“Every Sunday, all the musicians would come and everyone got a chance to play. Entrance was five dollars because there was no ‘Ringgit’ in those days!”, deejay/vocalist/standup comedian Radha Krishnan reminisces about the good old days.
He settles down with former band members, bassist Charles Nathaniel and drummer Mohd Ros Yaakob (better known as Khalid) for this interview.
Along with Johnny Ng (keyboards, sax), Sunny Narcis (lead guitar, vocals) and Don Beins (lead guitar, vocals), they made up Cellar Hi-Five, once the resident band at the popular nightclub after which they are named.
The band is reuniting after donkey’s years (their own words) on March 15 for the Musicians for Musicians Benefit Concert at the Mines International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.
The event is the biggest reunion of Malaysia’s top bands, duos and soloists from the country’s golden era of music – the 60s and 70s.
It is an initiative of Persatuan Pemuzik Tempatan Selangor (PPTS), a newly formed not-for-profit association, which hopes to raise RM500,000 toward its goal to assist desperate and distressed musicians.
The band will feature a lineup as close to the original as possible with Johnny, Don, Charles, Khalid, Radha and Abbas Hassan (better known as Dino from Heavy Machine).
“Sunny isn’t able to make it, so our good friend Richard Joseph from Delta will step in,” Nathaniel explains.
The Cellar, located opposite PJ Hilton on Jalan Barat (where Syed Restaurant is now) was the go-to place back in the day.
It was a basement night club, with a lounge upstairs, patronised by the who’s who of the time. It was the brainchild of Cobra Rugby Club president Kim Tai, so many Cobra Club members would hang out there after training or a game.
“On Sundays from 3pm to 6pm we had a Tea Dance,” enthuses Radha. “We wanted to give musicians an opportunity to jam, so we started the Tea Dance.
“It was packed all the time. We even had bands like The Tribe from Singapore. Everyone looked forward to it.”
Radha was just 19 with a day job in 1973. “They gave me a chance to become a singer. I was the emcee for the Tea Dance, and after work I would do a set with Cellar Hi-Five.”
He became a well-known deejay on both sides of the causeway. “It’s all thanks to these guys, I really owe them a lot.”
Indeed, The Cellar was where many budding talents were nurtured, with the Sunday Tea Dance a launch platform for many.
Drummer Khalid joined them after earlier drummers like Peter Kuan and the late Tommy Low (of Sweet Notes fame).
Charles remembers: “Khalid first came to The Cellar in torn jeans, and carried a broken drum stick.”
He asked me, “‘Boleh main ke?’ and I welcomed him. I was keen to give any musician an opportunity.
“It wasn’t easy because he couldn’t speak English and I had to find a way to cue him into the songs we played. But he played beautifully and even travelled to Japan and Korea to perform.”
Khalid reveals that it was here that he was exposed to different tempos like the rhumba and samba. Not having a formal education, he says he “belajar sendiri” (is self-taught).
Radha boasts about Khalid’s incredible energy and how other local drummers like Lewis Pragasam would come to watch him perform.
“He is a fantastic drummer. He even plays Soul Sacrifice, the Santana song from Woodstock, exactly like the record,” Radha says.
Formed in 1970, the band featured Uncle Salim on keyboards and golden boy trumpeter, the late Syed Agil Syed Mohd Al-Habshee.
“We were very versatile and played commercial hits, cha-cha and foxtrot classics besides pop,” Nathaniel shares.
As a tribute to Syed Agil who passed away in 2001, the band will perform Matt Monro’s “Walk Away”.
“Syed Agil was important to the band. He elevated our performances and drew elite patrons. People like Tun Haniff Omar would come to watch us play.”
Cellar Hi-Five opened for many international artistes during their KL concerts, including The Hollies and Marmalade.
The guys, now close to or well into their 70s (Johnny is 80), are keen to get back on stage and strut their stuff again.
Most of the musicians at the concert on March 15 would have played at or at least come to The Cellar at some point, so the camaraderie is still strong.
As Radha succinctly puts it: “It is a chance for us to meet musicians we haven’t seen in a long while.
“We are grateful to the sponsors who have made this happen. It will be a great reunion. It is going to be very touching for all of us.”
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.