By Azzief Khaliq.
Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam. The name probably means absolutely nothing to most Malaysians, but for a dedicated few, the weirdos that worship at the altar of ’60s and ’70s German rock, and Can in particular, the name has taken on a bit of a mythical air: he is The Malaysian That Sang for Can.
The only facts we know (“fact” used very lightly of course, in this case) of are that Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam was a Malaysian who existed in some form or another, and that he sang in Can for three months in 1976, from January to March. We can hear his voice in live recordings from Poitiers and Brussels, an unknown (and unknowable?) voice stumbling languidly over that immortal rhythm section of Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay, and fighting for space with Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards. But was he a person or just a name? Is the voice we hear the voice of Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam or “Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam”? Was he even Malaysian?
Did the person we “know” as “Malaysian singer Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam” even exist as a person, as a being that was alive before his time in can and continued to exist after those three months?
In our stoned reveries, we’ve even thought about cobbling the money together to film a search for Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam. But then the questions would start mounting: where to start? Would anyone even be willing (or able) to tell us about him? But, most importantly, is there even anything to find out?
As it is, there’s barely anything to say about Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam. At least, not directly. But the real reason that Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam still looms large in our consciousness is what he represents: the unknowable footnote, the anecdote for which there is no context, or backstory, or supplementary information. The unknowable in an information-saturated age.
The abundance of information that’s now available at our fingertips, the almost-instinctive motion of pulling a phone out of our pockets and tapping in a few words into Google’s search bar, has given that which isn’t represented in this abundance even more mystique, even more “pull”. We can find almost anything on the internet, so the void of information that is Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam feels particularly dissonant, particularly frustrating.
There has to be a source, someone who knows more, possibly from the days of tape trading and ROIOs, but one that has probably since been lost to the relentless forward march of time. It could be fact, but it could also very well be misinformation or some sort of corruption, elevated to the level of inviolable, impossible-to-disprove truth. The person from whom these recordings came claims that they were given to them in the 80s by “a close friend of the band,” but that seems to be all that we’ll ever know.
It’s similar to, but still quite unlike, the case of mythical Japanese psychedelic rock band Les Rallizes Denudes. Les Rallizes Denudes and their enigmatic leader, Takashi Mizutani, are much more than a footnote, for one. But the big thing is that, compared to Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam, there’s a relative wealth of Les Rallizes Denudes information available. And that’s saying a lot since we barely have anything to go on anyway when it comes to Mizutani and company.
But there’s enough to give rise to rumours, conjecture and myth. There’s enough to keep us cooking up strange, weird stories, enough footage for us to try and imagine what it was like to have been around during their heyday. And, one has to admit, enough recordings to collect to give us the illusion of knowledge, the futile Sisyphean attempt to know something (or someone) by acquiring as much of what they left behind as possible. There’s photo, there’s video, there are an absolute ton of recordings. And these things count. Footnotes don’t release 60 (live) albums, that’s for sure.
Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam, on the other hand, is a footnote, a speck of dust in the grand history of music, the “Malaysian singer” who “played four dates with the band” and “did considerable studio work” with the band. Nobody seems to know where these facts came from and nobody has ever had anything to say that could reinforce or disprove his existence. It’s likely that nobody ever will, either.
That mid-70s period of Can, the comparatively unfulfilling no man’s land that exists between Loaded and Flow Motion, is itself arguably a footnote for most non-completist fans, so to be so interested in a temporary vocalist from that period seems almost perverse. But there’s something about this footnote, as insignificant and peripheral as it is, that gives it a disproportionately strong meaning. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s Malaysian, and this is a roundabout, intentionally obfuscated way of expressing some sort of patriotic spirit. But while that may be the root of the interest, patriotism doesn’t sustain this line of thinking very well: patriotism fades quickly when the object is not in view, we think.
Perhaps the reason that we’re this concerned with Thaiga Raj, concerned enough to write these words about him, is the way that he represents the wonders of a footnote, and the beauty and frustration of being unable to know. Of not even knowing if there’s anything to know.
The beauty of Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam and his three months in Can lies not in the live recordings, the imperfect glimpses into a time long past, but in the power of a footnote to make us imagine, to wonder. Who he was, who he became and who he is.
If he is forever to remain a footnote, then one must imagine the footnote happy.
Azzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s something he’s not all that interested in doing anymore. He has a deep interest in Godfrey Ho’s films.