Jimmy Boyle, a forgotten Malaysian composer


MENTION the name of Jimmy Boyle to music lovers of my generation and it rings like a bell from an accomplished jazz composer and pianist.

Next, the Penangite was perhaps the most famous composer of Malay songs. I vividly remember listening to his songs when I was growing up in the 1960s.

Son of the Penang Eurasians behind the iconic Putera Puteri (sometimes spelled Putra Putri), Boyle’s notable compositions included Untuk Negeri Kita, Chendering, Jauh Jauh, Ingat Ingat, Bunga Negara, Sang Bayu, Ke-Hulu Ke-Hilir, Pantun Melayu, Gemaran Bulan and my favorite song, Putera Puteri.

A momentous occasion in Boyle’s life was when one of his compositions, Kemegahan Negaraku (Majesty of My Country), was chosen to be performed at the inaugural raising of the Malaysian flag on August 31, 1957.

One of Boyle’s best-known compositions, Untuk Negeri Kita, was adopted as Penang’s state anthem in 1972, a year after his death.

He composed the music and wrote the lyrics for this song.

Boyle was not only a prolific composer, but also an equally well-known pianist, who learned to play the piano from his mother who was a piano teacher.

He wrote almost 350 songs during his lifetime and some of his songs, like Putera Puteri, were familiar to many who learned it in school.

Boyle endured hardship during the Japanese occupation after being incarcerated.

He was a student at St Xavier’s Institution in Penang and returned to his alma mater as a teacher soon after the war.

One day, at the request of British officers in Penang, he formed a band and entertained them with music at a dinner party at the Runnymede Hotel. And this was the beginning of his musical career.

Subsequently, Boyle also performed at Minden Barracks, now the site of Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the RAAF base at Butterworth.

Friends who knew Boyle remember him as a man who had music in his veins and some even considered him a musical genius.

His songs were patriotic in nature and blended harmony with an unwavering love and passion for his country.

Boyle was destined to compose patriotic songs and we certainly need more such songs in our polarized society today.

Other prominent musicians from Penang at this time included David Yeoh, Ahmad Merican and Datuk Seri Ahmad Nawab.

Boyle’s musical legacy lives on through his son, James, a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berkley School of Music.

In 2006, jazz fans had the opportunity to see James perform in Penang as James Boyle and The Ragged Tigers.

In 2010 there was another performance during the Fringe Festival, followed by a similar concert in 2016, organized by Paul Augustin.

Augustin knew the main drivers of music in Penang and like Boyle had a great passion for jazz.

James also wrote a book about his father called The Music and Legacy of Jimmy Boyle.

In memory of his father, James recorded another of his father’s famous songs, Chendering, with a well-known singer, Bizhu, at the Penang House of Music.

Chendering, written in 1960, talks about a beach in Terengganu. Boyle was a keen admirer of the Malaysian countryside.

James has performed with notable Malaysian musical luminaries over the years, including the late Paul Ponnudorai.

James paid tribute to Ponnudorai and his band, Paul Ponnudorai and The Handsome Coconuts, and he had recognized them as a good learning curve for him.

Ponnudorai, who died in 2012, had himself supported some of Malaysia’s renowned artists, including Datuk Sudirman Arshad.

He co-produced Sudirman’s hit song One Thousand Million Smiles with jazz maestro Michael Veerapen.

Many young people today struggle to name a favorite local jazz player unless they click on YouTube or Google.

They are oblivious to the names of renowned personalities from the past like Ahmad Merican, Alfonso Soliano and Boyle.

In the 1960s and 1970s, pianist Ooi Eow Jin was one of the country’s most sought-after composers, having written hits for singers like Sudirman.

Boyle was the epitome of a good musician, composer and popular teacher.

But the most striking virtue he possessed was that he was a true Malaysian patriot, which is definitely a rarity these days.

As well as being nationalistic, his songs were soothing to any musical ear as they were often mixed with jazz music.

Rising above all races and cultures, Boyle’s songs have instilled a sense of patriotism in our country.

He was definitely another imposing Malaysian in every sense of the word and he did more for national unity than the oratory of most people in power.

Boyle died at the relatively young age of 49 in 1971, after succumbing to an intracerebral hemorrhage.

Even after more than five decades since his passing, many members of my generation still remember him for the music and songs he composed. Many of his songs are like a timeless beauty.

Perhaps he was one of the most talented music composers Malaysia has ever produced.

To my surprise, such an important musical figure is still unknown to many young Malaysians.

It is time that these famous personalities of the past were given their rightful place in the musical annals of our country.

Unfortunately, there is currently a dearth of local jazz talent in the country compared to our glorious past.

Boyle has not received due recognition for his immense contributions to the Malaysian music scene.

The federal and state governments of Penang should posthumously honor this legend for his immeasurable contributions to the local music industry.

It would be a fitting tribute if a significant landmark in Penang were named after this music icon.

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