Up Close With Dynamic DJ Duo Tunku Nadia Naquiyuddin & Arafah Edruce
Tunku Nadia Naquiyuddin was the first of the duo to arrive; there was a certain grace in the way she held herself. Dressed simply in a classic white-shirt-and-jeans combo, the petite 38-year-old was soft-spoken at first, but as her phone buzzed, her small smile grew at the message on her screen. “Ara’s here,” she tells me. I could hear the excitement in her voice and couldn’t help but echo her bright expression.
And despite the noise of the office lunch crowd that surrounded us, a low, smoky voice from the entryway caught my ear. Arafah Edruce, 35, whose stage name was ‘Arabyrd’ and a musician in her own right, peered over towards our table and though she was masked, her eyes were curved into crescent moons. Dressed in a camo-patterned jumpsuit and a pair of stylish squared sunglasses, Arafah apparently had another interview with TV3. Voicing my concern about the rush, she assures me, “It’s okay", and then turns to Nadia with a huge smile on her face.
“Hi babe!” she squeals.
I quieted as they had their moment. It was obvious that they missed each other, and with the semi-lockdown still in place, I understood the feeling of being separated from loved ones for far too long—especially when they’ve known each other since 2007. Nadia says, “This was two years before we started being DJs, and it was honestly just two years of pure, unadulterated fun. On the plus side, both of us shared a love for music.”
Arafah, who was nodding in agreement with her friend’s words, added that their first few ‘gigs’ were akin to “children performing for their families and friends at home. It was an adventure experimenting and trying out new sounds. We held parties at Nadia’s place, and she had this old-school CDJ (a digital music player that DJs use). We’re talking about the good ol’ days where you had to slip a disc in and mix it separately. And that was when the Twinkies came to be!”
Having been officially established in 2009, the duo set out to make their own mark in the deejay scene, and would bring their own props to amplify the fun for both themselves as well as their fellow party-goers. “Nadia’s dad—Tunku Naquiyuddin—was one of our first fans actually,” Arafah faux-whispers. Nadia laughs at her conspiratory tone, but it softens into a fond chuckle as she recalls her father’s support.
“Even if we live under the same roof, I don’t get to see him often because we each have our own busy schedules,” Nadia shares. “And while he may not know much about what we do, he shows great interest in our work. Like whenever I’d get gigs, he’d say, ‘That’s marvellous Nadia! Now tell me more about them.’”
Twisting the rings on her fingers with a faraway look in her eye, she continues: “Which is something I really cherish, you know? The fact that he wants to know what I do and wants to be involved… I’m grateful for that.”
According to the ladies, he was one of their first fans, and would often be the first to listen to the Twinkies’ playlist. “When we used to play at her old place, he would pop by and say ‘What are you guys up to?’” Arafah reveals.
“He was essentially our test subject, so to speak,” muses Nadia. “We’d ask him questions like if it was ‘entertaining’ enough, and he’d go—” she starts bopping her head wildly in an effort to imitate her father’s reaction towards their music. They described him to be an ardent supporter; whenever he attended their events, the Negeri Sembilan royal would gesture towards the two DJs and exclaim: “See? That’s my daughter playing up there!”
For Arafah, whose parents live in a separate city, the opportunity to simply sit down and catch up with them was a rare indulgence for the Sarawak-born. “Despite the distance and not being able to talk about our day-to-day, whenever it comes to giving me the confidence boost I need, my parents are always there to make sure that I’m at the top of my game,” she shares. “They remind me that I don’t need to mould myself into certain expectations, and they always tell me that I should just be myself.
“Like, when I come home and I feel anxious about what I should wear, my mom would look me in the eye and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?! You can put on anything and still look good.’”
Though confidence is an attribute the Twinkies have in spades when it comes to their work, Arafah stresses that respect is key to staying relevant in today’s music industry. “My dad always tells me that it doesn’t matter who you speak to, because respect is number one. And that advice helped me when I first started out as a musician at 18 years old. I was like a baby in comparison to all these abangs (which is Malay for ‘big brothers’).
“But now, the tables have shifted, and I’m considered a dinosaur in the hip hop industry!” she bemoans. “So how I survived this long was not only by respecting my elders, but also by listening to the opinions of younger artists as well. Because if you don’t take their opinions into consideration, you’re just going to end up being passé, don’t you think so?”
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Eventually, we broached the subject of staying relevant in a rapidly digitising industry that caters to the ever-shifting taste of the masses. Although both Nadia and Arafah agree that technology has improved their equipment and made accessibility a breeze—what with social media as well as digital platforms making it easier for artists to share their work online—it came hand-in-hand with a reality led by numbers. “From a performer’s point of view, particularly when it comes to bookings, it’s sad to see people book DJs based on the amount of followers or likes they have,” Arafah explains, frustration audible in her tone.
“It’s an issue that many creatives are facing now,” Nadia agrees. “Like, it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how long you’ve been doing it. It eventually boils down to the numbers that are on your profile.
“Then, (clients) tell you to play certain genres just because it’s mainstream. I have friends who complain about that, because as artists, they have their own direction and style, so having to play sounds that don’t represent them… it wears down their enthusiasm. And I myself feel that way too sometimes. So I tell them that ‘I know it’s not you but you still gotta do it.’ Because it is what it is.
“What people don’t know about being a DJ, or being an artist for that matter, is that there’s this ‘guideline’ on social media that you need to follow to get noticed. And you won’t realise it until you actually see people going, ‘oh, so people like this. Okay, I’m going to mould myself into that image to fit in and stay relevant.’”
With every step forward, there are instances of two steps being taken backwards. For performers like the Twinkies, the root of the problem didn’t just lie with being reduced to just a number, but it also lay within the mindset of a public dependent on that very system. “I’ll be frank,” Arafah says suddenly. “It’s the gatekeepers (of the industry) that are unwilling to expand or experiment. They’d rather play it safe, but that just means they’re underestimating the intelligence of Malaysian listeners.
“Nadia and I grew up with wholly different lives. I’m from Kuching and have lived there my whole life, whereas Nadia grew up in KL and went abroad. So if we both can understand music on a similar wavelength, then that means everyone else can. The obstacle here is this incessant filtration, like what’s allowed and what’s not.”
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That’s not to say it’s all gloom and doom though. The two immediately began clamouring for attention when I requested the most significant memory they had of one another. Nadia raised her hand excitedly, “Oh! I have one! I have one!”
“It was one of our gigs on It’s The Ship!” she began, steadfastly ignoring Arafah’s embarrassed groan. “Our decks were placed right in front of the pool, and while we were in the middle of our set, Ara was telling me that she wanted to hype up the crowd. When I looked up after a long while, she was standing on the console itself, hyping the crowd up.”
At this point, Arafah had covered her face with her hands, but Nadia was clearly on a roll. “And I’m pretty sure you can guess what happens next: she gets pushed into a pool by some random person that came onstage. So she starts shouting at me, soaking wet, ‘Why did you do that Nadia?!’ and I was like, not my problem!” she shrugs nonchalantly as she reenacted her reaction at the time. “I still have footage of that gig actually, so I forward that to Ara whenever I feel like she needs a reminder.”
However, at the mention of their past performances, a sudden somberness settled over the two. “We’ve talked about the idea of going virtual but it just doesn’t have the same effect,” Arafah admits. “Are you doing it so that people won’t forget your music? Or if you’re like us, who based our careers on performing and deejaying… there’s always going to be the question on whether or not if it’d work out.”
Nadia gives a sympathetic hum. “During the MCO, I’ve even asked myself once if I’d needed to work a nine-to-five job,” a wry grin appears on her face at that. “But I love music too much.”
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- Photography Eric Chow
- Styling Aizat Adid