RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Coming out of British colonialism, Malaysia in the 1960s was Southeast Asia’s capital of cool.
With Beatlemania raging, many teenagers walked around the streets of Singapore, which at the time had not yet gained independence, wearing mop-tops, butterfly-patterned shirts and Day-Glo miniskirts. From the transistor radios they carried over their shoulders squeaked the sound of a music that was a unique blend of rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Malay songs.
Dubbed Pop Yeh Yeh, the music was the soundtrack of a youth movement. It was named after a popular Beatles song, but also heavily influenced by The Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, The Shadows and other British rock groups. For nearly a decade, Pop Yeh Yeh influenced Malaysian mainstream culture and even the country’s movie industry.
A short-lived phenomenon, the golden age of Pop Yeh Yeh began to dwindle in 1971. It might have been lost to history had it not been for a DJ from Richmond who has made it his mission to curate and preserve this culture’s legacy and share it with music lovers all over the world.
Carl Hamm, 40, has long been a fixture in the local music scene. As DJ Carlito, he has hosted his weekly radio show, “If Music Could Talk,” for more than a decade, from 7 to 9 p.m. every Sunday on WRIR (97.3 FM). He’s also something of a celebrity in Richmond’s vast Indian community, where he is mostly known for his popular Bollywood parties.
But Hamm’s true passion is Pop Yeh Yeh, and after two research trips to Malaysia and Singapore - where he located and interviewed many of the mostly forgotten stars - Hamm has become the genre’s unofficial documentarian and curator.
Hamm has released two compilations with Pop Yeh Yeh music that has been unavailable for decades, certainly in the United States. And he is working on a film documentary about this music and the people behind it.
“It is very important that I help these guys tell their stories, because that era is so exciting and fascinating, and it gives you a chance to clue people in on that culture in that part of the world,” Hamm said.
“When people think of Malaysia, they think it’s just another Muslim country over there in Southeast Asia,” Hamm said. “But it’s such a rich culture and I am lucky and blessed to have had such a huge, positive experience there. These people in Malaysia and Singapore invited me into their homes and showed me generosity that was humbling. They told me stories that were so personal, and I think there is a lot in Islam that is about just being humble and open.”
A native Richmonder, Hamm is the son of Glenn B. Hamm Jr., an artist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, now deceased, and the younger brother of journalist Xeni Jardin, an editor of the blog Boing Boing. Both played a major role in his musical education, Hamm said.
“My father had a huge collection of art and history books, but he also had a bunch of records and cassette tapes. My sister got into hard-core punk music in the 1980s, and she’s definitely always been an inspiration to me,” Hamm said.
When Hamm, a multimedia coordinator at the University of Richmond School of Law, joined the volunteer staff at the newly founded Richmond Independent Radio in 2005, he discovered radio as a new creative outlet for his broad interest in all musical styles and genres.
“That opened a big door for me in my life; it gave me a purpose for having all the music that I have been collecting all my life. I thought maybe I can share this with people instead of hoarding it,” he said.
After he made a splash with his Bollywood parties, Hamm continued to look for music that would challenge his own taste and that of his radio audience.
“You want to pique people’s curiosity each week, so I was buying records off eBay, and I would buy Bollywood records or records from Hong Kong and Indonesia. That’s what I was after at the time,” he said.
Hamm stumbled upon Malaysian records by accident because he was drawn in by the cover art. His record fetish soon turned into a thirst for knowledge because his listeners wanted to know more about the music.
“I started Googling the stuff and started writing to people on MySpace in Singapore or to bloggers. I was really getting into it, and that’s when I pitched the idea to a label that I would like to do a compilation,” Hamm said.
But first Hamm had to license the music. Because he had trouble locating the artists online, he thought, “Maybe I’ll just go over there and look for some of these people.”
In 2009, Hamm started a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. By 2010, he had raised $3,500, enough for a plane ticket. That summer, he was on a flight to Singapore where he stayed for a week. Next, he traveled to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, for two weeks, interviewing nearly two dozen artists who were often surprised, if not amused, that this young American was so interested and knowledgeable about their music culture.
“They were mind-blown, because most people over there aren’t digging that deep and most Westerners aren’t digging that deep,” Hamm said. “But there are record collectors all over the world now, just scouring for 1960s records from every country. It was bound to happen. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else.”
Yaacob Bakar, bassist with the Pop Yeh Yeh group Orkes Teruna Ria from Penang, said in an email that Hamm’s work as a curator of Malaysian music is important.
“We have never thought that an American guy will be interested in Pop Yeh Yeh music and can memorize Pop Yeh Yeh singers, bands and songs. We are grateful to our friend Carl Hamm,” Bakar said.
And Pop Yeh Yeh legend Adnan Othman, who invited Hamm to stay at his home when he returned for a second time in 2014, said that Hamm’s interest in the music is “rare” and “important.”
“The Malay music of the 1960s is unique (and) it is still alive,” Othman said in an email. “I don’t think I am internationally recognized (and) my time has passed. (But) I am happy and grateful to Carl; I was surprised and could not believe that a young guy from USA likes the Malay pop 1960s music (and) who took the trouble to come to Malaysia and Singapore to meet the artists.”
To date, Hamm has released two Pop Yeh Yeh compilations on the independent label Sublime Frequencies. The first, “Pop Yeh Yeh - Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia 1964-1970: Vol. 1,” is long sold out. The second, a retrospective of Othman’s work, was released in March.
The little money that the records made, Hamm sent to the musicians.
“A lot of them are still playing music, but most of them never made a life out of it,” he said. “But the exposure is really valuable to them, and just to make that kind of thing happen has been an honor to me.”
Hamm now wants to focus on his film project. On his hard drive, he has more than 40 hours of interviews that he plans to edit into a documentary.
“The end goal is pretty simple; maybe I could submit it to any of these film festivals or a TV station in Malaysia to broadcast it. Maybe it’ll just end up as a YouTube or Vimeo thing, but as long as the footage that I got and the time that everyone spent on it goes to good use and becomes an archive of stories about those days, I’ll be happy,” he said.
To Hamm, it’s not about money and fame. It’s all about preserving the legacy of Pop Yeh Yeh.
“Because the history makes music so much more exciting,” he said.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com
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