Soulful Rhythm
Evanna Ramly 
Semalam Di Malaya pays homage to 1940s and 1950s Malaya (photo courtesy of Ushera)

Listening to Ushera with eyes closed, one could easily mistake her singing for that of the legendary Saloma. There is an old-world charm to her golden voice, resonant in her nostalgic music whether she is lamenting the symbolic wilting of the national flower (it is the hibiscus, in case you didn’t know) or inviting audiences to join her in an upbeat Polynesian mambo.

“My earliest memories of music came from P. Ramlee movies,” she recalls, adding that she also grew up on Disney’s animated films. “It was the cheerful tunes and very simple melodies that made an impact on me.”

Little surprise that the chanteuse always wanted to be an entertainer. “I can recall, sometime around three or four years old, telling people I was going to be a singer. Growing up, my life has always revolved around singing, either in a choir or the school band.”

Born in Shah Alam (her parents are from Penang), the family travelled constantly due to her father’s career in manufacturing and then in the hotel line. Ushera attended 11 schools across the country, the most memorable being Sekolah Raja Perempuan in Ipoh.

It was her father who always encouraged her passion and even sent her for music classes. “He was self-taught and can play the piano, guitar and percussion. I’m still learning to play the piano and the bongos.”

She describes her vocal style as soothing. “Since my voice is of a certain texture, I don’t consider myself a big powerhouse singer. But I try to play a lot with the dynamics of the song and express emotions through that. I’m a soulful kind of singer.”

Looking back, her challenge was trying to establish and sustain herself as a professional. “I guess that is something everybody has to go through. Still, it was not an easy journey.”

Thankfully, she has overcome the worst part of it. “It was tough because it’s not something you discover in a day. It took time to establish myself as a brand. Who is Ushera? What kind of music does she perform?”

Ushera’s contrasts are interesting to watch as she seamlessly progresses from one to the other. There is the aforementioned resurrection of Saloma and other kebaya-clad songbirds of her era, the sultry and exciting cabaret star, the jazz artiste and the edgy explorer of electronic groove.

Inside Ouch Music Academy

Of course, Ushera has experienced plenty of trial and error in pursuit of a career in music. “Knowing what kind of persona I wanted to take with me was a long process. You have to make countless mistakes before you finally figure out what works for you. A lot of people give up along the way because you have to fail many times and you have to be very thick-skinned. Sometimes you make mistakes that you don’t like but it happens. You must overcome that, try to just get better and rise above it, which is not an easy thing to do.”

No doubt Ushera has come into her own.

“I’m a more mature woman and I’m very comfortable being the woman that I am and to share that with people,” she enthuses. “I feel more complete and I bring that on stage with me. People can feel that and they appreciate it because there’s a connection.”

Ouch Music Academy is her biggest milestone to date, established with Ganesh Bala, her partner, musical director, producer and pianist. The institution is less than a year old but they were running their business from home for years – the music school at her house and a studio (Ouch Records & Productions) at his. They ultimately pooled their resources to set up both at Vida in Bukit Ceylon.

“I don’t like it when I find that I’m limited in something, which is why I’m always learning musically.

“The more I explore music, the more I fall in love with music education. I started to get interested in sharing knowledge with kids. Luckily, Ganesh also has experience running a music school.”

Their partnership motivates her. “We set targets every year and do our best to reach the goals. That was how we ended up collaborating musically and released our first single, Give Me. In 2016, we released our debut album, Semalam Di Malaya.” The album celebrates the formative years of Malaysia’s contemporary music industry while paying homage to the Malaysian music scene of pre-independence 1940s and 1950s Malaya.

Ushera reveals that the name Ouch refers to her imaginary clothing line. “At one point I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she laughs. “I still like that name so I carried it on.”

Happily, she has no regrets sticking to music. “It’s been a really amazing journey. There are two sides of me, on and off stage. I’m completely different but somehow when I’m on stage I represent the two sides together. When you’re a brand, self-managing can be quite difficult because it’s your name even when you’re not performing. Sometimes I like to just separate that and that’s why teaching helps. You’re doing something that is not about you.”

Many have asked if she prefers teaching, running a business or singing. Ushera believes they are all part of her now. “One cannot go without the other – it’s like I’ve created a whole ecosystem.”

Currently working on her second album, she loves how the studio keeps her busy, creating original content and working with talented musicians. In addition, she aims to make more educational content and hopes for it to be more accessible.

“Not just to children but also adults, people who aspire to be musicians. We’re also producing a lot of new online content for my music.”

Fans of Ushera can look forward to four upcoming shows, two at No Black Tie (April 6 & 7) and two more at Alexis Bistro in Ampang (May 18 & 19). She will be backed by a six-piece ensemble with arrangements by Ganesh.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 274.