Alt-pop musician, Azfar Abu Bakar, on his insecurities, expressing himself as transparently as he can, and introducing queerness to the local scene.
Images Azfar Abu Bakar
“… it’s not that I wanted to create this mysterious persona. I’d rather do something else than upload pictures on Instagram for Orang.”
Orang’s first music video is for his single ‘Selfie’, and going according to the theme; one sees his visage appear throughout. It comes as a slight surprise because if one pays enough attention to Orang and his work before the music video, you’d know he’s relatively anonymous; there is no artiste social media and there are no images of him (save for his personal accounts). Even if you managed to find an image of him as Orang, his face is obscured. There is also the fact that he once called his moniker Orang as a term of neutrality. So, we ask him if this is his way of stepping into the fore, he laughs and responds, “I guess it’s more fun. Honestly, it’s not that I wanted to create this mysterious persona. I’d rather do something else than upload pictures on Instagram for Orang.”
The man behind Orang is named Azfar, and he’s been making music for as long as one can imagine – about a decade ago in high school. However, it’s only this year that he released a whole body of work since signing to BOTANIC Records – one of its co-founders, Tim Sharp, immediately approached him after witnessing a live performance. He wonders to himself if an EP would even come to fruition if he’d not connected to the fledgling digital record label. “I think it would come out in bits and pieces, but not as a whole,” he offers and further refers to Everyone as his “first whole meal.”
How the sound and some of the songs came to be on the EP are partly due to two live shows he played mid-last year; one being HO4X, the fourth edition of an eponymous gig series by a collective of young amateurs called HOAX Vision, and the second was a punk show at Rumah Api. Only ‘All The Time’ survived the former music event as it’s made its way onto the EP. Seeing the odd matching of Orang – who performs sensitive alt-pop songs – at two disparate genres of shows, it’s a wonder if he arrived at a sound of his own as a result. “I guess so. I just honed in on the electronic side of things. ‘All The Time’ has a driving bass beat, a lot of noodle-y synths there – that was the seed of what came into my mind when I played HO4X,” he explains.
Speaking to Azfar, one would get a sense of self-deprecating modesty from him. He refers to himself as a passive person a number of times, whether it’s in the context of bending his musicianship for the sake of a show (“I played at Rumah Api and I did a punk song just for that – I’m very much a conformist,”) or in the lyrical content on the EP, where there’s a recurrence of him asking for permission and waiting for answers. Azfar doesn’t explicitly confirm the observation but he does share this; “I’m a very passive person, so I think it manifested in a lot of my writing styles and in my lyrics. ‘R U Down With It’ is about me asking, ‘Hey, do you wanna go here?’ And that person didn’t want to. So, I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s go where you wanna go.’ I suppose generally speaking, I’m a passive person, I’m like the follower.”
“It sounds kind of lame but I’m a perfectionist in how imperfect [my art] is.”
Although he has this complacent image of himself, Azfar treats the music he makes as Orang with care and a measure of precision as it holds a lot of value of how he views himself. “It definitely makes [life] more nourishing because making music is the only thing I do that I feel good about and makes me feel I’m doing some good in this world,” he divulges. “It has its challenges and it’s fun. Lately, making music has become a currency for my self-worth, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I put a lot of stock in how good I feel about [the music] and how I feel about myself.” Since there is so much weighted correlation between music and his self-esteem, does he take a perfectionist approach to ensure that the songs reflect what he has in mind? “[I’m a] perfectionist in terms of if [my music] follows my vision, not about having everything in tune and the timing right. It sounds kind of lame but I’m a perfectionist in how imperfect it is.”
Though it may not be immediate and it may not be the first thing your ears grab onto when you listen to the EP, upon careful listening and discernment, one can hear Azfar bearing his soul under the thick of reverb, posing simple yet difficult questions that sound rhetorical, but in his poignant, curious insistence, one ponders if he’s asking the listeners directly. Take for instance ‘All The Time’, where he faces uncertainty in a relationship where its terms and conditions are unclearly defined – “Could I know if I’m not there to see it? Should I know just ‘cos I’m tied to it? How do I know it’s fine when I don’t see it happen every time?” But the most important questions are posed in the words for ‘German Cosmic Rock’. Quite unassumingly, the deceptively jaunty ditty buoys a hoard of thoughts in a bleak part of his psyche. He feels like a speck in the cosmos, insecure and unable to assert his voice and masculinity in a constricted realm of expected behaviour and performance of man.
With that said, we present Azfar with our hypothesis that there’s a certain queerness to Orang — a grey area where identity is vague and mysterious. But we take the queerness in question out of the context of sexuality, instead, we use this definition by a writer at Salon in his examination of Frank Ocean’s latest album Blond(e); “The version of queerness [Blond(e)] presents, unattached to identity but solidly grounded in experience and the concept of unknowability.” Although Orang is certainly not unknowable, one just has to ask the right questions or listen hard enough to catch what he’s expressing in his songs; he’s been quite open on the EP, almost viscerally so.
“There is a queerness both explicitly and implicitly in a lot of my songs.”
He grimaces at our comparison of Everyone with Blond(e) and teases us, “I think you have been listening to too much Frank Ocean.” But as it turns out, our inkling wasn’t as weak as we’d thought. “There is a queerness both explicitly and implicitly in a lot of my songs,” he shares, “I think there just needs to be more sentimentality and emotiveness [in the music scene]. I hope to come to a point in my music career, so to speak, where I can talk about things more explicitly in spite of being a Muslim man.” This queerness, however, has gone undetected for years, one of his most played and enduring songs, ‘Sorang’ – released three years ago on his SoundCloud – is a seminal example. Again, in his signature honesty-in-reverb approach, there’s this telling lyric, “… menyayangi jiwa seorang insan yang sama darjatnya, yang sama pangkatnya, yang sama jantina dengan diriku.” However, he’s aware of the conflict placed upon by his gender and his religion. “I hope to come to a point where all these things will come together naturally and there shouldn’t be a problem.” Ultimately, he just wants to express what he wants to, “I’m fairly young at 26, but I think in your 30s, there isn’t much time to waste – don’t talk about things that don’t concern you, you have to use your platform to talk about what you really want.”
And so, are the questions posed on Everyone indeed rhetorical or does Orang want some answers? Azfar doesn’t realise he had such a tendency for the latter, but in the end, he casually replies with a response of overarching gravity – “Do you have the answers?”
Orang’s debut EP Everyone is released via BOTANIC Records. The EP is available everywhere digitally.