1 Sept 2006

John Gaisah lives on

By Philip Golingai of StarMag (The Star)

HE may be dead but John Gaisah lives in the hearts of Sabahans,” declares Sabah Records managing director Chong Ten Siong.

That is perhaps the best tribute to the Kadazandusun singer who was nicknamed Sabah’s Tom Jones.

Twenty-five years after his death, Gaisah, whom many Sabahans consider their greatest singer, continues to influence the present generation of Kadazandusun singers.

“When I was a teenager, I was always with a guitar singing John Gaisah’s songs and imitating his voice,” recalls 27-year-old Jimmy Palikat, a popular independent label Kadazandusun singer from Gaisah’s hometown, Tambunan.

“In the 1970s, the Kadazandusun music grew rapidly thanks to him. He was number one because of his voice,” recalls veteran singer Monica Ongkosing, 46.
Gaisah fan Lee Khoi Min, who distributes and retails records, says the legendary singer “started the ball rolling for the Kadazandusun music scene.”

“After Gaisah got third place in the 1976 Bintang RTM competition (the winner was the late Sudirman Arshad) he brought oomph to Kadazandusun music. He was the first Kadazandusun to bring his community’s songs into the mainstream,” says Lee, who is from Kota Kinabalu. That claim is perhaps debatable because the names of Justin Stimol and Ambrose Mudi, who are Gaisah’s seniors in the Sabah music scene, are mentioned whenever the question – Who started the Kadazandusun music? – is posed.

What can’t be argued is, like Elvis Presley, it is as if Gaisah has never left the building. “His albums continue to sell,” observes Dusiah Frencis, co-owner of Bamboo Sound Studio.

Gaisah died on Aug 11, 1981, at the age of 26. The dusty Sabah newspapers clippings stored in the state archive building that is approximately 100m from where Gaisah’s newly-purchased Subaru sedan zigzagged and crashed into a timber-laden lorry at about 1.15am, showed how widely reported his untimely demise was. And like James Dean, Gaisah became a legend.
Justin Lusah, the singer of the most famous Kadazandusun song Jambatan Do Tamparuli (Tamparuli Bridge) and Gaisah’s cousin, recalls vividly the events leading to Gaisah’s death.

“His family was celebrating the one-month birth of his son, Aldro, and his wife pleaded with him not to sing at the Sandego Night Club (in Kota Kinabalu) that night. ‘Please don’t go as you are already drunk,’ she told him,” recalls the 50-year-old semi-retired singer. “But John did not listen. His style was if he wanted to go, he would go.”

After Gaisah finished performing to a packed Sandego, his band members urged him not to drive on his own but to join them for their usual supper in Luyang, a suburb in Kota Kinabalu.“They told him, ‘you are drunk, follow us.’ John replied, ‘I’m okay, I’ll drive and follow you all.’ Instead, at a junction he headed back to his house in Penampang,” says Lusah. He heard about his best friend’s death at 6am on the radio.

“I went straight to the hospital mortuary to see his body. I met the lorry driver and he told me, ‘I saw a car zigzagging and I knew it was a drunk driver so I stopped on the side of the road but the car crashed into my lorry’.”

Gaisah, the singer of Miniagal Oh Sinsing (Like a Ring) and Taragang Rasuk (Red Dress) was at the height of his popularity.

“When John and I visited a village, we were treated like ministers. Even if we entered a village unannounced, everyone would come out and greet us. Female fans would chase us and it was shiok (exciting).”

Were they more famous than politicians?

“We made the politician famous. We followed Datuk Ayub Aman and the late Datuk Mark Koding on their political campaigns. Usually we visited the village first to rouse the crowd and then the politicians would arrive and speak,” Lusah says, smiling at the memory.

Gaisah lives on through his music. But another Gaisah might be rising – his son, Aldro now 25, has cut a Kadazandusun album titled Superstar.