Mohamed Raffee: Shy music champion despite being on local Indian radio, TV since he was 10

Frontman of Vasantham Boys Mohamed Raffee (above) has scored soundtracks for drama series on local TV channel Vasantham, Malaysian television as well as films made in India.
Frontman of Vasantham Boys Mohamed Raffee (above) has scored soundtracks for drama series on local TV channel Vasantham, Malaysian television as well as films made in India.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mohamed Raffee
Mohamed RaffeePHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mohamed Raffee in a 1978 photograph taken at Shangri-La Hotel
Mohamed Raffee in a 1978 photograph taken at Shangri-La HotelPHOTO COURTESY OF MOHAMED RAFFEE
Mohamed Raffee (above right) with his family in a 1977 photograph, (from left) younger brother Mohamed Bashir, father Syed Yakob, mother Hamidah Sulaiman and youngest brother Mohamed Noor
Mohamed Raffee (above right) with his family in a 1977 photograph, (from left) younger brother Mohamed Bashir, father Syed Yakob, mother Hamidah Sulaiman and youngest brother Mohamed NoorPHOTO COURTESY OF MOHAMED RAFFEE
 Raffee(left) with Oscar- winning composer A.R. Rahman in a 2003 photograph.
Raffee(left) with Oscar- winning composer A.R. Rahman in a 2003 photograph.PHOTO COURTESY OF MOHAMED RAFFEE
Raffee on the CD cover of Breakthro (1993)
Raffee on the CD cover of Breakthro (1993) PHOTO COURTESY OF MOHAMED RAFFEE

He has been on local Indian radio and television since he was 10, but Mohamed Raffee does not enjoy being in the limelight

Music runs in the family

Despite being one of the most accomplished names in the home- grown Indian entertainment scene, Mohamed Raffee shuns the spotlight as much as possible.

It is not an easy task as the 55- year-old - a singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and music director - has been a fixture on local Indian radio and television since he was 10.

His music, which spans various genres - from pop to ghazal (songs in Arabic verse form), Western classical to jazz - reaches out beyond Singapore to Malaysia and India, where he has worked closely with Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer A.R. Rahman.

Despite his fame, something he has lived with since his growing-up years in the 1970s as frontman of the band Vasantham Boys, Raffee tells Life he would much rather be in the background.

"When we were in secondary school, all the kids could recognise us, but I didn't like the fame," he says in a soft-spoken voice while flashing his trademark toothy smile. The other members of Vasantham Boys are his two equally talented younger brothers - Mohamed Bashir, now 52, and Mohamed Noor, 48 - and their friend, bassist Daniel Sitranen, 54.

There were always many musical instruments lying around and my brothers and I would pick them up and play with them.

MOHAMED RAFFEE on his growing-up years with his two brothers, Mohamed Bashir and Mohamed Noor, who also became prominent musicians. Their father was a bandleader

 

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Raffee says all three brothers are "very low key" and adds: "I don't speak much unless I have to give orders or do something. I don't like to go out or want to be known or seen."

Last month, Vasantham Boys reunited for the Sing50 concert organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times at the National Stadium. A showcase of the finest Singapore artists and songs of the last 50 years, their inclusion in the line-up was a testament to the group's significance in the home-grown music industry.

Not resting on his laurels, Raffee will this Friday direct the music at SG50 concert Vasantham Ponvizha Live. Organised by MediaCorp's Indian television station Vasantham and featuring more than 100 local singers and musicians, the three- hour show celebrates the history and evolution of Tamil television and radio. Raffee himself will sing a few songs on the show.

Vasantham means "spring" in Tamil and the name of Raffee's band bears no relationship to the TV station.

While the father of two adult sons has been playing music for as long as he can remember - his instruments include the guitar, mandolin and bongos - he became a full-time musician only at the age of 28.

After his A levels, the Raffles Institution alumnus took on day jobs in the civil service and banking. Performing with his band was reserved for the weekends and evenings.

The turning point came when he decided to step back from the spotlight and immerse himself in music composing, arranging and production. "When I stopped playing music part-time and became a professional, I hardly performed anywhere, I worked a lot in the studios."

This, of course, suited him fine, he says in an interview.

His aversion to fame notwithstanding, Dr Chitra Rajaram, MediaCorp's head of community segment (Indian & Malay), describes Raffee as "one of the local music icons who contributed widely to the growth of the local Indian music scene".

"He was one of the first few to release his original song compositions at a time when Indian movie songs were popular and hard to top, and yet his songs became hits. He was also one of the first few to put together a band to perform at events. His vast knowledge of music helped raise the bar for music variety programmes on television."

And while Raffee does not hold a staff position in MediaCorp, he plays an essential role in Vasantham's music programmes and projects as a freelancer. For one thing, he has helped the TV station groom new talents and has taken on the roles of both judge and mentor in the popular Vasantham Star singing competition, now in its fifth season.

In recent years, he has also started teaching music and mentoring at-risk youth through organisations such as the Singapore Indian Development Association.

When Vasantham organised the Vasantham Live concert at the Esplanade last year, it turned to Raffee to helm an orchestra as well as to direct the 40 singers, both veterans and newcomers, who sang at the show.

Dr Chitra says: "The show was a huge success. This year, Vasantham Live moves to a bigger venue and has taken the concert to the next level by putting together the biggest ever live orchestra for a live local Indian concert in Singapore."

Besides soundtracks for several drama series here and on Malaysian television, Raffee has also scored for local films and those made in India. These include the first full-length Tamil film produced entirely in Singapore, crime thriller Gurushetram - 24 Hours Of Anger (2010), and Kollywood action thriller Jaggubhai (2010), helmed by veteran Indian film director K.S. Ravikumar.

With Vasantham Boys, he has released four albums which span genres such as pop, funk and blues, including Breakthro (1993) and Karupayee (1994).

While he makes music in Tamil and Hindi, the irony is that Raffee himself is proficient in neither.

He speaks English and Malay. The former Cambridge Primary School pupil took Malay as a second language in school.

"I cannot read and write Tamil well although I can understand the language," he admits. Some of his music idols such as pioneering Singapore rocker Ramli Sarip and Malaysian pop band Alleycats sang in Malay and he was also into American R&B, jazz and funk artists such as George Benson and Kool & The Gang.

Hence, when he was based in Chennai and working in the eastern Indian city's music and film industry from 2004 to 2010, he conversed with his collaborators mostly in English.

His primary language, in any case, is music and it runs in his blood - both his parents were musically talented.

His late father Syed Yakob, who migrated to Singapore from India while he was in his teens to join family members here, played the accordion, harmonium and other instruments. He was also a bandleader who was well known in the local Indian music community.

In Singapore, he held a day job as a civil servant in the Housing & Development Board, but played Tamil and Hindi music in the evenings and on weekends at weddings and other events.

Raffee's late mother Hamidah Sulaiman, a housewife, was born here and gave the neighbourhood children lessons in reading the Quran. "She had a beautiful singing voice and would always sing in Tamil and Malay at home," he recalls. She was a huge fan of Malay entertainment icon P. Ramlee.

It was Mr Syed who taught his three sons to play instruments such as the mandolin, harmonium, guitar and percussions.

"I remember playing the bongos at four or five years old and had proper lessons on the mandolin at about nine," Raffee says, recalling his growing-up years in flats in Whampoa and Tasek Utara, near Farrer Park.

In 1970, at the age of 10, he had his first gig playing the mandolin on an Indian radio show on what was then Radio and Television of Singapore (RTS). Two years later, he and his siblings made their official debut as a group when Raffee on mandolin, a nine-year-old Bashir on bongos and a five-year-old Noor on tambourine performed for an Indian radio show on RTS.

Together with a rotating cast of other young musicians, they were initially billed as the Indian Youth Orchestra and changed their name to Vasantham Boys in 1978.

In the late 1980s, when more music work started pouring in, Raffee left his day job doing administration work in the banking sector to concentrate on music.

Besides producing, arranging or working as a session musician on recordings by a variety of acts, including Taiwanese singer Tracy Huang, he was also composing more, thanks to the growing demand on local Indian television for home-grown music.

In the early 1990s, he started travelling regularly to and from Chennai and Singapore for music projects. He worked with Indian industry stalwarts such as Rahman, who achieved international fame with his soundtrack to the acclaimed 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire. The two became good friends and Raffee would sometimes stay over at Rahman's house when he was in Chennai.

But unlike his brothers Bashir, who had based himself in Chennai much earlier, and Noor, who toured regularly with regional stars such as Jacky Cheung and A*mei, Raffee could do only short overseas trips. As the eldest, he was responsible for taking care of their ageing parents.

In 2004, he finally moved to Chennai, four years after their father died of cancer. It was not an easy decision, especially since his mother was also suffering from a stroke. But by then, Noor had returned to Singapore to take over caring for their mother. She died earlier this year after a triple stroke.

Raffee's wife from his second marriage in 2003, Ms Maheswari Rani, a lawyer who also sang semi-professionally, left her job to live with him in the Indian city.

In 2010, he returned to Singapore to take care of his ailing mother and to let his wife resume her legal career. "She has always been very supportive of my musical career, but I wanted her to revive her own career in law before she loses touch."

She now runs her own practice, Ramana Law Corporation. The couple live simply and are renting a three-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio.

His two sons, aged 28 and 25, from his first marriage which lasted from 1985 to 2000, are living with their mother. Both inherited his love for music although they are not musicians. The older one works in the graphic design industry while the younger son works in finance.

Raffee himself still has a lot of new music in him and intends to work on music projects in India and Singapore.

"I'd like to leave behind a legacy of my music. And I hope to pass on whatever I've learnt to the next generation and instil in it the love for music and new ideas."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Shy music champ'. Print Edition | Subscribe