76-year-old Yusnor Ef, the grandfather of Malay songs in Southeast Asia: “I always tell the youngsters that if they want to make music that lasts, it has to come from here,” he said, pointing to his heart. “You must be committed to your work.”

Yusnor Ef Waxes Eloquent on Life and Love

By Katrin Figge on 12:56 pm November 16, 2013.


The grandfather of Malay songs talks about love’s influence on his music. (Photo courtesy of Yusnor Ef)

Dubbed the grandfather of Malay songs in Southeast Asia, 76-year-old Yusnor Ef can look back at an illustrious career. Born Mohamed Noor Mohamed Yusofe, Yusnor grew up in Singapore as the son a single mother and discovered his love for the theater in the 1950s. However, it was the combination of music and words that would eventually become his true calling.“I became a lyric writer in 1959,” Yusnor recalled. “At that time, I was a stage play director. For one play, I tried an experiment — I wanted to write a song for that particular stage play. So I asked my friend Kassim Masdor, a composer, to create a melody, for which I wrote the lyrics based on the story of the play.”

It was the beginning of a long career as a lyricist, during which Yusnor provided the words for more than 250 tunes.

“Almost all of my songs were sung by very popular musicians in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s, including some big names, such as P. Ramlee, Anita Sarawak and Ahmad Jais,” Yusnor said.

Although his talents as a wordsmith for songs were obvious, Yusnor worked full-time as a teacher, and afterward he became a textbook writer. Later, he produced educational TV programs for schools.

Writing lyrics has been more of a hobby, albeit one he followed with much passion, and his collaboration with Masdor turned out to be long and fruitful.

“Whenever he wrote a melody, he called me to write the lyrics,” Yusnor said.

The songs ranged from traditional Malay to Hindi, Arabic and Chinese songs. After he had built a reputation as a wordsmith, other producers wanted to work with him.

What they appreciated most was Yusnor’s personal approach to lyrics.

“I never tried to write poetry,” he said. “My songs are mostly about my own experiences, stories that surrounded me. I picked up stories from my friends here and there.”

But as so often in life, the biggest inspiration one can find is love. One song that still remains particularly special to Yusnor is the one revolving around his wife.

“I had separated from my girlfriend,” Yusnor said. “But then I met my wife, an Indian girl, so I approached her. We became close, and one day suddenly she told me that she wants to be my friend, and nothing more. That meant, I was to fail yet again — she wasn’t interested in me. I felt worried, restless.”

Around that time, Kassim had written a new melody and asked for Yusnor’s help to come up with lyrics.

“I told him that I wanted to write about this girl who was giving me so many problems, and I wrote ‘Gelisah’ [Restless],” Yusnor recalled. “So this song, from 1965, was recorded by Ahmad Jais. The popularity of this song lasts until today. Malaysian radio stations still play it. I’ll never forget this song — it was inspired by my girl.”


The song was a big hit and Yusnor also had his happy ending: the lady who inspired the words to the song eventually became his wife — and it was not the last song that revolved around her.

The night before their wedding, they had a big dinner, and Yusnor wrote the lyrics for yet another song and titled it “Normila,” a combination of his real name Mohamed Noor, and that of his wife, Jamila Jaan.

After being married for 23 years, Yusnor asked one of the composers to write a melody with a typical Malay touch.

“I wrote the song for our anniversary and called it ‘Kasih Sayang Suami Istri’ [The Love Between Husband and Wife],” he said, adding that these three songs were not only the ones closest to his heart, but also were very successful when they were recorded.

Yusnor said he always needed to listen to the melody of a song first — otherwise it was too hard for him to be inspired and find the right words.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have mobile phones yet, so the composer would give me a cassette tape with the songs, and I would listen to them over and over again, until I got the feel of the melody and the mood of the song,” he explained.

“I’d ask myself, is it a sad song, or a happy one, what story would be suitable? Sometimes I also asked the composers, what went through your mind when you wrote this melody?”

There is no formula to become a successful lyric writer, he added, although he does have some words of advice to those who want to try.

“The first thing to remember as a lyric writer is that your language and vocabulary must be powerful,” Yusnor said. “It is very important that the words match the melody. I read a lot of books in different languages, so as to avoid repetition with my lyrics. An affinity and deep knowledge of music is obviously another must.

“I like to listen to any kind of music, Spanish, Western, Hindi, Chinese — you name it,” Yusnor said, adding that even though he doesn’t actually know how to read notes, his hearing is very sharp. “Sometimes you also need to listen to instrumental music, which is so beautiful. From there, you put the words inside the melody. You must be able to reach the listeners with your language.”

“To write lyrics is easy, but to make them meaningful and turn the song into an evergreen, that’s a different story,” he added. “That’s why the music of the new generation often reminds me of instant noodles — they come very fast, but are so easily forgotten.”

Yusnor has already retired from the lyric writing business — although he does make exceptions for special projects — but he still holds the occasionallecture and conducts workshops to share his knowledge with young talents, such as at the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month.

“I am happy to talk about my experience. I always tell the youngsters that if they want to make music that lasts, it has to come from here,” he said, pointing to his heart. “You must be committed to your work.”

Besides nurturing a new generation of lyric writers, Yusnor also produces TV documentaries about the history of music and film and is the author of several books; his last one, “Perkembangan Musik Melayu Sejak Tahun 40” was published in 2011. “It is about the development of Malay pop music since the 1940s, including a chapter on the connection between Indonesian and Malay songs,” Yusnor explained.

To him, it is all about preserving the country’s and people’s heritage. Despite his success, Yusnor has remained refreshingly humble.

“My mentor, P. Ramlee, told me that any kind of artistic work also always comes from God,” he said.

“That’s why we have to approach it with sincerity and commitment. Don’t think too much about the glamor. It will come to you eventually — you don’t have to chase it.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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