Having a famous surname can be both a blessing and a curse, but somebody forgot to tell Hameer Zawawi. While he’s mindful of the standard he has to live up to, he doesn’t let it weigh him down.
The young musician has been honing his craft and has reached a commendable level of perfection. Nope, he’s no YouTube sensation “tweaking” in his bedroom to get that perfect take for a global audience to devour. Far from it. He’s done it the old-fashioned way – woodshedding, plying the live circuit and turning up at any and every open mike session time and opportunity permits.
And perhaps most perilous in what he does is the choice of music – simply put, Hameer is carving a path all his own.
The are no ready-made genres to welcome him, so this can only be art for art’s sake. Fantasy folk? That’s how he describes it, at least.
“I always try to make my music sound different. It’s never been my interest to be mainstream … I’ve just always wanted to do something I was comfortable with,” shared the singer-songwriter recently during an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, his homebase, intimating that he’s particularly fond of non-conventional vocal runs.
True, National Fantasy, his eight-song debut solo is an exercise in melodic quirkiness and unique storytelling. And it’s obvious this one’s not going to have a stranglehold on the Billboard charts or be bagging a hatful of gold gramophones at next year’s Grammys. This is way too cultured and outlandish to stand toe to toe with any of today’s pop trite.
But it all began rather conventionally for him, growing up in a household with a talented and renowned musician dad like Dr Wan Zawawi and recognised older brother, Rendra.
Like every young musician from the mid-2000s hoping to cut the mustard, Hameer soaked in the hip bands of the time – System Of A Down, Incubus and Muse.
In fact, in his early days fronting the indie act Ask Me Again, it was not uncommon for him to be likened to the singers of his favourite bands, but his brother’s influence, and that of the domestic indie scene, kept him on his own path.
Of course, before that even, he was taking in the band of the turn of the century – Linkin Park.
“I was very influenced by them and learned song structure and lyric-writing from there. And my phrasing ideas came from reciting the Quran,” he said, explaining the blend of his unique style, which his friends have described as a cross between Nusantara and Arabic melodies, effectively coining the term Nusantarabic. Incredibly, his intricate guitar chops come from having learned the piano at a very young age.
He might still be relatively clueless where and how his music fits into the popular music juggernaut, but friends have cautioned him that Tim Burton might just be looking for a soundtrack for his next flick. The 25-year-old cites composer Hans Zimmer as a source of inspiration, though.
Recording National Fantasy was as much having his music out as it was putting older ideas to bed, and within an eight-month span from August 2012 to April 2013, Hameer had his material solidly road-tested.
By the time he arrived at the Penang Island Jazz Festival two years ago, he was a well-oiled machine, delivering a stunning performance at the fringe stage at Bayview Hotel in Batu Ferringhi. And everything has been on the up since, with him even looking to expand his sound with a band, including the sounds of a violin, bass and percussion.
“An album is a bookmark of your career, it documents who you are at that point. I wanted this album to sound like my open mike sessions, which is why I opted for a sparse arrangement,” he said of his solo debut, which boasts just his voice and acoustic guitar.
From the title track opener through to Zombie Town and Young Wealthy Man, there is a cohesion that’s rarely apparent on albums these days, indie or commercial.
He’s blessed with monstrous vocal ability, easily slipping from a throaty tenor to a delightful falsetto at the drop of a hat, but technique never takes away from his superb compositions.
The subject matter on the album varies greatly, and Hameer credits his computer game designer vocation for it, hence some of the darker themes. And does the album title hint at social unrest in the country? “I guess what’s on National Fantasy also mirrors my thoughts on current issues and what’s wrong with our surroundings.”
Comparisons are bound to arise, as they already have, but Hameer is undeterred by how people stack him up against his brother and dad. “I was intimidated initially, after attending all my brother’s shows, but I’ve just gone ahead and done what represents who I am as an artiste,” he reasoned.
It would be easy for him to ride the coat-tails of his family members, but he aspires to be his own man, and that even included crowd-funding his solo debut.
“The money I’ve earned from playing and from generous contributions is what got this album finally released.” And that model for success will surely be employed for the guerilla marketing strategy of selling CDs at gigs.
“This is an indie production through and through, and nothing beats meeting your audience face-to-face.”
If an artiste wants to get to know his audience, there really is no better way, and Hameer’s knowledge of this is the clearest indication of how far he’s come in such a short while.
National Fantasy is available from iTunes, facebook.com/hameerzawawi and email@example.com.