“Music follows Stephen Ooi wherever he goes”
IT’S a perfect backdrop to a quintessential afternoon tea party. The tinkling of the grand piano wafts through the Jim Thompson Tea Room at the Cameron Highlands Resort as we sit on elegant wicker chairs sipping on copious amount of piping hot tea, looking out of the large open verandah windows that bring in the crisp hilltop air.
The setting has all the charm and the gentility of a grand old plantation manor from a bygone era. The resident pianist, Stephen Ooi, looking dapper in his white evening jacket smiles from behind the piano, and plays us a selection of elegant classics and jazz standards in his own inimitable style as we begin the age-old ritual of the English afternoon tea complete with warm oven-fresh scones slathered in clotted cream.
It’s not difficult to understand why the elegant tea room named after the (in)famous American silk trader, who went missing on Easter Sunday almost half a century ago, has been named one of the top 11 piano lounges in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine. In it, the ever-smiling Ooi, fondly known as Uncle Steve, was given an honourable mention, granting him instant celebrity status.
It remains a mystery not unlike the disappearance of Jim Thompson, how a prestigious international magazine got wind of Ooi and his ivory-playing skills way up in the mist-covered secluded mountains of Cameron Highlands. Mysterious yet unsurprising because Ooi is that good.
There’s a light that sparkles in Ooi’s eyes as he talks about his eclectic music background. We’ve managed to coax the courtly resident pianist away from his instrument and join us during his break between sets. He waves away all offers of tea and settles for a glass of water instead. Pleasant and soft spoken, Ooi regales us with stories on his early days as a musician back in culture-rich Penang, where he hails from.
“I’ve only started playing like this when I got here,” the self-taught musician says, smiling depreciatingly as he talks about his hobby of making music.
“Music started off as a hobby to me. Back then, we all had our day jobs but we managed to learn and play music on the side,” he reminisces. He has balanced the dichotomy between his passion and his career well enough. “Nevertheless, music has somehow evolved to be more of a passion than a leisurely pursuit.”
The 74-year-old septuagenarian grows animated as he talks about his early musical influences. It’s easy to tell where his influences come from. After all, Penang has a rich heritage of music greats, ranging from the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee to David and Loga from the Alleycats fame, Ooi Eow Jin and of course, Eurasian jazz maestro, the late Jimmy Boyle.
“Jimmy Boyle was my sifu, so to speak. A lot of my playing has been influenced by his styling,” confides Ooi. “His mother used to live just around the corner and Boyle would drop by for a visit whenever he was down to see his mother.”
The music maestro describes the long past days of musicians getting together and making music for the sheer love of it, half wistfully and with great fondness. There are many great memories that he treasures about the good old days, when the Eurasian music culture ran strong and vibrant.
“Music has always been the lifeblood of my family. My grandmother was an accomplished pianist and my mother could play the piano as well. All my siblings gravitated towards music as with myself,” says Ooi, pride sparkling in his eyes.
“My brother and sister decided to pool their money and get a piano. While they learnt music formally, I would sneak in between to tinker on the keys and teach myself how to play,” he laughs, in recollection. Adding, he says: “Playing by ear was how most musicians back in the days taught themselves. We’d learn about basic scales and chords, and once you mastered them, it was time to make some great music!” His brother gravitated to guitars but Ooi remains enraptured with the piano to this day.
Mention any Penang musician and chances are, Ooi either knows them or is somehow related to them. We talk about stalwarts like the Rozells who still grace the local Eurasian music scene in Penang where musical echoes from the past continue to reverberate till today.
Smiling, Ooi recalls his days with his band, the Jazzocrats. “We held day jobs but we got together to play for weddings, dinners and many other gigs. Sure, we had to juggle between our day jobs and our many gigs. But we didn’t mind the sacrifice. We played for the sheer love of music.”
THE MUSIC LIVES ON
From the sunny island of Penang, Ooi and his wife packed up after his retirement and ventured on their next adventure — to the misty secluded Cameron Highlands. “I’ve always loved the highlands since I first visited this place in the 1960s. In those days, the weather was so cold that people wore winter jackets all year round!”
The visits to breathe in the cool highlands air increased in frequency as time went by. “There was something about this place that appealed to my wife and me. After my retirement, we thought we’d spend some time here on a temporary hiatus but we eventually decided to call this place home.”
He was adamant about retiring from everything, including his music. “I stopped playing music after my retirement. I was happy enough to putter around my little garden and live a sedentary life but music is a tough lady to break up with. She followed me all the way up here!” Ooi says with a laugh.
A chance request to play at the newly opened Cameron Highlands Resort during their soft launch evolved to a permanent attachment as the hotel’s resident pianist. He hasn’t looked back since: “I was rusty and out of touch when I was first asked to play the piano. I did it anyway!”
When asked if he gets bored playing the piano every day, the elderly pianist looks a little indignant. He retorts: “Bored? You only get bored when you don’t have an audience. Here, there’s always people milling around and it makes a difference to me even when just one person listens. Suffice to say, I’m not bored. I love playing and I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
Later at night, an enthusiastic crowd is seen milling around the affable Ooi and his trusty grand piano belting out songs to the accompaniment of his polished playing. A stanza from Billy Joel’s hit Piano Man comes to my mind.
“Sing us a song you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feeling alright”
Well, Ooi or rather, Uncle Steve and his music, have undoubtedly done that job well.
Printed in the New Straits Times 8th January 2017