Stardust memories of song genius behind ‘Warisan’ and ‘Sama Sama’

Kesuma reunion: (L-R) Naim Nasir, Prof Mohd Anis Nor, Syed Haron, Assoc Prof Jamil Ahmad, Samsudin Hamidon, Victor Wee. Front: (left) Kaziah Kadir and (right) Siti Rohiaini. (Ainul pic)

PETALING JAYA: The late songwriter and composer Syed Haron Syed Ahmad was a magnetic force in Malay music for decades but few Malaysians know he eloquently stirred the emotions of the nation.

Syed Haron’s brilliance was immutable – his lyrics for uplifting gems like ‘Warisan’ and ‘Mulanya Di Sini’ (also known as ‘Sama Sama’) were immaculate.

Both songs sweetly expressed togetherness in overcoming adversity and achieving dreams.

The first line of ‘Warisan’ (legacy), ‘Di Sini Lahirnya Sebuah Cinta’ (here begins a love) was the refrain of the 57th Merdeka Day celebration in 2014, and was also the title of the theme song, ‘Malaysia, Di Sini Lahirnya Sebuah Cinta’.

Last month, local soul-jazz singer Poovaa’s moving rendition of ‘Warisan’, made popular by the late Sudirman Arshad, gripped Malaysians. Syed Haron, however, received little attention.

The classic, ‘Mulanya Di Sini’ (It begins here), composed by Royston Sta Maria and recorded by Freedom, is an anthemic singalong that has thrust at least a dozen commercials into the limelight. Syed Haron’s role is unrecognised.

In the continuing FMT series on Malaysians who make a difference, Syed Haron’s daughter Ainul Aniha, 42, provides an insight into her father’s industry and creativity.

Glasgow-based Ainul said her father was a devoted family man and a pillar of the music and education communities. One who did not seek accolades.

She said more than 200 of her father’s songs were recorded by various singers including ‘Hujan’ by Sudirman, ‘Mawar Putih Untuk Mama’ by the late Sharifah Aini, and ‘Pulang Di Hari Raya’ by Noorkumalasari.

Syed Haron’s first recorded song, dedicated to his wife Siti Rohaini Kassim who he married in 1977, was ‘Hanya Lagu’ by Sudirman.

Syed Haron and Siti Rohaini Kassim who were married in 1977. (Ainul pic)

“Not many people know that my mother sang in Abah’s demo tapes,” said Ainul, relating a story of Sudirman who “loved the voice in the demo tapes and wanted to record a duet with her. I don’t know if he ever found out who the singer was.”

Syed Haron also formed the teenage duo Anuar (Zain) and Ellina, wrote a number of songs for them and produced some of their albums. He also provided the vocal direction for Royston’s first solo album.

She said her father never spoke about the best lyrics he wrote or the song he composed as it was his “hobby, a passion.”

He wrote ‘Warisan’ after Singapore separated from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965. Since he was Johor Bahru-born, it was how he felt then.

In 1980, when Sudirman wanted to record a patriotic song, he amended the lyrics to embody Malaysia rather than focus on the separation.

Was Syed Haron sad that he was not recognised nationally when ‘Warisan’ formed the basis of Merdeka Day in 2014?

“He was surprised but also happy and proud,” said Ainul.

On his birthday on Aug 15 that year, Ainul posted a celebration picture of her father, his brother Syed Ahmad Feisal and of herself on Facebook as they were born in the same month.

Family photo taken in August 2015 during the birthday of Syed Haron (maroon shirt), Ainul (third from left) and Syed Ahmad (extreme right) are all born in the same month. (Ainul pic)

She wrote about how extra happy they were to celebrate their birthdays during the Merdeka month when the theme for the celebrations was taken from ‘Warisan’.

Friends shared her posting and it soon got the attention of then minister of information and multimedia Ahmad Shabery Cheek who subsequently met Syed Haron.

“He was excited because it meant that he could share what Warisan meant to him. We were happy he was in the limelight,” she said, adding that Syed Haron was invited to the ceremony on Merdeka morning but was unable to make it.

A year later, Syed Haron died at age 65 when he was Universiti Tun Razak (Unirazak) registrar.

Ainul says her father never looked for huge recognition and was happy as long as his songs were still out there and people remembered them. (Ainul pic)

On how her father should be remembered, she said: “It would be great if names of composers and lyricists are mentioned together with the singers’ names and their songs every time they are played.

“Abah, though, was happy that his songs were still out there and people remembered them.

“He got satisfaction when he completed a song and the icing on the cake was when it got recorded, aired or performed,” she said.

How did the family react to Poovaa’s cover version of Warisan?

“She did an excellent version and made it her own. All of us including mum loved it and shared the video widely,” said Ainul.

Ainul said she contacted Poovaa to compliment her and also to highlight a small mistake she made.

“The line she sang was ‘Betapa, di bumi ini ku melangkah’ when the actual word is ‘Bertapak’. We have been trying to correct the common flaw since Abah was around.”

She said another frequent mistake was singing ‘Gagah menjunjung senjata’ instead of ‘Gagah menghunus senjata’.

“Abah used to say for a soldier to ‘menjunjung senjata’ meant they have surrendered,” said Ainul who left Malaysia in 2019 for Scotland where her husband Adzfar Abd Aziz is pursuing a Master of Science degree.

Syed Haron’s unwavering spirit came from his humble beginnings. He was born in 1950, the fourth of seven children, to hospital assistant Syed Ahmad Syed Haron and nurse Sharifah Shekhon Syed Khalid.

He met Siti Rohaini in University of Malaya (UM) where they were pioneer members of Kumpulan Kesenian Universiti Malaya (Kesuma), the university’s cultural group set up by then vice chancellor Ungku Abdul Aziz.

Siti Rohaini was a dancer and singer while Syed Haron was drummer in the Kesuma band. He also played drums for ‘The Fifth Sound’, UM’s Fifth Residential College band.

Syed Haron was a self-taught musician. He played the guitar and keyboard, and also taught the gamelan in UM but his main instrument was the drums.

At 15 when he was in Form Three, he was the drummer of Rhythm 67, a band formed by Syed Ahmad with three other students of English College Johor Bahru.

The Rhythm 67: A young Syed Haron (standing second from left) with his bandmates who played gigs for pittance or nothing. (Ainul pic)

Syed Ahmad made the melodies with English words while Syed Haron did the Bahasa Melayu translation, Ainul said.

Syed Haron is thought to have begun as a full-fledged songwriter when Rhythm 67 was disbanded in 1968 after Syed Ahmad moved to Kuala Lumpur.

He and Rhythm 67 guitarist, Hanan, formed The Wheels with two friends, Najib (bass) and Abid (keyboard and vocals). In 1985, the group had a hit song, ‘Dalam Kenangan’.

Wheels: Syed Haron (first from right) and his band had a hit single ‘Dalam Kenangan’ in 1985. (Ainul pic)

Music runs in the family: After initial objections from her parents to pursue music, Ainul graduated with a BA in music from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) and plays the piano and cello while her brother Ahmad Fahmi, 37, plays the classical guitar.

Clearly, Syed Haron’s greatest moments are part of the national palate and a strong testimonial for composers and lyricists to enjoy a bigger pride of place in the pantheon of Malaysian music innovation.