OlaBola The Musical: An Interview with Ghafir Akbar and Altimet

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KUALA LUMPUR – This February, Malaysia’s esteemed Istana Budaya ends its renovation and opens with a blast with OlaBola The Musical. Based off the hit 2016 film of the same name, get ready for a moving stage show that revisits the glories of Malaysia’s national football team Harimau Malaya as they geared up to qualify for the 1980 Summer Olympics. With catchy rap songs, the best talents from the region and a script that’s sure to pull at the emotional heartstrings, come watch the story behind the team that united a nation.
We spoke to OlaBola assistant director Ghafir Akbar and lyricist/composer Altimet about the process leading up to the premiere and what it’s been like working on one of the biggest original theatre projects in Malaysian history. Read the interviews in full below:

Ghafir Akbar

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Bakchormeeboy: When did you first watch OlaBola the film, and how did you come onboard this project?

Ghafir Akbar: I watched Ola Bola when it was released in cinemas in Kuala Lumpur. People who saw it raved about the spirit of the movie and how it highlighted a time in 1976 to 1980 when Malaysia was united behind our football team. I never would’ve imagined that it would be turned into a musical. I have worked with Tiara and Enfiniti before so when they contacted me to come on board, I expressed my interest. But I couldn’t come on board sooner because I was already tied up with productions in Singapore. So, after I closed Medea with Cake late last year, I joined the production as Assistant Director just before they went into rehearsal.

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Bakchormeeboy: Ola Bola is the story of a nation coming together to support their national football team. Can we ever hope to see something similar for the arts scene in Malaysia? (and is Ola Bola the Musical the answer to that?)
Ghafir: Much like the football supporters in Malaysia and anywhere in the world, we always hope and root for our team. I can’t say that the arts scene in Malaysia is segregated or broken from each other. I would say that the scene is constantly in a cycle. Unfortunately right now, I feel that we are at the bottom of that rotating wheel; things are hard not only for the artists but also for the audiences. There are constantly exciting works being performed or created in Malaysia. Perhaps the infrastructure to support these works are not as solid as other thriving arts cities. So, we can’t reach as wide of an audience as we desire.
Enfiniti is at the forefront of the commercial theatre scene. They have built a reputation for works that discuss narratives in Malaysian mythology and national heroes (sometimes they are the same!). Ola Bola continues their exploration in Malaysian stories. In the past, Enfiniti’s productions aims to bring a bit of an escape for its audiences in a grand scale, always large productions and pushing the envelope of what we can achieve. To theatrically witness the stories of our legends, our icons. With Ola Bola, I hope our audiences are reminded of a time when we believed that our football team could make it to the Olympics. As for our arts scene, I believe Ola Bola could play a significant role in moving the wheel forward and push the cycle up. If Ola Bola successfully delivers what it promises, then you’ll witness a musical that will bring Malaysians rooting for the Tigers of the local arts scene.
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Bakchormeeboy:What were some of the most memorable moments of working on OlaBola?

Ghafir: It’s always great when I get the opportunity to develop a new musical. The development of characters and the visuals of the show allows us to dream, and often times with this show dream big. So, I remember having many conversations with the actors individually about their character and contribute that to the writing team to craft into any rewrites. Then see the ideas we’ve collaborated on materialize in the actors and on stage. There was a moment when the entire ensemble did a tour of the stage in Istana Budaya. Then with the stage bare, they sang a couple of their ensemble songs into the empty theatre. It was a beautiful moment to see these young bright performers experience what it might be like to perform on the nation’s biggest stage, then thinking about what the Harimau Malaya would feel like as they walk into the pitch for their Olympic qualifying game.

 

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Bakchormeeboy: Besides its title sponsor CIMB, has OlaBola received any support from the government? What do you see as the biggest needs of the Malaysian arts scene as of now in order to keep growing?
Ghafir: I’m not privy to any information regarding sponsors and financial support so I can’t fully answer that question. But in our experience rehearsing the show, the team at Istana Budaya, which is a government run venue has been supportive at accommodating the entire team during rehearsal in the building. We are constantly asking for a corner aside from the rehearsal venue to rehearse, have meetings, and just a quiet space to work. They’ve been very open.
In terms of ‘needs’, I think it is the same anywhere. Theatre always needs financial support. We always need logistical or venue support. We need more freedom in expressing our work. We need to invest in more talents. But more than that, for now, the ultimate goal is to be creating work consistently. Most companies in Malaysia can only produce one or two productions a year because they lack the resources to do so. The result is they can’t build a steady momentum not only to grow artistry but also in growing an audience. So we see a lot of companies create great work for a year (or worse, once), then they get lost into the ether.
The scene can only grow if there are groups or infrastructure in place that understands the importance of arts or culture in our society. The arts scene is not merely entertainment. Beyond that it strives to heal, to remind, and to reflect. What’s worrying is that there is so much arts in our history even in performing arts. I wonder if certain policies have erased these cultural identities or repackage them for another market like tourism. The arts in Malaysia can exist in many places. In small villages for celebration, in schools for appreciation, in visitor centers for tourists, and in theatres for the everyone; we don’t have to force it to be one thing. So in order to bring about this change, we need to start changing the society’s perception towards what the arts can offer. And what better way than to get them to witness themselves in our one of a kind musical.
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Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences come to watch OlaBola the Musical?
Ghafir: For all that I’ve mentioned above! But perhaps more specifically, Malaysians (and not surprisingly Singaporeans as well) have a specific relationship with sports and athletes. We are all nationalistic when our national athletes wins a medal, but when they lose, especially at an international arena, we are overly critical. Malaysians growing up in 60s and 70s will remember the journey the Harimau Malaya team. They were one of the best football teams in the world and could compete at a World Cup and Olympic level.
If you grew up (like me) in the 80s and 90s, badminton became the national obsession. We cheered our teams at the Thomas Cup. And now in the new millennium we are cheering for our squash players, cyclists, and diving. Malaysians, regardless of the political climate at the time, unite for the national team. They cheer, they obsess, and they celebrate the gold as their own. Unfortunately, we are also united at our criticism towards them when they fail. We sit in our mamak shop late at night, or our office cafeteria, or behind the comfort of our laptop and we openly denounce them. Our athletes endure this display of love with great poise in dignity. So, come to see this show to see the story of one of our greatest group of athletes, the Harimau Malaya, in a time when they could have taken us to the Olympics. And somewhere within their story, see if you could find yourself, a fellow Malaysian.
Altimet
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Bakchormeeboy: Where did you draw inspiration from in composing music and lyrics for OlaBola? Was there any particular artist?
Altimet: From the film, Hamilton the musical, Malay pantun and some of my favourite rappers from the present and past.
Bakchormeeboy: As a rapper, why do you think your sound and songs fit the tone of OlaBola as opposed to say, big Broadway/West End style numbers?
Altimet: We, the creative team discussed this at length. Rapping, like acting, dance and singing is a tool to tell a/the story. So the key was using the right tool at a certain point of the story. So we decided the scenes/songs that should have elements of rap and worked from there. I may be biased but I think rapping is a wonderful storytelling tool, and complements the other aspects that make up a musical.
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Bakchormeeboy: Ola Bola will mark your theatrical debut as an actor. How has the rehearsal process been for you, and were there any big challenges you faced making that transition?   
Altimet: I love it. I love being the least knowledgeable person in a situation. That means  i’ll get to learn the most if i apply myself. I’ve no doubt that this experience will help me in my other pursuits. I’m used to working in a team but working in a team this big consisting o smaller interlocking teams is an eye opening experience.
Bakchormeeboy: After working on Ola Bola, do you think that you’ll continue composing music for theatre in the future? Or was this a one off project?
Altimet: Yes. The common ground with all forms of art is storytelling, expressing oneself and conveying emotions. So if the opportunity arises why not?


Ola Bola The Musical plays from 8th February – 11th March 2018 at Panggung Sari Istana Budaya, Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets available from Galactix.

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