THE rain poured endlessly that night in Kuala Lumpur as the crowd slowly filled the newly furbished Auditorium Perdana in Angkasapuri.
It was Radio Televisyen Malaysia’s turn to pay tribute to one of their celebrated sons, Penang-born Datuk Ooi Eow Jin, who was synonymous with one of the country’s most famous orchestras, Orkestra RTM.
The state broadcaster has dedicated the Lagu Untukmu concert to the life and times of Ooi, the 77-year-old musician-composer who helped launch the careers of many Malay artistes, but is now jobless and has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease since June.
There was a hushed silence as a frail-looking Ooi, wearing a tuxedo, was ushered to the front row with the help of his wife, Elaine, and an RTM staff. The predominantly Malay crowd then broke into applause.
For the next 90 minutes, the 30-piece RTM orchestra played 14 of his best songs (the concert will be aired on RTM on New Year’s day).
The performance included Lagu Untukmu, Serunai Perindu, Kisah Gadis Sepi and Terkenang dan Masa Berlalu, the latter sung by Salamiah Hassan.
A gifted pianist, Ooi played an instrumental role in the late Datuk Sudirman Arshad’s career by composing Teriring Doa, which helped the singer win the Bintang RTM song contest and launch him to stardom.
Among the singers that performed that night was Datuk Dahlan Zainuddin. He described Ooi, who had also helped launch his career, as a musical genius.
“I owe a lot to him. I admire him because I seldom meet people like him, a Chinese, but can compose good Malay songs.”
That was the underlying theme that night; Malaysian unity at its best. Composer Datuk Ahmad Nawab and former RTM musical director Datuk Dr Johari Salleh also raised the subject during the show.
“He is someone who is berjiwa Melayu,” said Ahmad Nawab, a fellow Penangite.
Johari described Ooi as an “extraordinary” man.
Famous pianist Richard Hoon also performed that night, while Johari was a guest conductor.
Although his music was appreciated by many, Ooi is a low-profile and an unassuming musician.
And now, because he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, he is out of work and living in a rented house in SS2, Petaling Jaya, with Elaine and their son Raymond, who survived a brain tumour operation.
Their second child, Ronnie, succumbed to leukaemia during his youth.
He had most recently been a pianist at the Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur for five years, occasionally performing with his old friends, The Solianos.
“These are the sad things in my life that I put away by playing music. Playing songs is my way of storing unpleasant memories,” Ooi told this newspaper recently.
He has no regrets making music his career.
“I’ve always wanted to be a musician, and I’m thankful to Jimmy Boyle and Alfonso Soliano, who invited me to join the RTM Orchestra when I was 24.”
Ooi also composed, arranged and played music for Tan Sri P. Ramlee, Datin Rafeah Buang, Datuk M. Nasir and the Alleycats, among others.
After 1986, he played for TV3 for 13 years, and was a lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Mara and International College of Music.
Ooi recently received his Datukship from the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Penang Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas.
The RTM concert raised RM40,000 through the efforts of Karyawan president, Datuk Freddie Fernandez.
The writer is NSTP group managing editor