We Got Machas To Write A Chinese New Year Song. Here's What Went Down

Sure, why not?

Local english music exists on the fringes of pop culture in Malaysia. We don't have major festivals touting Malaysian english acts nor do local talents headline concerts overseas, unless you're Yuna – a single example in nearly a century of music-making in Malaysia.  

Knowing all of this, you might think that local English music is doomed. Well, our collaborators, Keep It Local, don't think so. They believe in the local music scene and are trying to keep local music alive. And we were happy to help them. 

Jude, the co-founder of KIL puts it this way:

If we don't support it (the local music scene) by providing a platform for upcoming talents then nobody else will. We want to build a strong platform to cater to the future and the next generation of talents. The aim is to support the growth of our local entertainment scene; we have plenty of good talents here and whe we consisntently develop new, young talents, we could potentially put our local scene on the map. 

So, how did Rojak Daily and a group of machas get together to make a Chinese New Year music video? Timing, mostly. 

The first official discussion when CNY song turned into CNY Musical

We had the means to shoot videos, and KIL had the talent to make something worth shooting. Jude, the co-founder of KIL, introduced us to the boys from Music Kitchen, Sid and Prem. The musical duo were the composers on our project and were responsible for coming up with the sound that would eventually be known as the Chinese New Year: The Musical

To start with, we compiled everything that was wrong with CNY music videos: the dozens of people in a field swaying left to right, the giving of ang paus at the end, the god of fortune, everything. Then we tried to figure out what would make our video different: machas. 

Machas alone won't necessarily make for a good video of course, but it was a good start. We then decided we needed a story, a hook, to get people to watch it. We ended with 'Machas try to come up with a Chinese New Year Song with a help of some friends'. We then identified three characters: a si-fu who will teach the basics of a CNY video and what to avoid, the disciple who will provide a verse, and one secret weapon. Here's who KIL found:

(L-R) Beeman, Ashtin, and Wo Shi Jay, the trio who provided the lyrics, standing in order of appearance

Si-fu, disciple, and secret weapon; Beeman, Ashtin, and Wo Shi Jay. Another KIL talent, Cody "Coex" Foo, a beatboxer, would provide the beats for the first verse with Beeman and act as another 'mentor'. Now that we had a structure, it was time for Sid and Prem to compose. Prem puts it like this, "When we were about to start composition, Sid came across this sample. He thought it would be a good idea to use it as the leading melody for the track. Everything glued in from the melody. When it came to the second part, I played Chinese instruments. They weren't real instruments, we just programmed it into the keyboard. The only thing that wasn't on our side was the timeline. It was kind of short, but I think we managed to pull it off." 

Like we said, timing. As in they only had two weeks to write and record the song, and we had two weeks to plan the shoot and execute. Discussions started in January; recording started two weeks after; we shot the scenes one week before Chinese New Year, and the video came out two days before CNY. 

Sixteen Bars 

"I was pretty skeptical about this project to be honest," Ashtin reveals. "It was harder for me because I'm a Chindian but the only thing chinese about me is my blood! My mom was adopted by Indians and I never really met my mom's real side of the family. I sat down with the boys in the studio and did a little research on what to write about. After a good two hours – boom, I managed to craft my 16 bars.

Beeman and Jay who rapped in Cantonese and Mandarin respectively didn't share this sentiment. Jay in particular said, "It was my first time writing about Chinese New Year... It was quite easy." In case you were wondering, Wo Shi Jay was born Ponmugilan @ Jayram (yes, he has an alias in his name) and attended Chinese school from kindergarten to primary six. He even took Mandarin as an additional subject in secondary school until he was in Form 3. Also yes, he's Indian through and through. 

Location, location, location 

Sid, Prem, and Ashvin in the studio

In trying to avoid all Chinese New Year cliches, we somehow managed to fit quite a lot in. We shot in a park, we had yee sang, a yam seng scene, ang paus, and even oranges. We dressed everyone in red and had a group Gong Xi scene. We shot in Taman Jaya guerilla style. For those of you who thought we had a bottomless budget, well, we don't. No money for location scouts here. 

Our videographers framing the first scene with Music Kitchen

Pro tip: always, always apply for permits when you're doing shoots. You don't want to have a day's schedule planned out only for it to be cut drastically short by an MBPJ officer on a motorbike. Not that this happened to us, no way. Also, try not to cram three group scenes, and three individual scenes on the same day if you've only got two hours of decent light in the morning. Again, we totally didn't do it like this. 

Ashtin in his element. Fun fact: Only two cans of Shandy was finished that day

The final group scene with all the performers was shot in a quiet corner far away from joggers but if you look closely at the video you can still see plenty of 'strays' jogging across the frame. We shot Wo Shi Jay walking into the frame and his verse in one continuous take. This was also the point where a certain district officer rode in on a motorcycle to say hello. 

Music Kitchen
Music Kitchen's Prem and Sid
Beeman and Cody
Chinese New Year 101 with Beeman and Cody

The first scene in the video was actually shot on day two. The location was graciously provided to us by the people at Able Learner Center. The challenge here was attempting to  film a verse that lasted maybe 30 seconds and to do it well. We actually referenced this video from the early days of YouTube. To all the 'Nice Guys' who know about that video, give us a shout in the comments. 

We had planned many more inserts within this scene but we couldn't fit enough scenes in to catch up with Beeman's rhymes. Also, Ashtin doesn't understand Cantonese. If you were going to nitpick, you'll realise that he's being schooled in a language he doesn't understand. Also, Sid and Prem don't speak Cantonese either. 

Despite that, the production went on without a hitch. Despite not knowing a single word of Cantonese, the boys had tremendous fun with the video shoot. Or, at least we think they did.

Note to self: must learn Cantonese or Mandarin by next year. Who knows we might shoot another Chinese New Year video.

Thank You

To everyone who regularly frequents open mic nights and gigs in Malaysia, we thank you. The local music scene isn't always glamorous, but it is rewarding. We cheer for our athletes during international competitions and support local contestants on reality shows so why can't we show the same love for the music scene? 

If you don't know where to begin, find out about local bars or cafes near you who host open mic nights. The Bee, Merdekarya, and No Black Tie are some of the more vocal advocates in this area. Festivals like Riuh consistently feature local acts and festivals like it are abundant every year. 

The making of this music video has been an eye-opening journey for us. We realised that local musicians are one of the hardest working people in the entertainment industry and one of the most talented. To come up with a song in two weeks is not easy and recording and remastering everything in the next two is also close to impossible. 

Our thanks once again to Keep It Local, Music Kitchen, Ashtin, Cody, Beeman, and Jay for their contribution to the project. Let us know if this was a complete waste of time or if you think we should continue to do more music projects. If you're a musician, please write to us and tell us why we should work together. We'll try our hardest to make it worth your while.