Alfonso Soliano with the Radio Malaya band, early 1960s.
Alfonso Soliano with the Radio Malaya band, early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Rachel Guerzo.

A portrait of Alfonso Soliano hangs above the piano in their family home. The portrait, it is said, serves as a reminder to present members of the current family to never let the music die.

Luckily, there doesn’t seem much chance of this happening: the Solianos are the Longest Performing Group (Family) in Malaysia, according to the Malaysian Book of Records. Rachel Guerzo, Soliano’s granddaughter, first started performing as a child. She now performs as a jazz singer and pianist around KL.

This year marks 25 years since Alfonso Soliano’s passing. His influence may not be widely known today, but he arguably influenced the sound of modern Malaysian music more than any other one man. He was leader of the Radio Malaya orchestra and later conductor of the RTM Orchestra. He introduced the sound of bebop to the country. He was the mastermind behind many major local artists of the 1970’s, including Sharifah Aini.

In his own day, Alfonso Soliano was a household name. Today, you might struggle to name one of his songs. But Rachel hopes to change that. She has just released an album, entitled Alfonso 25, that pays tribute to her grandfather and brings many of his songs to a new audience.

 

In his own day, Alfonso Soliano was a household name. Today, you might struggle to name one of his songs.

 

“When I first had the idea for the first project, I wanted to show how timeless the music was and I wanted a diversified group of musicians so that we could showcase the music to different genres,” says Rachel. She selected different Malaysian musicians from different genres to interpret the songs for the album, including Ali Aiman, Lokman Aslam and Bihzhu.

“We have hip-hop, we have EDM, we have folksy indie music and then there’s us [The Guerzos] which is more jazz rock. That was the whole idea, to have a diverse group of musicians.”

In his lifetime, Soliano himself worked with a variety of musicians and genres – from grand orchestras to small bands playing in nightclubs and dance halls. According to musical historian Saidah Rastam, his compositions of off-beat jazz (or bebop) were at first baffling to KL’s audiences, but soon caught on. He was multi-talented: incredibly fluent in traditional Malay music styles like bangsawan, while also being able to interpret these for a symphonic orchestra.

Alfonso Soliano
Alfonso Soliano. Photo courtesy of Rachel Guerzo.

For Soliano, music was in his blood. In colonial Malaya, the British couldn’t find enough musicians who knew Western styles of music. So at the turn of the century, 64 musicians were brought over from the Philippines – somewhat ironically – to start a state band for Selangor. Soliano’s father was one of these Filipino musicians, and he settled in Malaya and started a family. Alfonso was born in Singapore in 1925 as the youngest of 17 children. Many of the family became respected musicians of their time and frequently performed together as jazz music grew in popularity.

“Jazz was so prominent then, it was kind of like the music of the day. It’s kind of like what hip-hop is now. It was the contemporary music of the 50s,” says Rachel, who today performs with two of her brothers, Don and Dado, in The Guerzos.

The Guerzos. Rachel Guerzo is pictured, standing centre. Photo by Halimi Saidi.
The Guerzos. Rachel Guerzo is pictured, standing centre. Photo by Halimi Saidi.

At just age seven, Alfonso Soliano – known as Nonong to his family – started performing around the country in a touring troupe. As he grew up, his career took him from colonial Malaya, through the Japanese occupation and into independent Malaya. But in his prime, he was forced to leave the very land that he called home.

In the 1960’s, critical voices pressured Soliano to resign from Radio Malaya, where he was a full time conductor and arranger for the orchestra. According to Saidah Rastam’s research, this criticism was partly motivated by Soliano’s religion (he was not Muslim) and the Western influence of his music. Soliano ended up moving to Bangkok for several years, but his pride was wounded to the point that he refused to return to collect an AMN award in 1966.

It was only in 1973 that Soliano was persuaded to return to Malaysia to work for RTM. However, his health soon started to deteriorate and he retired after suffering a stroke. Rachel herself was with her grandfather when he died.

The cover for the tribute album released by Rachel Guerzo.
The cover for the tribute album released by Rachel Guerzo.

By launching the tribute album, Rachel hopes not only to preserve his memory, but a musical heritage that might otherwise by forgotten. For the album, the songs by Alfonso Soliano, first performed by Asiah Tuah, Zain Azman, Ahmad Daud, Dato’ Julie Sudiro and Kartina Dahari, have been arranged and interpreted once again. The album, named Alfonso 25, is a reference to the 25 years since his passing as well as his birth year (1925) and birthday (25 February).

“We have many good Malaysian composers and lots of wonderful songs. We have a wonderful heritage. We forget that people who came before us broke the barriers,” says Rachel. “When you look at Americans or the Westerners they spend a lot of time reintroducing all of their greatest hits. If we don’t look back we don’t know how far we’ve come.”

Alfonso 25 (RM100) is on sale at Tower Records, Lucky Bo Café in Bangsar and via www.rachelguerzo.my

Words by Ling Low. Research by Syahir Ashri, Ling Low and Dhabitah Zainal.


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