Bon for the Ages: Pop Yeh Yeh & the ’60s

Posted by on Sep 15, 2017 in Campaigns | No Comments

For Mr Basiron Bon, the 1960s was defined as a time of kampung spirit, Sunday dancing and ‘Pop Yeh Yeh’ – the Malay pop music sensation he was part of that made waves in Singapore.

Ask 77-year-old Mr Basiron Bon about what he remembers of his youth, and he would point out two things: feel-good songs and love in the air.

“Very beautiful years, the 1960s,” said the 77-year-old wistfully. “We enjoyed ourselves, those days.”

Those were also friendlier, kinder days, he added. After Mr Bon and his two sisters lost their Malay mother and Javanese father during the Japanese Occupation, they were single-handedly raised by their grandmother, along with 11 other children.

When Mr Lim, a neighbour, saw how tough it was for Mr Bon’s grandmother, he offered to help take care of Mr Bon instead. Mr Lim taught him to be humble, positive, and friendly, recalled Mr Bon.

Mr Basiron Bon was an organiser and a manager of a band in the Malay music industry. Image source: National Library Board

Despite the hardships of the postwar years – with only rice for meals, “no chicken, nothing,” according to Mr Bon – kampung life was warm and enjoyable. Neighbours gathered to celebrate festive occasions; wedding presents were not in the form of cold hard cash, but in kind – rice, coconuts, chickens, “whatever you had,” said Mr Bon.

She Loves You, Yeh Yeh

Mr Bon was in his 20s during the years of Konfrontasi, when Indonesia declared armed conflict against Singapore and Malaysia. Those days, no Indonesian songs were played on air – and there were no jobs either. It was during that time that he joined another community: the homegrown Malay music movement known as Pop Yeh Yeh, a name derived from the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ refrains of 60’s British pop sensation, The Beatles.

“Everybody had nothing to do,” he quipped, “So they played music.”

Despite not knowing sheet music, the local ‘band boys’ in their late teens or early 20s would compose original songs solely by ear. This was a far cry from the previous generation of the Malay music scene, which Mr Bon said comprised of ‘old men, old songs’.

The Beatles’ love songs also resonated with young people, and local bands took a leaf from that book. “What do girls like? They like you to mention their names. For example, if I know a girl called Fatimah, I’d write the lyrics like ‘Oh Fatimah’,” said Mr Bon, naming his favourite tune.

I Want To Hold Your Hand

While Mr Bon was not a musician, he contributed to the scene as an organiser, bringing bands to recording studios and helping them find gigs at clubs, weddings, and even at larger venues like the National Theatre. There were less than 10 organisers in those days, he estimated. He also brought further value by providing instruments for hire, charging a princely sum of $20 for three guitars, an organ and a drumset. Back in the day, he would frequent a popular location in Balestier that bands practiced at on Sundays, and would offer his services if he heard one he liked.

During that time, the Utusan Melayu was the only Malay-language paper in Singapore, and being featured in it was a big deal. Mr Bon was instrumental in helping some bands get coverage in those precious pages. “When the press comes in [to] take photographs, you really enjoy it. When you see your face in the paper – woo yeah! One paper would [be distributed around] the whole kampong! You get satisfaction from trying to help those bands.”

He even dabbled as a band manager, and was in charge of a band, Les Kafila’s. They made it big with television and film appearances, and after three or four years, he parted ways with them when they chose to go at it alone.

Mr Bon was a manager of a band called Les Kafila’s. Image source: Mr Basiron Bon

For most young bands, landing a gig was exciting enough. “The money’s not much. They just want to perform,” Mr Bon said. Though a band would only receive $30 for a night’s performance back then, that amount could go far. As he pointed out, “Last time, with $5, I can bring my girl out. A cinema ticket [only] cost 50 cents.”

Group dates were common in those days, particularly the Sunday morning dances that Mr Bon also organised. He would hire an empty hall at venues such as the Odeon Cinema in Bras Basah, sold tickets to couples, and hired bands to perform. Popular dances included the twist, the cha-cha and a-go-go, but there were no slow dances or handholding. “We dare not hold a girl’s hand,” he laughed. “And slow dances were for old men – above 30!”

After evening performances, Mr Bon and the band members would eat in a carpark near Jalan Sultan that were filled with food stalls, which they affectionately called ‘Geylang Square’, after London’s Trafalgar Square. For him, that sense of camaraderie defined those years.

With a Little Help from My Friends

At the height of Pop Yeh Yeh in the mid-1960s, artistes from Indonesia and Malaysia came to Singapore to record. But by the end of the decade, Pop Yeh Yeh mania started to recede.

“By 1972, [it was] already very quiet,” recalled Mr Bon. Most bands had gone to Malaysia instead.

But there were beautiful moments yet. In fact, 1972 was the best time of his life, he recalled.

There was a “great singer” whom he was trying to get to perform at the National Theatre. She was “very very difficult to get, very expensive”. After he succeeded, his phone at home rang non-stop, with everyone wanting to know how he had done it. (The singer was his close friend.)

“The whole year, people were talking about me,” he recalled proudly. The singer? “Anita Sarawak!” – one of Singapore’s most iconic singers.

Mr Bon shaking hands with iconic singer Anita Sarawak. Image source: Mr Basiron Bon

But more than fame and fortune, Mr Bon said that it was the friendships he made during the period that matters most to him now.

“I enjoyed the life. I don’t think I would have wanted to become a millionaire or be popular. No, no, I wanted to do [what I did] because I could,” said Mr Bon.

“I am happy because I made a lot of friends. That is most important – [having] a lot of good friends.”

Written by: Joey Lim

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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