Sunday September 23, 2012
Nik A. Ramli's tribute to Donna Summer
By ROUWEN LIN
IT was a time before music albums were released on compact discs when Nik A. Ramli stumbled across American singer and songwriter Donna Summer. On a show broadcasted by RTM in 1979, she performed Love To Love You Baby, and he was instantly hooked. He was nine years old.
“My sister later introduced me to Summer’s On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. Her timbre, the delightfully designed LP cover and the way the songs blended into each other instantly attracted me,” the Malaysian says of the double compilation album released in October 1979, the third multi-platinum album to Summer’s name.
Nik, who is the youngest of six children, spent his childhood in Kuala Lumpur, Terengganu and Malacca. He discovered a passion for interior design, and went on to further his studies in Britain, where he has been based for the last 21 years.
But his interest in Summer and her music never waned. Fast-forward three decades from his first encounter with her music, and Nik has written a book – his first! – about the queen of 1970s disco boom, who died in May at home in Florida in the United States after a battle with cancer. The five-time Grammy Award winner was 63.
“It is a very personal tribute, a music biography celebrating the late American star’s musical success. I decided to write this book as a tribute to Summer and her creativity. It is a thank-you for all the joy she has given me and all her fans. She is a singer I have always adored, and writing and researching about her work was a fascinating venture,” the 42-year-old interior designer states in an e-mail interview from London.
Interestingly, this book was never meant to be published. Compiling the material started out as a hobby in the 1990s; it was a matter of a young man gathering information about a singer he idolised that ended up becoming a book some years later.
“As I accumulated more information about Summer, I got organised and typed it out on my laptop. By January 2000, I had 26 A4 pages printed. Still, publishing a book was not something I thought of,” says Nik.
Shortly after submitting a six-part TV drama script for a competition (his script didn’t make the cut, which was just as well in hindsight, he says, because it would mean having to leave his job), Nik started inquiring about how to publish his work. A manuscript was mailed to Book Guild Publishing in 2009, and he was over the moon when they replied favourably to working with him.
“They wrote to say that they found it interesting, and would be pleased to work with me to publication. I was so thrilled! From then on, it was all systems go,” he recalls.
Not that everyone else was crazy about the idea, of course. The idea of an interior designer attempting to write a music biography was met with a few raised eyebrows.
“Some people reckoned it was unacceptable. They thought that an interior designer should release a design book. But, you know, life is too short and I don’t like to be boxed into one creative place. And don’t get me wrong, I received a lot of encouraging feedback too,” Nik shares.
Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On documents the ups and downs of the performer’s music career. Nik, who returns to Malaysia often as it remains his family home, describes it as an informative read that contains a lot of detailed facts.
“This project is a fair and constructive critical analysis of Summer’s artistic legacy. It is a way to compile her recordings in succession and to communicate my understanding of her music for other people in relation to her musical landscape. Still, one can’t help it if there is a bit of bias because, after all, she is my favourite artiste,” he says, adding that Summer’s music and album covers (she was said to have been personally involved in most of them) provided inspiration for some of his creative works.
Nik is able – with great difficulty – to pick a favourite song by Summer, Work That Magic (Capricorn ISA Remix), but finds it impossible to settle for a favourite chapter from his book. Indeed, he is even hard pressed to choose which part of the writing and publishing process he enjoyed the most.
“I loved every part including writing the chapter titles, editing the chapter numbers, research, interviews, the whole lot. I put my heart and soul into it. I had total control over the look of the book, the jacket design, even the layout of the photo plates. Am I a control freak? Yes! I have my vision and ideas and I worked closely with the publisher’s design team to turn that concept into reality,” he says, adding that he was privileged to have singer-songwriter Bruce Roberts, who was involved with Summer and Barbra Streisand’s duet No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), write the foreword. The song was included as a new number on On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II.
Producing the book was no walk in the park, especially since Nik was working full-time during the initial phase of penning the manuscript for publication. He likens producing a book to a balancing act, with difficult aspects to tackle as well as having to get in the mood and be disciplined to sit and write regularly.
“The book is a research-based work. I am not a trained creative writer or a novelist, or ever claimed to be one, but it is what I think a music biography would be. I have written articles on interior design tips, but writing a factual book about someone popular is a totally different proposition. You don’t really appreciate how much work is involved in producing a book until you have gone through the process itself,” he says.
The 264-page Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On, which was launched earlier this month in Mayfair, London, was being prepared for release during the time of her passing. Summer knew the book was going to be released; Nik had previewed chapters and information for her management just the month before she died.
“I was shocked when I heard about her death, no words could describe my feelings at the time. It didn’t seem real. I was on my laptop inviting guests for the book launch when I heard the news. Just earlier that day, I had written a letter to Summer, inviting her to the book launch. May 17, 2012, will never be forgotten by her fans. She will always be missed and our prayers go to her family,” says Nik.
Summer was once quoted as saying: “I’m just an ordinary person that did some extraordinary things.”
And perhaps for Nik, and many of her fans out there, it will always be summer as long as her music plays.
> Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On is available for purchase online. For more on Nik A. Ramli, go to www.nikaramli.com. Also, watch out for Nik’s guest appearance on Hello On Two, TV2’s live breakfast show, in November.