‘Bala’ncing life and work as a veteran musician

Balaraja Palanisamy is a veteran musician who has worked the live music circuit since he was 21 years old. (Ann Marie Chandy pic)

PETALING JAYA: If you grew up in the Klang Valley in the 1980s and 90s and loved to listen to live music, chances are you’d have watched Balaraja Palanisamy perform.

Who? Better known as Bala Online Pub, Bala Waikiki, Bala and the Blitz, or Bala and the Blackbirds, the 64-year-old seasoned singer has indeed “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt”.

Which is why he is most definitely in the lineup of the upcoming Musicians for Musicians Benefit Concert 2020, in aid of musicians who are ill and facing financial hardship.

The concert will feature 30 eclectic acts and 100 musicians who once performed at celebrated clubs, hotels and pubs dating back to the 1960s and 70s in a much anticipated blast from the past.

“It’s going to be a fun show!” enthuses Bala as he reminisces about the good old days.

Having worked the live music circuit after graduating in the late 1970s, Bala fondly remembers being lured by the promise of wine, women and song. At 21 it was hard not to be excited by those things, even though singing as a profession was frowned upon.

Bala is equally comfortable in a band or performing solo. (Waikiki Bar Facebook pic)

He ended up performing at places such as 737 Jalan Birch in Kuala Lumpur; Shepherd’s Inn in Seksyen 17, Petaling Jaya; New Moon in Bangsar; and Street Connections in Damansara Heights, steadily growing a loyal fan base.

These days Bala is a different man – unassuming and laidback, happy to enjoy time by himself.

“I am not rich, but I choose what I want to do now. I’m in a different phase of my life and I want to chill. All those years of intense performing have left me mentally and spiritually exhausted.”

Born in Taiping, Perak, Bala shares that he learnt to play the guitar from his maternal uncles, then went on to teach himself by watching other performers and listening to cassettes.

“Figuring out lyrics was always a challenge then as you’d have to start, stop and rewind many times to find out what they were saying. There was no Google search then!”

Bala is a self-taught guitarist and singer.

Bala is one of those versatile performers who easily moves from playing pumped-up rock and blues with a band to performing a killer one-man show.

Armed with just his trusty Ibanez and a drum machine, he runs through standard pop and rock numbers like James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain”, Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” to even Rajnikanth’s “Tilana Tilana”.

“Live music was such a big thing back then. There was a crowd that was hungry to hear us sing. They would drive up from Seremban. Some even came from Singapore to see me play on a Saturday night. It’s crazy.

“I never really thought about it then, but people were really fans in the true sense of the word. Students would save up to come and have one beer and watch me sing!

“I had no idea what I meant to them back then. It was a genuine accolade, and it was often difficult for me to live up to that.”

Proceeds from the concert in March will be channelled towards musicians who are ill or who have fallen on hard times. (PPTS pic)

In the early 1990s, Bala recorded an EP called “Bala the Debut” with Bala and The Blitz, which included Jerry Felix, Ramesh Kandasamy and Mark Rajendran.

“I did that one recording and we sold 20,000 copies. But I was never really interested in a recording career. I’m a lazy bum,” he admits candidly. “I don’t really want to be that famous.”

Bala then did a four-year stint in the Maldives, and it was here that he went through a transition of sorts.

“It’s an island and there’s nowhere to go, so you sort of take stock of your life and do a lot of self-reflection and introspection.”

Upon his return, Bala began a decade-long stint at the Waikiki Bar, but he’d already left behind the hedonistic musician’s life he once indulged in.

The concert is a 10-hour marathon of retro music and will be held on March 15 at the Mines International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Seri Kembangan, Selangor. (PPTS pic)

“I was only playing once a week,” he says, adding that now he only performs at corporate functions and weddings.

Trim, fit and exuding a zen calm about him, Bala says: “I exercise and take care of myself. I was diagnosed as a diabetic at 30 and advised to be extra careful, but initially I was not.

“So nowadays I make it a point to walk for at least five kilometres every day, and I eat small portions of food.”

Bala is keen to lend a hand to his fellow musicians by participating in the concert on March 15 at the Mines International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.

“As a musician, the daily night life takes a toll on all of us, and later in life we suffer. So I am happy to do my bit to help out.

“It’s just 20 minutes, four songs, and I get to see all these other bands, which will be fantastic because I don’t see them often.”

Tickets are reasonably priced at RM100 each. (PPTS pic)

What can fans expect? “I’ve sent in a playlist but that might change. I have to gauge the crowd, see what kind of genre they are leaning towards.

“I always give the audience what they want. Go with the vibe of the moment … we musicians have this invisible antenna, you know?

“But you can definitely expect songs from the 70s and 80s. I’ve chosen a few that I remember, but they will have a new flavour to them, of course. Don’t expect me to duplicate something I used to do… I really can’t remember at this age!”

The concert is an initiative of the Persatuan Pemuzik Tempatan Selangor (PPTS), a newly formed not-for-profit association spearheaded by professionals driven by a love for music and a sense of duty and caring.

Tickets are priced at RM100 and available at www.airasiaredtix.com. You can also call Edwin on 012 209 8849 or Raj on 019 229 7156.