Malaysian folk singer Pak Pandir, who for nearly 40 years championed Malay roots music, died of health complications in a hospital in Selangor on June 29. He was 62.

Pak Pandir, or real name Azmi Ali, began his music career by writing songs in the 1980s for some of the biggest local artists then, such as Ramli Sarip, and Sahara Yaacob. However, as a Malay folk music revivalist at heart, the Pekan, Pahang-born singer-songwriter needed to have his own voice – and guitar – heard. It didn’t take long for Pak Pandir, who had a wry sense of humour, to find his own way in the Malaysian music scene.

Pak Pandir’s big break arrived in 1992 when his self-titled debut album, released by Lokmanjunid Production/EMI Malaysia, became a surprise mainstream hit. The album, loaded with social, political and satirical bite, and driven by a multitude of traditional instruments like the gong, gendang, angklung and rebab, proved that there was room for the Malay ethnic/folk genre to thrive in the local music scene.

Pak Pandir, who added his own sharp-tongued lyrics to these traditional songs, scored a radio hit with the album’s single Yang Remeh Temeh.

As 1992’s unlikeliest pop phenomenon, Yang Remeh Temeh went on to seal his standing in the music scene when it won the Irama Malaysia category in the Juara Lagu competition that year.

“I used the Pak Pandir pseudonym … it was part of my plan create a mysterious image. And since people nowadays don’t know their own country’s folklore, I thought this was one way to revive those old stories,” Pak Pandir said in a 1992 interview in The Star.

“The main reason I keep doing folk songs is because I need to play a role in preserving our rich cultural heritage,” he added.

Pak Pandir was known among his peers for his diligence and passion in reviving old world sounds like the ghazal, dondang sayang, dikir barat, inang, zapin and keroncong in a contemporary setting; he also often included a Chinese erhu, gamelan and tabla in his music.

On stage, Pak Pandir sported an “old man” persona and his wardrobe featured sarongs, songkoks, aprons, walking sticks, and spectacles; he also used make-up to colour his eyebrows and beard grey.

Pak Pandir continued sharing his keen awareness of social, political and economic issues in his follow-up album $ (Ringgit) in 1994, which featured the Miskin Boys as his back-up band. Tracks like Yang Ramah Tamah, Tak Kaya Kaya and T.E.M.B.A.M. kept him in the spotlight.

In 1999, he returned with an album of folk ballads called Cintalogi, featuring the playful yet pointed single Ye Ke? and the stirring Beras Dan Susu, which addressed the economic crisis and retrenchment blues of the day.

In his later years, Pak Pandir based himself in Kajang, Selangor, and continued working and busking in music as well as literary and community-based circles.

He leaves behind wife Rosmi Salmiah and seven children.