OlaBola theme song Arena Cahaya and its US-based roots

by - 14:46

Twelve million and counting in three weeks … It’s not everyday that a domestic production has the cash registers ringing to the tune of millions of ringgit, but OlaBola isn’t a regular movie. It’s not one of those inane horror comedies or gangster vehicles. In fact, it’s one much closer to heart than the lame themes and social ills readily glorified in our cinema halls these days – portraying the spirit of unity, courtesy of Malaysia’s favourite sport … football.

The characters in the movie are fictional but the references are obvious. And even though the storyline was created, the events are driven by reality, a past Malaysia has every reason to be proud of and a source of celebration.

This balmy flick has in its driving seat a director renowned for his unity-themed movies – Chiu Keng Guan, the man behind the record-setting box-office smash The Journey. Also, a certified darling and Malaysian chanteuse – “kantoi” gal Zee Avi singing the theme song Arena Cahaya. Now, that’s a combination to set off an explosion.

But every kind of detonation needs a fuse, and that’s where a third person comes into the picture – musician and production ace Rendra Zawawi, who, in between his full-time work as a composer assistant (to award-winning music artist, composer, music educator and record producer Yuval Ron, known for his work on films Breaking The Maya Code, West Bank Story, Proteus etc), stuck his hand into the sonic cookie jar to make sure the gem of a tune received its spit and shine.

Arena Cahaya boasts the pop edifices of a tune which imbues timelessness, inspiration and, a sense of unity and hope. That’s just what Chiu ordered when commissioning Zee and Rendra to score the song. For those kinds of ideas to be distilled and delivered in a theme song must have been a daunting prospect, but both Malaysians took it in their stride.

According to Rendra, Chiu’s directing of the movie was all the convincing he needed to want in on the project. Of course, the movie echoing the nation’s football heroes truly sealed the deal. “I knew from the moment we Skyped with Chiu, that it was going to be something phenomenal – a product that had the potential to bring Malaysians together, especially in these trying times. Collaborating with Zee Avi was another golden opportunity presented,” said Rendra, a graduate composer from Berklee College of Music, in an e-mail interview.

Wee and Rendra fine-tuning the mix for Arena Cahaya in Los Angeles. - Handout

Alvin Wee and Rendra Zawawi (left) fine-tuning the mix for Arena Cahaya in Los Angeles. Photos: Rendra Zawawi

As tall an order as the directive from Chiu seemed, the concepts were easily digested. Rendra, who provided the arrangement, sound design and instrumentation for the song, believes having Zee sing the tune meant half the battle had been won, since the singer has a timeless voice often likened to that of Billie Holiday’s and Norah Jones’. “We definitely harnessed the song by playing around with the melodies, harmonies (chords), and lyrics in the songwriting stage. Putting in words like ‘high’ and ‘sky’ with a melody that sung like the wind are some of the examples on how we adhered to parts of the directive,” Rendra explained.

He added: “The mission was for the song to be simple, relatable, memorable, yet achieve the intended spirit of hope and unity. Most important of all, the chorus had to have a killer hook – something people would hum to after (or even better, while …) hearing it.”

Coming in as Zee Avi, the celebrated singer-songwriter who’s done the nation proud internationally, the pressure must have surely mounted as the writer of Arena Cahaya. Au contraire!

“This opportunity came about just around the time where I feel that our voices as Malaysians, as a whole, needed to be heard. We pride ourselves so much on being a multiracial country, all different religions, races and cultures, living under one spiritual umbrella, therefore, I wouldn’t say there was any pressure in writing this song. In fact, it was an incredible honour to have been able to write it with my fellow Malaysian friends who are also in the music industry here in Los Angeles, Rendra (Zawawi) and Alvin Wee,” Zee shared via e-mail.

The trio of Zee, Rendra and Wee (who was responsible for the recording, editing, mixing, and mastering for the song, along with the drum sequencing) baked the song for a month, fine-tuning along the way till the finished product came off the assembly line an aural ingot. A Malaysian song this may be, but it came straight from the US of A, where all three musicians are based. International assistance arrived courtesy of US-based cellist Hillary Smith and singer Leah Dennis, who provided backing vocals.

Wee, Zee Avi and Rendra are the driving force behind Ola Bola’s theme song Arena Cahaya.

Zee’s star has cut well across our borders, but she’s very much Malaysian at heart, and writing Arena Cahaya was simply about channelling her roots into something that was intrinsically homegrown, and having a sparring partner like Rendra was all that was needed. “What better way to write a Malay song on unity than to write it with a fellow Malaysian, seeing our beloved country from an outside view, observing the things we love about it, embracing our upbringing to be able to know the meaning of what it takes to be living in harmony,” explained the singer, who, since her last album with Brushfire Records in 2011, Ghostbird, released a children’s album in 2014 titled Zee Avi’s Nightlight.

According to her, the song’s title, which translates to “arena of lights”, is a metaphor for the fundamentals of hope, be it for an emotion or a sense of positivity in our darkest hour. Ultimately though, the two simply felt the title perfectly dovetailed with the theme of the movie. The trickiest part for Zee was having to work on the tune remotely, since she returned to Malaysia briefly to work on a commercial for Oreo, also squeezing in a trip to Papua New Guinea for a TED Talks engagement. But she was always confident that the project was going to be a winner, having been left in the safe hands of Rendra and Wee.

“The production was done by Rendra and Alvin in the course of four weekends, as they both have full-time jobs, and I know they worked really hard on it with the free time they had. We’d exchange ideas and notes over e-mail,” said the Sarawakian, who, though focusing on a career as a songwriter now, will be releasing an album later this year.

Zee and Rendra may not be devout fans of the game, but for those who’ve watched the movie, it’s explicitly clear the message transcends the sport. In fact, it is centred on unity, a concept as old as mankind. And very importantly, the movie addresses self belief.

“I think, continuing to believe in yourself, and continuing to have faith, is the most important element in the song. I could safely say, it is one of the most important songs I’ve had the opportunity to write, be a part of, and sing,” Zee elaborated.

Rendra threw everything and the kitchen sink into making sure the song turned out the way it was meant to, drawing from his experience composing, producing (films, video games, jingles, songs), and past stints as composer assistant to composer Mac Quayle (American Horror Story: Freak Show, American Horror Story: Hotel, Mr Robot, Scream Queens, American Crime Story).

All in all, he’s just glad that everything has come to fruition, and he couldn’t be more pleased. And this wasn’t any regular assignment either. “I think all of us wanted this project to be a sort of a milestone on many levels – well, for me at least. We saw this opportunity as a way to give back and contribute to our community. Being far away from home really makes you grow fonder of everything that is Malaysia to you. Chiu had the perfect story to tell, and we just wanted to be a part of it,” he relayed.

He might already be looking to the future, one which will see him scoring for short film Menunggu (directed by award-winning director Thiyagaraja) and web-series Autopilot (directed and produced by Roger Liew), but he’s still enjoying the many rays of sunshine from Arena Cahaya.

“People are saying the song really makes them tear up, inspires them, invoking a sense of unity and pride for their nation. The best part is, we’re getting these comments from people from various cultures and beliefs! The sheer number of covers spawned by this song on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook is just as amazing, too.”

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