Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Azmi Anshar's Tribute To Paul Ponnudorai.

Azmi Anshar is an editor in the New Straits Times.

Paul Ponnudorai came into the national psyche as a guitar virtuoso, picking and yodelling his way into the 1975 ‘Bakat TV’ talent contest.

WHEN Paul Ponnudorai was hitting it on his own, paying his dues, the journey was occasionally fraught with moments of comedic terror: raucous watering holes for fat-bellied patrons, money-grubbing musical philistines cursing loud expletives if he refused to play the latest punch-drunk Top 10 tune in any ethnic configuration.

Legend has it that one gangster showed Ponnudorai the size of his pistol snug in the belt: he decided that being pragmatic was better than maintaining integrity and being shot at, so he indulged the thug with face time by unleashing a Paul Ponnudorai original cover of Careless Whisper - a personal record of 17 times in a row to the howls of drunken stupor!

Friends often quipped to Ponnudorai that during his 15th rendition, he should have taken the pistol and just pulled the trigger himself, just to flee the diabolical torment.

This fact was known to rabid Ponnudorai followers. The man was a guitarist able to navigate any given tune with the eye of a fine sommelier, the risk-taking of a rogue archaeologist and the mischief of a loveable prankster.

With his passing at age 51 (he did say that he walked into a bar in 1979 gigging with his siblings and "I haven't walked out of a bar since"), his supremely-natural gifts on the guitar, the engaging sense of humour inter-played with a rapturous audience and that personal charm he exuded is forever etched in memory.

Ponnudorai was a musical pugilist from the 1970s generation, a bunch too young to dig Flower Power but old enough to avoid the Generation-X slacker rap, but he was a genius of a musician living life to the fullest.

He even survived a horrific car crash where he needed metal screws bored into his skull after a surgery to neutralise a blood clot.

Ponnudorai was soaked in the brine (his favourite phrase) of the Bible and gospel music, 1970s avant-garde rock and other metallic-like structures, and disco with a genteel focus on jazz and blues.

But the coyness of the 1970s did not subvert Ponnudorai. It turned him into a peerless virtuoso of the guitar. Medium-built but stout in physique and blessed with a propelling tenor voice, Ponnudorai's years of gigging before musically-illiterate audiences in dingy nightclubs was a profound woodshedding experience.

But his obsession for the outrageous guitar riff and chord progression during those halcyon years elevated him into a cult guitar hero. Ponnudorai's thumbs are unmercifully bent, which was consistent with the plausible theory that bent thumbs are the physical characteristic of fabulous musicians.

Ponnudorai came into the national psyche as a guitar virtuoso, picking and yodelling his way into the 1975 Bakat TV variety talent contest which became the springboard into greatness, reinforced soon with successes in competitions in the Yamaha Guitar and Southeast Asian Guitar Festivals.

Following gigs at pubs and lounges, he was snared as lead singer/guitarist for the Drifting Cowboys, the Waves and the Sweet Notes. That improvisatory spirit though was too vexing: he formed his own band, Made In Malaysia, playing notably at the now defunct All That Jazz, with a selection of sweet pop, rock and blues numbers but inevitably went solo again.

Ponnudorai never wavered nor did he compromise his faith in the blues while riffing it up in jazz and rock, though his true musical religion was spontaneous improvisation.

Brandishing his electro-acoustic axe on stage was as enthralling as watching a firebrand preacher on a pulpit. Ponnudorai was spiritual in that sense as he adapted popular tunes, then twisted and artistically tortured them into something insanely subliminal.

Ponnudorai passed on with his precocious talent intact, but even with a single under-the-radar 2005 album Back In Time, his reputation preceded him.

One night, while playing a routine hotel club gig in Singapore, a certain gentleman by the name of Wynton Marsalis, perhaps America's greatest living jazz cat, jumped on stage and began jamming on his trumpet against a very startled Ponnudorai.

Ponnudorai was assuredly the antithesis of everything we assumed in the age of MTV and Billboard ratings.

Many Malaysians aren't aware of the existence of Ponnudorai, the rich heritage he bestowed upon his native country, even as he had to eke a living across the border.

The passing of such a gifted man in our midst is not the real tragedy. Ignorance of his existence is.