Malaysia’s greatest ever guitarist dies not gaining recognition by the Malaysian government.
The news of the death of Malaysia’s greatest ever guitarist immediately drew me into a reverie of the time when I got to know him at the age of 15, and the very day when it was announced by my schoolmates to me that Paul Ponnudorai was now a Johannian, having “migrated” from his hometown of Ipoh.
It was way back in 1976, the news was astounding, as just a year earlier he had won the coveted RTM’s Bakat TV talent time competition as a solo guitarist.
But it was my close confidant, Christie Bruno, who took the initiative to get better acquainted with Paul where we were studying for the Form Three Lower Certificate of Examination (now SRP) at St John’s Institution.
Once Christie was able to establish a “musical relationship” with Paul, as he was an avid bongo drums player who revered and aped Perez Prado, the duo drew me into their fellowship although there was no ability on my part to play any instrument.
But I had a liking and interest in music. But it was just a casual pursuit on my part, more as a listener and spectator rather than a participant. This was how it was with a bunch of us back then in school, Paul will play the guitar and Christie will play the bongos after school and it was a fascinating, fun-filled time for us.
It now dawns on me what Christie once told me of Paul during those days. He said: “Christopher, I think among five million people, only one person can play the guitar like Paul.”
Little did I realise that I was growing up in the company of a musical giant. But what I remember most vividly of Paul and Christie, however, was the days we used to visit Christie’s cousin Ravi at his home at the government quarters in the Imbi area of Kuala Lumpur after school.
If Ravi was busy and did not cook lunch for us, the three of us will make our way to the famous “Curry Fish Head” stall in Jalan Imbi and feast on the food. In those days, the three of us were nothing but gluttons, the way we put away food.
This we used to do quite frequently even after leaving school. When the stall moved to a larger premise’s at the Merdeka Stadium, the three of us faithfully also shifted to patronise the shop there.
When the three of us left St John’s, Christie ventured into the booming real estate industry as an agent, I furthered my studies and Paul began to get onto the local circuit to play and sing at nightclubs and pubs.
Mastering the club scene
It was through this exposure that Paul developed his penchant for consuming large amounts of alcohol. While Christie and I used to join him when he was performing at Club 21 in Komplex Antarabangsa, both Christie and me quit consuming alcohol when we became born-again Christians.
It was also at this time that the three of us began to drift apart owing to our different commitments in life. Paul began to get entrenched in the live club scene. He was an all rounder, familiar with a variety of styles, and he could perform anything from blues and rock, to jazz, bluegrass and pop.
Upon leaving school, another person we got to know closely was Allan Perera, who now runs the Comedy Court shows and who is better known now as a comedian.
Allan, who for a time was working at a church as a church worker where Christie and I worshipped, formed the popular band Made-in-Malaysia with Paul and drummer Jerry Felix.
Paul, however, was the driving force behind Suara, an album that was arranged and produced by Allan. It was released in 1988 and featured a collection of ballads to mark the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Though I must confess I lost touch with Paul as I proceeded to write and teach, I followed whatever news of him that was appearing in the media and was fascinated when Sudirman Arshad won the 1989 Salem Asian Music Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I thought the world of Sudirman and consider him till now to be Malaysia’s best ever male entertainer.
But Sudirman graciously credited his win to Paul who was the guitarist and lyricist for One Thousand Million Smiles, the song that bagged the best performer award.
This was another hidden trait and talent of Paul. He was impeccable in his command of the English language and was a brilliant composer of songs.
Government’s failure to honour talent
Paul also played on one of the most famous albums of Sheila Majid, called Lagenda, which was released in 1990.
The citation of commendations for Paul is not restricted to Malaysians only.
The list of established and world renown musicians and singers who have been left impressed by the talent, skill and ability of Paul leaves no doubt whatsoever that my friend (and I say this with much pride of having known him so well) was the greatest guitarist that Malaysia had ever produced to be able to be equated and stand on equal footing with the very best of guitarists in the world.
While it has been some years since I had last seen him, the memories of my association and camaraderie with him rankle in my mind as if it was only yesterday when I was young.
The irony of the passing away of this towering Malaysian, and the enormous and invaluable contribution he made to the world of music, is to witness the sad way and manner in which the Malaysian government failed to recognise and honour his achievements.
But my friend will always be to me a rare commodity, not just because he was so talented and gifted and a genius in music, but because he passed away leaving a legacy of his work for the young to follow and emulate him.
Paul leaves behind his wife Agnes, 91-year-old mother Kamalam, four brothers, three sisters, nieces, nephews and hordes of people who loved him and his singing and playing of the guitar until he died at the untimely age of 51 of organ failure.
Note: Paul’s funeral will be held at the Gui Yan Crematorium Parlour along Jalan 222 in PJ at 1pm today – July 9, 2012.
Christopher Fernandez has been teaching and writing throughout Asia since 1984.