KUALA LUMPUR: Large black speakers murmur soft electric riffs, as a calloused hand expertly crawls up and down a glossy mahogany wood fingerboard.
“Soul music heals, connects us to our lost selves, and is the language of truth.”
These are the words of musician Md Zain Md Noor, the man who has dedicated 25 years of his life trying to impersonate a world-famous 70s icon.
In Kuala Lumpur’s premier jazz club, dim blue lights slowly reveal a skeletal silhouette, long veiny hands, large white teeth and sunken cheeks.
One name immediately comes to mind… Jimi Hendrix.
But that simply cannot be, as musical genius James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix died in 1970 at age 27 in England.
The sudden death of the electric guitar revolutionary not only sent shock waves throughout the world, but also firmly secured his legacy in the “27 club” – the now mythical group of extraordinarily talented musicians whose members include Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin.
And yet, it was as if the ghost of the late voodoo child singer was standing in front of the stage and, in Malaysia of all places.
With a headful of tousled hair, boogey-man demeanour, and soft searching eyes, to watch Noor on stage is a surreal and uncanny, almost borderline-uncomfortable, visual treat.
Even more exciting than his striking physical resemblance to the late guitar legend, is his formidable guitar skills.
Noor came from an artistic family that fostered the young musician’s respect for the arts. He recalls his parents teaching him the importance of “Jiwa Melayu”, or “soul”, in everything you do.
“My parents taught me to be unafraid of truly putting my heart into something, put aside the ego,” says Noor.
That is likely the secret ingredient to good music, he muses.
The musician expresses his concern about the ease and tone at which modern pop music is created today – loud, catchy and painfully boring by next week.
In other words, songs without soul.
This is the total opposite of the Hendrix philosophy of enlightenment, which is a way of thinking that tries to transcend generations and speak to the common struggles and core emotions all humans share, says Noor.
Unlike the heavily structured and stuffy nature of classical music or the calculated and demanding ways of pop, the guardians of soul do not ask for anything more than sincere, uninhibited emotion.
“That is the beauty of soul music. It’s raw,” he adds.
“Honouring my passion by expressing it freely and honestly is healthy for the mind and spirit. I do this with my guitar. Music keeps me healthy,” Noor chuckles.
“Whether your instrument is your body, your voice, or your cheap old guitar, it does not matter. What is important is that your performance touches the audience. That’s all.” he says plainly.
However, being a professional musician in Malaysia is anything but sitting in the grass and singing about your feelings. There are mosquitoes. (Read: Pesky bills to pay).
Unsurprisingly, the reality of making a living in the infamous music industry requires a lot of discipline and a deep sense of sacrifice.
“You just have to keep going, keep growing”, he says matter-of-factly. “Practise 25 hours a day, visit art galleries, watch movies, and read books. Absorb and study as much art as you can.”
This way of thinking seems to have paid off because, in 1980, Noor was awarded best guitarist in Singapore.
With his newfound fame, Noor later went on to carve out a notable musical career with heavy rock band Rusty Blades and drew crowds that filled venues like the Bukit Jalil stadium.
One particularly memorable moment was when Noor met music composer and producer Wah Idris, of “In the Eyes of the World”, used as an anthem for the commonwealth games 1998 and for US Independence Day 2020.
It was Wah Idris who advised the young Noor to adopt the persona of Hendrix in order to market himself.
While this bold branding move would have made most nervous and would have spelled out certain and permanent social death, Noor liked the idea.
Afterall, he was already a celebrated guitarist, looked up to Jimi Hendrix, and had no doubts about continuing to make music his life’s work.
Undaunted, Mat Noor accepted the proposal and became “Noor Hendrix”.
Despite adopting the name and being blessed with physical similarities, Noor remains humble about his job.
“It is impossible to be completely Hendrix, because that guy was a one-of-a-kind type of guy, but his spirit lives on through superfans like me.” he says
“Anyway”, he adds, “every guitarist has a little Hendrix in him.”