Paul Ponnudorai was described by Time magazine as “quite possibly the greatest musical interpreter of our time”. Up there with the best of them, but barely recognised in his homeland.
He passed away last night at the age of 51 after an illness.
See Paul featured in Time magazine:
Comparisons could be made with José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican singer-guitarist who had 1960s hits with stylish remakes of songs like California Dreamin’ and Light My Fire. But Ponnudorai is better. His ability to dice songs up, look into their hearts and perceive the common veins connecting every genre has won the attention of top international players who go to Singapore on tour. Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and vocalist Bobby McFerrin have all been in the audience. In 2002, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis showed up at a performance and was so taken by it, he grabbed his instrument and leapt onstage to play alongside a startled Ponnudorai, who did not recognize him. “He told me ‘Ever since I got off the plane I’ve been hearing about nothing but you,'” Ponnudorai recalls. The pair jammed together for the next two nights.
Paul burst onto the local music scene in the mid-1970s, announcing his arrival by winning the ‘Bakat TV’ talent competition as a solo guitarist.
The first time I heard his music was while in a car, listening to a cassette tape (remember those?!) album ‘Suara’ in support of the ISA detainees after Operation Lalang in 1987. The album, produced and arranged by Alan Pereira and Paul in 1988, was a haunting collection of heart-rending ballads to mark the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s really quite a talented bunch of musicians.” Paul featured in two of the songs, ‘Dancing on the ceiling’ and ‘This world’, a Cecil Rajendra poem turned into song.
More than that, not many other artistes would have stuck their heads out in support of the ISA detainees at a time when most people were lying low during the darkest days of the Mahathir administration. But Paul (and his team) did, to their credit. So he too played his part in the ‘Abolish ISA’ struggle.
Tributes have been pouring in from the music fraternity.
Singing star Francissca Peter writes:
I was blessed to have sung (and) recorded with Paul and it is a nation’s loss. Sadly, Malaysia never appreciates real true hard-working talent and it is worse today … But he will be and (will) always remain one of if not probably … A UNIQUE, (the) greatest talent that this country has never appreciated. He did very well outside of his own country and it is sad this country is so shallow BUT He will not be forgotten to those who know how amazingly gifted he was. May you be an addition to sweet singing in heaven.
God keep you with him.
Malaysian keyboardist and arranger Aubrey Suwito tweeted: “RIP Paul Ponnudorai. You inspired me every time you played. I learnt so much about music from you.”
The loss was also felt across the causeway. Singapore jazz pianist and composer Jeremy Monteiro tweeted: “Sad day today in the Malaysia-Singapore scene with the passing of the great singer/guitarist Paul Ponnudorai. RIP my friend.”