14 April – Remembering Sudirman and the glory of Chow Kit Road (1986)

14 April – Remembering Sudirman and the glory of Chow Kit Road (1986)

Reliving the late-singer’s momentous public concert etched in Malaysian entertainment history thirty-six years since and the mark it has left behind for fans and KL

EITHER through intensity or energy, there is always one epic landmark moment that we cherish intensely, etched in the history of our nation. For the unforgettable 1986 Chow Kit Road mega concert held by the late singer Datuk Sudirman Arshad, the idea to perform for the public for free came about spontaneously.

Those familiar with the affair must already know about the magnitude of this literal street event, which reportedly had 100,000 committed fans from all over the country attending.

The enthusiasm shown by supporters of the darling performer impressed the production team, including Sudirman himself.

Having to command an audience at that scale at one of the bustling public spaces in Kuala Lumpur, stretching from the tip of Chow Kit up to Pertama Complex, allowed the singer to gain his status as the ‘King of (Malaysian) Concerts’.

“Sudirman was very nervous at the thought that people were not going to show up,” shared Dani’el Dharanee Kannan, who was the late entertainer’s manager at one time.

Dan’iel, or Dan for short, was the sound engineer and one of Sudirman’s top production personnel when the concert took place. He worked directly with the late Mike Bernie Chin who was Sudirman’s first manager.

“The most that we had expected for the crowd turnout was 2,000 people at most, so we were truly enthralled when the concert ended,” expressed Dan.

“Sudirman had always been performing for private shows, mostly at exclusive venues such as Paddock Supper Club and Lounge (KL’s height of class and prestige), but he knew that 70-80% of his most loyal supporters were mostly those from the general population that came from outside of such a scene.

“At the time, he [Sudirman] acknowledged he never properly hosted a public show as frequently as he should and the event at Chow Kit was one of his honest intentions to connect with his fans in a much honest and gratifying way,” he added.

“In hindsight, being part of the experience is very humbling because it is serendipity as well as the result of a marvellous convergence of circumstances, having to pull off something of that kind especially in 1986.”

* On April 14 1986, Sudirman held his free mega concert at Jalan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur. The concert has successfully forged Sudirman’s name in the Malaysia Book Of Records. He managed to seduce and mesmerise nearly 100,000 townspeople flocking to flood the street with his prowess. The song he sang was Chow Kit Road and ended with the patriotic song Pertemuan Abadi as he wore the Malaysian Flag Shirt.

For the people, for Malaysians

“The idea behind the Chow Kit concert did not necessarily come about like a planned intention. In fact, it was a result of a casual conversation over supper at Suzi’s Corner along Jalan Ampang after one of Sudir’s (Sudirman) shows – myself, Mike (Mike Bernie) and Sudirman were present,” said Dan.

“I remember in that session, Sudirman asked Mike whether there would be any plans to shadow the 35th edition of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), in which the conference was held in the city that same year.

“He was already appointed as the representative for Tourism Malaysia, being a spokesperson and singer on behalf of the ministry for various engagements (locally and abroad) to promote the country.

“We all knew delegates were going to be in town, and the nation was going through a political change of leadership.

“While we were bantering Mike jokingly said, ‘What? Do you want to do a concert in Chow Kit?’, to which Sudir replied, ‘Yea, why not?’, and true to that, the rest of it is history,” he shared.

Mike being a true impresario, immediately called the appointed director general of Tourism Malaysia at the time, Datuk Abdullah Jonid, to talk about the possibilities and the DG was no less boggled at the idea.

“Throughout the whole process of gaining the approvals, going from one official to another, we knew we had to get the authorities to see eye-to-eye and make sure that they understand our objective well enough.

“One of the main concerns raised to realise the event were the efforts and risks when conducting a massive road closure, in which would entail the mayor of KL’s buy-in, a role held by the late Tan Sri Elyas Omar,” shared Dan of his experience.

According to the music business consultant, Sudirman was selling the idea profusely and that the concert was a dream not entirely for him but for his fans, and Malaysia.

“At one point, Zaman Khan even took out a primitive looking map detailing the road network. He went on and on talking about the difficulties in the logistics and complexities of traffic control because he would need to gather the whole traffic force, which Datuk Dell Akbar Khan was leading at the time, to accommodate this event alone.

“Sudirman practically begged his heart out to the former police chief, the late Tan Sri Zaman Khan, to gain the permission because he knew that police involvement was pivotal to control traffic to ensure the concert would run smoothly.

“Finally, Zaman said, ‘I’ll think about it’, and it was better than a no,” added Dan.

A mammoth effort

Public security was of course the main priority. Strict instructions were given to ensure the production crew was able to move within the timeframe that was allowed to set up, during which Sudirman’s team had only a six-hour window to get everything in order.

“You must understand, Chow Kit is not a concert hall or a stadium. Even a ballroom setup would require at least 4 hours to set up. “The road was about 60 ft wide, where the stage should at least be a 40×40 with 5ft height minimum so the audience can gain the best experience,” said Dan.

“Mind you, this was before we had the foresight of what an ideal concert experience is like based on today’s standards.

“Making sure everyone involved in the production was disciplined and quick at their game is crucial, and we truly had a great team of people working to make the concert possible,” he added.

Selvabalan Kuppusamy was in his late 20s when he attended the mega showcase of his favourite singer, Sudirman. “Coincidentally, I was working at a hotel chain situated not very far from the concert venue and could walk to access it.

“It was free of charge, and I took the time after my morning shift just so that I can watch him in person. I was alone and by the time I arrived there was already a large crowd.

“The opening act was spectacular. Nobody would have thought of it and for us (fans), it was pure excitement because when you start that kind of concert with that kind of energy, you can be sure that it carries until the end.”

Selvabalan, who is now 58, was recollecting the memory of the late singer’s grand entrance where he was lifted by a crane from the back of where the audience was to the front of the stage. It was a significant moment imprinted in the memory of everyone who was lucky enough to experience the concert.

“Sudirman symbolises what Malaysia is all about. When he performs, you don’t see race and the differences of what makes us a society. He was smart to understand his audience were multiracial in the sense that the songs he carries were varied to appeal to many speaking different languages,” said Selvabalan.

“Even though the concert lasted about 3 hours, I did not feel tired, and time just went past. I have not come across anyone that has that kind of energy and motivation to get everyone to listen to their songs even to this day.

“Sudirman was truly next to P. Ramlee, and to have witnessed the legend himself was priceless. Although the concert was free, he gave it all,” expressed the concertgoer.

Remembering Sudirman: The mark of a legend

According to his former manager, Sudirman has always been known to make grand entrances.

“He understood the fact that if you don’t get your audience right from the get-go, you would lose them, meaning as a singer/performer, you have up to two songs at the most to capture the attention.

“Sudir was a master at that, and it is why most of us eagerly anticipate his razmataz every single time he performs,” noted Dan.

Why the 1986 Chow Kit Road concert is still being talked about to this today is not just because of the location, but the significance that the location where it was held was considered as the ‘nadi’ (pulse) of the city. It entails the realness of what Kuala Lumpur, and its inhabitants were at that point in time.

While the concert itself had grandiose elements attached, the marketing was nothing but a one or two radio interview effort.

“There were no real posters or publicity stunt done prior, no posters or the likes. We didn’t even have time to create a solid plan just because we had to work within slightly over two months.

“Sudirman even funded 90% of the cost from his own pocket, with the help of two sponsors – Singer Malaysia and McDonalds – to cover the remaining. I am no finance expert, but I would think the cost would be about RM500,000 to host a concert of that size today,” shared Dan.

According to him, the persona of Sudirman had always gravitated towards being open to social issues, as well as political and economic dilemmas of the time.

“He was sensitive to those things, and it was not an image put on by him, it was birthed. He knew how and what he wanted to position himself as a ‘penghibur rakyat’,” he added.

Dan is currently working on a book to disclose key experiences of Sudirman’s momentous career, including detailing the events of the late singer’s milestones, challenges and aspirations before his untimely death, including the time he won ‘Best Asian Performer’ at the Salem Music Awards Festival and was the first Malaysian to ever perform at Royal Albert Hall in London, 1989.

source – The Vibes, April 14, 2022

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