake Titiwangsa, and bands touring from Singapore. That was the kind of feel in Kuala Lumpur then.”
“I had always liked to sing,” Amy Search remembers, “but I never took it all that seriously. I would sing with friends and they would respond, ‘eh, suara kau sedap lah ‘beb (you’ve got a sweet voice, babe) but that was about it. I had no real ‘ambition’ for it. I had not even ever taken part in a talentime competition.”
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The refrain “you’ve got a sweet voice, babe” must surely have given way to a deeper musical stirring, and the conventional path to giving meaning to that stirring was to assemble a band. That band was called Traffic Jam, named after the studio in which the group rehearsed. In search of a lead guitarist, Traffic Jam called for auditions to which turned up a “anak Baba Melaka” (a Baba-Peranakan), and prodigious guitarist Hillary Ang.
“After all, it is about me. I am aiming for the moon, will miss it at first, but will keep trying.”
“I remember it was a Sunday,” he recalls, “and Hillary arrived for the audition in a taxi. He brought his guitar in a complete casing, rare among guitar players then. And when he opened the casing it contained a dazzling white Ibanez Iceman guitar.”
“He asked directly, ‘what songs do you play?’ So we listed a few songs, and he replied, ‘I can’t play Deep Purple, I play Van Halen’ and from that moment I knew we would be different from other gig bands. Getting to know Hillary, going to his home on weekends for practice sessions, going through repertoire, that was how it all started.”
The pull of the metropolis was especially keen for aspiring ‘rockers’ from Johor Baru. Singapore — the principal pulse for music literacy and attitude — was just a crossing away, but the beckoning stage for aspiring musicians from JB was the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“One day Hillary suggested ‘shall we go to KL — are you ready?’ I decided I was, told my mother I was heading to the capital for a holiday, didn’t return for months, and set my mind on becoming a star.”
“For me, ‘a star’ didn’t mean I would never again ride a bus — it is not about the bus, after all,” Amy says. “It is about me. I am aiming for the moon, will miss it at first, but will keep trying.”
“That has been my focus all these years — to arrive at one level, then seek to arrive at another and another.”
The beginnings of what would emerge as the mega rock group Search were surprisingly conventional — rugged, disciplined, serious.
“Staying in Zooview, Ampang at that time I would take a bus to the club, rehearse from 10am-2pm, buy some rice, a couple of tins of sardines, head home, rest a little then prepare for the gig that night. That was the routine, day in, day out.” Amy remembers.
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That club was the Red Rooster in Medan Tuanku- now a near mythical presence in Kuala Lumpur’s rock memory. The club provided Search the stage from which its unique and alternative character would be formed. The audience was eclectic, from international school to university students, young, urban, working professionals — a generation that would take Search — and Amy in particular — to their hearts and stay faithful.
“You are there in the club every night,” Amy explains of that formative club experience, “you don’t only polish your style, you build your whole performance character — your stage persona, movements, stamina.“
From Red Rooster to the Hard Rock café, Search set themselves apart from other emerging, and even established rock groups. The Red Rooster performances were dazzling and demonstrated their flawless group dynamic. The Search lineup featured the late Yazit Ahmad on drums, Nasir Daud on bass, Hillary Ang on guitar, and was crested by the unblemished tenor of Amy.
The first Search album Cinta Buatan Malaysia, released by Polygram, was a kind of “Assalamualaikum, we are here,” as Amy describes. The following album, the now classic Mentari Merah di Ufuk Timur (featuring also the guitarist Man Kidal) spawned the great hit Fantasia Bulan Madu. It included also an infectious tribute to the entire burgeoning rock movement, which Search was beginning to shape, in Mat Rock, a tune with a country rock feel laid over by Delta blues riffs.
1989’s album Fenomena drew working relationships with the likes of M. Nasir and the lyricist Bob Lokman, who were involved in the making of one of the Malaysia-Indonesia-Singapore regions massive hits, Isabella.
“It did not matter what culture, race or religion your were, Isabella was loved by everyone, and the song swept the entire rumpun Melayu (Malay-Indonesian region). It also transformed Search from just another rock band to something very different. It was huge, Isabella. It was our dream,” Amy says.
Isabella was to inspire a Search frenzy within the region and mark the band’s continued hold on the Indonesian musical front.
Yet, a firm and demanding fan base, musical restlessness, a struggle between independence and togetherness within the group has led to some fractiousness since the 1990’s, and marked most recently by the two separate Search — the Rooftop and the Zepp — concerts giving rise to the question ‘who is the real Search,’ which played feverishly in the national press.
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIMMUN / HOPSCOTCH STUDIO
STYLE ADVISER JIMAN CASABLANCAS
ART DIRECTION BY JOYCE LIM
ASSISTED BY ARSHAD AFFANDI
MAKE-UP BY JOEY YAP
HAIR BY DAVID SHAW