Dato' Sheila Majid: Malaysia's Queen of Pop Jazz on the true beauty of our national language
For Dato' Sheila Majid, nothing spells Malaysia like our national language that has captured the hearts of people from even the furthest corners of the globe.
When it comes to the Malaysian music industry, no name draws recognition and respect quite like Dato’ Sheila Majid’s. Like another revered name in the Malaysian arts industry, Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, Dato' Sheila has dedicated her entire career to bringing the Malaysian brand of music to greater heights.
The Malaysian Queen of Pop Jazz is still going strong even after 29 illustrious years, as proven by her latest concert -- a collaboration performance with renowned French pianist, Richard Clayderman -- as recent as last weekend. She shows no signs of slowing down, as much as her fans, and almost the whole of Malaysia for that matter, continue to stand by her through her near-three decades in the industry.
“I am very happy to know that when people talk about Malaysian music, they have me in mind,” Dato’ Sheila expresses. “I am Malaysian after all and for me to be able represent and speak for Malaysia through my music is great.”
From the beginning, Dato’ Sheila has striven to honour her home country, Malaysia, in every song that she pens and every album that she releases. She does so by paying tribute to our national language, the beautiful Bahasa Malaysia.
All of her seven albums from her debut Dimensi Baru to her latest Cinta Kita are sung in Malay and although the songstress herself divulges wishes for a possible English album, Bahasa Malaysia still is and forever will be her first language. Her formula is one that has been successful, as even the late Anita Mui has covered two of her own songs, Mengapa Kasih and Di Sisi Daku.
“Bahasa Malaysia is a beautiful language,” she says. “I have met many foreign people when I tour who really love our language. To them, it’s very soft and it’s got a sing-song kind of melody to it.”
She insists it’s a big part why her music is so popular despite being in a tongue not very well known outside of Malaysia and its neighbouring countries.
“For a lot of foreigners who are attracted to my album, although they do not know or understand a word I’m singing, they’re just very attracted to the music and the way our Malay words sound,” she says.
She is one who believes that our language is the best representation of our identity as a nation.
“Some people say we need to portray Malaysian music. What do you mean by Malaysian music?” she muses. “To me, as long as you have Malay lyrics, which is the national language, in your songs, that is enough to say it’s Malaysian music.”
"Music must move some kind of emotion in you"
Next year would mark 30 years since the release of her first album and her debut as an artist but she is far from jaded. In fact, the years have only added to her passion, fuelling the fire in her with every performance.
“Vocally, I prefer how I sound today than how I sound 30 years ago,” she shares with a laugh. “It’s not been easy, but it’s the passion that has kept me going."
It’s not just a matter of expression. It is no secret that the local music industry is one ridden with many challenges and roadbumps, even for a veteran like her.
“This industry is not easy. We artists have to struggle and strive for every cent that we earn,” she laments. “It can be quite disheartening. We don’t get the respect that we should be getting. People have no respect for intellectual property, but we just need to continually educate people on this.”
Come what may, she is adamant to continue doing the one thing she loves more than anything else. It brings her great pleasure to know that she brings the Malaysian flag further out into the international arena with every performance and waves it higher with every show. Knowing that Malaysia's name rides on her, she gives nothing but her best everytime the spolight is shone at her.
"I always try and make Malaysia stand out by performing well. How else?" she states. "Even if they don’t know my name, they will still say 'Hey do you know that singer from Malaysia?' They will still know our country’s name."
Her career thus far is one that has seen many passing trends from the evolution of everything classical and born of true passion to modern day electronic music generated by beeping computers and softwares. When artistes who started out the same time as she did has evolved along with the times and dabbled in a variety of genre, she prefers to stick to the tried and tested. She prefers old-school pop jazz that comes from the heart.
"I come from that old-school breed of singers who feel that music is art and therefore it has to be played by a human being, not machine," she shares. "To me, music must move some kind of emotion in you. It must send good messages across and it has to be poetic. It has to be mean something."
To achieve that, nothing compares to the human touch in her books. "Music has to be played by a human being because it is that person who is playing that will project and translate emotion into the music. Only then will you get to stir emotions in your listeners," she reasons.
It all comes back full circle to the words and lyrics of the song. As Dato' Sheila puts it herself, "It’s the only part which people can relate to and that’s what will make people remember your song."
"To each her own"
As one of the pioneers in the Malaysian music industry who knows very well just how difficult it can get to simply break into the scene, Dato' Sheila reserves high hopes for the new generation of Malaysian artistes striving to make a name for themselves. She feels particularly happy for fellow singers like Yuna and Zee Avi who, like her, are constantly propelling Malaysian pride further forward.
"I think what Yuna is doing is great!" Dato' Sheila says. "She sings in English but it's fine because she wants to capture the market over there in the US. To each her own. I'm very happy for her."
She maintains that there are no set rules nor quick way to success. It is all old-fashioned hard work and the purest determination and drive to want to succeed. "This is not Hollywood," she cautions. "If you’re in this field with the intention of taking it as a glamourous life, we are not Hollywood. We really have to work hard to get to where we are."
"Work hard," is all she has to say to anyone aspiring to build a career in music, young or old, fresh or with a few years' experience. "That applies to any other work that you do."
"You got to be sincere, stay true to yourself and work hard. Believe me, if you like what you’re doing, you will do it well because nobody needs to push you."