The music of Malaysia is uniquely diverse in South-East Asia, having absorbed the influences of the country's cultural and colonial past as a major stop on the east to west trade route. The population is a composite of Malay natives and people of Chinese, Indian and European stock, the substantial minorities adding a spicy Asian flavour and western sophistication to the music of the indigenous Malays.
It's a remarkable trait of the resultant output that artists manage to maintain their individual cultural characteristics within an identifiable sophisticated roots-pop framework. Who better to make sense all this than the estimable head of Far Side Music and compiler of Asian CDs par excellence, Paul Fisher? He manages to successfully strike a balance between the sumptuous appeal of Indian-influenced ghazals and ballads, the infectious Malay pop firmly rooted in traditional dance styles such as masri and asli, and the Islamic-influenced music that utilises oud, marwa drum, accordeon, violin and flute.
A feature of the collection is the number of exceptional female singers. I wonder how many hearts Liza Hanim’s sensual blanket of a voice has broken since she won a singing competition as a teenager? Her sultry ballad has a subtle Middle-Eastern lilt, and is a cover of song by Malaysia’s most famous singer, P. Ramlee. He also wrote Berkorban Apa Saja, which is performed with understated charm by accordeonist S. Atan.
Noraniza Idris, another star of Malaysian pop, has a magpie-like tendency to wrap her sweet voice around a variety of local traditions on her albums. Here she appears on a swaggering oriental gem called Yo Allah Saidi, as irresistibly rhythmic as Kumpulan Ahmad Yusoh and Rakan-Rakan's Burung Burung Ayam is soulful, with its zapin rhythm that resembles the taarab music of Zanzibar.
These are just a few examples of a rich and mature mix of songs, at once natural and refined, and never anything other than fascinatingly accessible. It looks like those Rough Guide people have just opened another new musical door. It's going to be difficult to resist taking a peek.