Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Tribute To Paul Ponnudorai - By Eddin Khoo.

Eddin Khoo is a freelance writer who used to work for The Star.

He is my cousin and hails from Ipoh.

Paul Ponnudorai has left behind a legacy which we hope younger musicians will look up to, grab a hold of and run with.

If there was a single, striking quality to a Paul Ponnudorai performance, it was the touch of the epiphanous.

Undoubtedly a musician of the greatest dexterity, imagination and soulfulness, Ponnudorai had the ability to invoke, in a single song – however ordinary or even saccharine the song may be – the sense of great possibility and genuine timelessness.

It was this sense of epiphany that seemed to have touched him personally, on countless occasions not least of which was a near-fatal car accident in 1992 that left him with a blood clot in the brain and a recovery from surgery that could best be described as “miraculous”.

The incident was to indelibly transform him and his musicianship.

As he recalled to Time magazine in 2007, “Things that were so important – success, recognition, accolades – suddenly didn’t matter any more. And as a byproduct of my heightened awareness after the accident, I started listening to music – really listening to it.”

The “byproduct” of his listening was evident in his only solo album Right On Time, a sampling that reveals the consummate facility with which Ponnudorai claimed diverse and disparate styles ranging from the blues, bluegrass, gospel, folk and the most common pop styles.

These are all invested within that characteristic Ponnudorai combination of musical sinew and effortlessness.

In him, it was as if the act of creating musical seams was the most natural and rational thing in the world.

The Paul Ponnudorai experience contained a world – one that expressed the musical landscape from which he emerged.

Born to a large family committed to church or, as he movingly put it (in the Time interview) “I grew up soaked in the brine of the Bible.”

And the “brine of the Bible”, in Tamil churches such as his, naturally meant faith expressed in rhythm and music.

The music language that infused him was inspired also by the diverse setting that was his hometown of Ipoh in Perak, with its decaying jukeboxes and old record shops which, by the time of his growing up, reflected the passing of the country’s once principal mining town into quaint memory.

Ponnudorai carved a predictable path to national attention, winning the talent show Bakat TV in 1981 and subsequently playing and arranging for the most prominent of popular musicians – Francissca Peter, Datuk Sudirman Arshad, Datuk Sheila Majid and others.

Made In Malaysia, formed with Allan Perera, Jerry Felix and Daniel Soliano, was as close to a supergroup as Malaysia ever had and its capacity audiences at the Spuds club (now Life Centre) in Kuala Lumpur every Saturday night in the late 1980s attested to its super status.

Yet, it was his love of intimacy and deep sharing that kept him faithful to the bar-setting through the decades.

I had never known the Paul Ponnudorai of the stage.

Except for a few visits to the Spuds, my trail was different.

I – underaged and adulating – went to bars such as the Treffpunkt in Damansara Jaya, Selangor, where Paul alternated days with another teenage hero, Rafique Rashid.

After that, it was to All That Jazz many years later in a two-night spartan but beautiful solo set at the Instant Cafe Theatre’s Theatre Upstairs in KL where Paul, in characteristic fashion, transformed a bland Sir Cliff Richard song, The Twelvth Of Never, into a masterclass in ballad delivery.

Soon after, a modest event organised by a mutual friend, Errol D’Cruz, became an occasion for a moving performance of that John Hartford classic Gentle On My Mind.

At the end of the song, we realised we shared the same favourite lines – lines that, in recollection, appear to capture his sensibility so well – “And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line.

That keeps you in the back roads by the rivers of memory, that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.”

The last performance I witnessed was in a modest pub in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in KL, even the name of which I can’t remember and an audience that could best be described as non-existent.

Still, it was the same generosity of spirit which pervaded his performance.

Here, during a version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, I commented on his flawless phrasing and his reply, intelligent and quick as always was, “That’s where I put the student who wanted to study English Literature at university, but never did.”

The route to Singapore and to Harry’s pub followed.

Jam sessions with musicians the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Toots Thielemens and a glorious musical camaraderie with Jeremy Monteiro followed, all of whom recorded their amazement of his musicianship and all of which I missed.

In the past few months, I inadvertently thought of Paul frequently and an afternoon conversation about him occurred on July 6, the very day of his untimely passing.

In a gesture of tribute then, a quick search on YouTube and a good listen to a song (spiritual Joshua Fit De Battle Of Jericho) that he, of course, learned at Sunday school and instant was the recognition of the spirit of the “brine of the Bible” that pervaded Paul.

No wonder then, that each time I witnessed Paul in performance, a biblical phrase refrained in my head, “And there for the grace of God, go I.”

Rest in peace, Paul Ponnudorai, dear friend, you return to where you belong – to sing with the angels.