HE may spend half a year performing around the United States, but Hameer Zawawi never forgets his land of origin, Terengganu.
The 28-year-old singer, songwriter and musician has just come up with a music video for his single Deaf Ears, and it features his state’s heritage, wayang kulit.
“Deaf Ears is a song about being a non-conformist, and celebrating one’s individuality. It’s from my latest EP Plug Out The Machines which was released two years ago, and the video features a shadow puppet love story,” he said in a recent interview.
Elaborating on the story, he said that the hero puppet falls in love with a princess puppet, who happens to be the Tok Dalang’s (puppet master) love interest.
“They face lots of challenges, not only from the puppeteer but also other puppet creatures, before they can live happily ever after,” he said, adding that the video utilised four original puppets from 1970s Kelantan.
“They belong to a real Tok Dalang, a friend of my father. I filmed the video over two days in Rawang last March.
STRINGING IT TOGETHER
“Two close friends of mine helped out in the video — Jes Ebrahim did a great job manipulating the puppets while Mohamad Danial, a videographer, was the director.”
Hameer calls his music “theatrical folk” because his performances resemble theatre shows. “Theatre, such as wayang kulit is truly Malaysian, and I like to incorporate it into performances,” he said.
Hameer’s love of culture is the result of his family background. His father is musician Dr Wan Zawawi Ibrahim, who is also a cultural anthropologist, while his elder brother Rendra is a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles.
“My father introduced me to traditional music when I was a pre-teen. I literally grew up with music, that of my father and brother.
“In addition, evergreen singers who are my father’s friends used to visit us, especially Datuk Khadijah Ibrahim and Datuk Ramli Sarip. They found time to chat with me, and along the way, I realised that I wanted to make music,” said Hameer.
FEEL FOR TRAVEL
His parents gave him full support, but insisted that he complete his studies first.
“I did a video programming diploma at Asia Pacific University in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, graduating in 2012. It’s not related to music, but came in handy when I had to produce my own videos,” he said.
Hameer chose to perform overseas because of his “wanderlust”. “It’s in my blood, Terengganu people were sailors long ago,” he said.
“I also wanted to follow my brother’s footsteps. He studied music in Berklee College of Music, the United States, and chose to make the US his base.”
While Hameer initially felt homesick, leaving Malaysia was a “leap of faith” that helped his career and boosted his confidence.
“I think Malaysia has a great music scene, but if you really want to grow, you have to venture out,” he said.
Nevertheless, Hameer spent four years performing around Malaysia, for festivals such as the Penang Island Jazz Festival (2013), Urbanscapes (2013 and 2014), the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival (2016), and the Johor Baru Arts Festival (2016).
SHOW OF TALENT
Hameer’s journey overseas started after he released his debut solo album National Fantasy in January 2016.
“I spent most of that year performing in KL, but by the end of the year, things were slowing down so I decided to venture out for a change,” he said.
With the help of a friend in Germany, Hameer performed in a few shows there, but things did not turn out as planned.
“When I flew to Germany in March 2017, I found out that the shows had been cancelled. That’s when I decided to take things into my own hands instead of relying on someone else,” he said.
Resourceful Hameer made calls and sent out emails requesting for shows.
“I tried to get as many shows as I could while I was there, going for open mic events.
“The day I arrived, I got my first feature show. I got two shows the week after and I was hitting any show I could go to,” he said.
Germany was very receptive to Hameer’s music during his month-long stay there.
“I performed in the German cities of Cologne, Berlin and Leipzig and this led to shows in London, Brighton and Glasgow in the United Kingdom.
“After that, I went to Los Angeles to visit my brother, and there, I did the same thing.
“I had five shows in Los Angeles, and at the House Of Blues in Anaheim right next to Disneyland.
“From there, I went to New York, where someone I met in the UK helped me get a show,” he recalled.
In New York things “happened quickly” for Hameer. Among others he performed at Rockwood Music Hall.
“I joined an open mic competition there, which I won. I got a call from the organisers, Recording Artistes Development (RAD), inviting me to join its two-month recording workshop.”
During the workshop, he recorded a three-song EP Plug Out The Machines and decided to stay on in New York to start a band.
“The songs that I recorded were Plug Out The Machines, Heart’s Gold and Deaf Ears, and all of them were about pursuing passion and staying true to yourself.”
Hameer forged a partnership with three talented Americans whom he met at the open mic — drummer Alex Johnson, bassist Jude Thomas and guitarist Emile Domise.
From August to December, they had a tour of New York and Boston, promoting the EP.
“When I came home and I showed my family videos of us performing, they suggested that I bring the guys over to do a few shows.
“We all had a great time entertaining fans in KL, PJ, Iskandar Puteri, George Town and Kuching.”
Hameer’s band was joined by French cellist Florian Antier, best known for accompanying Search in its hit Fantasia Bulan Madu.
“It was Florian who gave me the idea of incorporating wayang kulit in my music video.
“He excels in playing rebab tunes on his violin, and rebab is the key instrument of wayang kulit,” he said.
Hameer’s songs have been featured internationally. Plug Out The Machines became the theme song for American short film Birthday Girl directed by Raynald Leday.
Hameer, who recently toured Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Kampot in Cambodia for a week, will be back in the US on June 24 for the Governor’s Island Porch Stomp, a folk music festival in New York.
“Besides this, I’ll be touring Europe in August and September.”
Hameer has just been nominated for a Boh Cameronian Arts Award 2018, for Best Vocals In A Musical Production.
“It’s an ensemble effort, together with fellow singer-songwriters Foo Bihzhu, Froya (Michelle Lee) and Narmi (Imran Ishak) called Voices In Your Head. We sang that a cappella number last February 2017.”
Hameer hopes to join an independent artiste label in the US. “Having a strong, indie label is a must for budding artistes like me, for it helps me promote myself better in Europe, too,” he said.