I had the time to go off and find a desert of ice cream to cool off my burning mouth from the street food I’d just eaten next to the Actors Jam Bar, and then I decided to make my way back up the street to have a whiskey and check out the music in this bar. I walk into the place, and I find a bass player and lead player/singer, onstage, playing beautiful jazz with a light touch, and the lead player, a man in his 60s, greets me, right in the middle of the song. Cool!
I take a seat in front of the stage, and bit by bit my attention is taken deeper into this man’s music, his deft touch on the guitar, the great rhythm between him and the bass player, and finally, most surprisingly, the sudden appearance of his voice. I am not a big fan of deep, worn, whiskey-washed voices – even less interested in such voices that sing blues in bars all over the world and on Tom Waits records. (I love Waits, but mostly the early stuff.) But here I found something I’ve never really seen before: This whiskey washed voice of the man I was to learn is named Ernesto Valerio, a Singaporean musician who has played in bars in the city-state for 51 years, may have its limitations, but his feeling and his ability to temper the voice in all sorts of different keys and needs and sounds, just won me over entirely.
From a soft, pseudo high pitch to its more natural lower zone, the voice expressed an inner love of music that is rare. And his guitar playing, the beautiful fingerpicking and lead stuff and wide spread of jazz and pop and other modes – even Chinese, I learned later – just made him the consummate guitarist. And he is also a showman. I had to speak to the guy afterwards. That’s where I found out that Ernesto has been playing in Singapore for 51 years, and that he is now 67 years old.
“I still just love it,” he said of playing music in front of audiences.
That was clear. And the audience loves it too.
But it was in returning back to the hotel that the story broadened. I just had to do a little search on Ernesto Valerio, now that I had his name. That led me to seeing that he is a well-known local performer, indeed, who has rubbed shoulders with the best of them here, and who has had a nice spread of media attention, who is often called “the Dean Martin of Singapore.” He used to play in a group in the early 60s, but soon went solo because he just didn’t like having to deal with other musicians. (His duet with the bass player is remarkably full sounding, by the way.)
The Malaysian, Paul Ponnudorai, master-studend, student-disciple connection
As I read on, I saw a connection between Ernesto and a guitarist I had met in March of 2012 in Kuala Lumpur: Paul Ponnudorai. I had met this guy Paul, briefly, at a bar venue in Kuala Lumpur where I had played. Paul, I did not know at the time, was an internationally respected guitarist who had played with people like Billy Cobham, Tuck & Patti, and Wynton Marsalis and many others. I had been introduced to Paul after I played a set at Rockafellas and I had no idea what a great guitarist this guy was, and how basic my guitar playing must have looked to him by comparison. But he was a cool, simple, unassuming man. It turned out that Paul Ponnudorai, at 51, had only a few months to live, as he died in the summer of organ failure, and that was the end of a man they called Malaysia’s greatest guitarist, and sometimes, even the world’s greatest….
The point of this, is that Paul Ponnudorai had at first been trained by this man Ernesto. Some say Ernesto then later became a disciple of Paul! But why I mention all of this on this blog, is because all these links coming together, these meetings with remarkable musicians in KL and Singapore (located on the Malaysian peninsula) have helped me draw a picture in my mind of a fabulously thriving musical scene in this part of the world that only the lack of an adequate publicity machine keeps secret from the rest of the world.
The Malaysia/Singapore musical world is closely tied, and fabulously populated by guitarists, bassists (Andy Peterson) and an a fabulous collection of beautiful vocalists. Looking forward to learning more over the next few days….