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The number of instruments that Mohamed Raffee has mastered will put many to shame. And it is this seemingly obsessive streak that he has for instruments and trying out new things that feed his curiosity towards music, even at the age of 60. The multi-instrumentalist has a 100-year-old mandolin at home, a relic older than this country. He is currently planning concerts while stewing over his projects for the year: creating music for each of his mentees in Kalaa Utsavam’s mentorship programme and producing an instrumental album.
If you’re unfamiliar with his name, Mohamed Raffee is a powerhouse in the Indian music industry not just in Singapore but in India as well. A member of the Vasantham Boyz—which comprises his younger brothers, Bashir and Noor, and his friend Daniel—Raffee has released many albums, worked as producer and music arranger for others, and scored music for a bevy of films in Singapore and Bollywood, working with the likes of Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman and other big names such as Tracy Huang and K.S. Ravikumar.
Between performing and music arrangement, he prefers to work behind the scenes. Instruments and equipment are easier to understand and deal with than people, according to him. Raffee had been performing on radio and television since the age of 10 and had difficulty dealing with being recognised on the streets, even at school.
As a youth, he never thought of becoming a full-time musician. He was a track and field star in primary school and had thought he’d eventually become an athlete. Even so, as he was juggling between school activities, performing on television and helping his mother and uncle out at their prata shop near his home, he and his brothers were still learning new ways to play music. He recalls playing cassette tapes not for the purpose of enjoying music, but to analyse the way it was played.
When the ’70s rolled in, rock and disco became a staple at many clubs in Singapore. But it was funk and Motown that really got to him. At home, his father was playing records of Indian film and traditional music, show tunes and American classics. With his brothers, they were delving into the songs of Earth, Wind and Fire as well as Kool & The Gang while playing the Bee Gees at hotels and functions. Their tastes grew to include jazz, Latin, Chinese and Malay music. But their father reminded them not to abandon their Indian roots.
Raffee’s parents’ love story can rival a romantic film. Dad was a bandleader and singer who came to Singapore in his teens by boat. Mum came from a well-to-do family who opposed their relationship. Despite the odds, they found a way to be together. Perhaps it is the same perseverance and passion that runs in his blood.
When it comes to his work, Raffee does not bother too much about what others think. Not the time when Vasantham Boyz decided to meld Indian music with western styles, which wasn’t well received in the beginning. Not the time when he packed his things and went to India at the age of 21 to start his career over, despite not being proficient at Tamil. It was, after all, because of all this that Raffee got the attention of A.R. Rahman, with whom he has worked for over a decade and has remained good friends.
“Today, the younger bands are playing what we were playing back in the ’80s,” notes the musician. He adds that the creative energy he senses in the current scene, especially during COVID, reminds him of the ’70s when the musicians were talented and had a gung-ho attitude.
The trick is to be open to all kinds of music, keep up with the times, and never give up, says the musician. Above all, it’s about just doing it. There is an air of wisdom about him that comes from his years of going against the grain. His next desire is to find the true Singapore sound, something that has eluded him for years.
Mohamed Raffee is featured in Generation M: The Music Made Us, an exhibition on display at library@esplanade from 15 Apr to 6 Jun 2021.
Lim Liting is a worker bee, house elf, freelance content producer and curator of Generation M: The Music Made Us.
Cover image by Melvin Wong.
Jaalamay from Breakthro (1993);
Kurupayee from Karupayee (1994);
Sogham from Karupayee (1994);
Joe Joe Muniady from Breakthro (1993);
Kanney Roja Poovilay M from Breakthro (1993)
By Mohamed Raffee
Six music personalities from Singapore share the highs and lows of music-making.