I can’t forget this day even if I tried – I had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur on the day of this meeting from my hometown in a cramped bus manned by a persistent person that had no regard for highway speed limits. One motion sickness medicine, borrowed car ride, chili noodle soup, and outfit change later, my team of three and I were driving up to the jamming studio where we swore to meet that day in December. The radio announcers talked to themselves as my trio and I fought our post-meal lassitude on roads we rarely visit with murmured comments of “Ah, that’s nice” directed towards the stretches of plant nurseries we passed by. The Sungai Buloh sun wasn’t the only starshine that greeted us warmly as we closed the car doors with worried whispers of “Did we get the right address?”. Running towards us with a stellar solar smile and open arms was the effervescent, effulgent, effing, Eff Hakim.
Eff navigates the scaling staircase of Ruang Irama with easy familiarity. Saluted by a red door that swung open upon two knocks and one key through a door lock, Ruang Irama presents itself as an instant friend – The one you haven’t talked to in a while but when you meet again, the connection is voltaic. Designated as an audio jamming studio awakened by Zahar of Pitahati, Ruang Irama lures a promise of companionship through its instrumental availability and closed-door connections. There was something about that singular sonic space that makes you feel safe to announce your deepest and darkest. Eff Hakim settles in front of a drum kit with a cream Fender Telecaster that almost looks like a part of her own genetic makeup. An instinctive extension of her anatomy. “There’s a sentimentality I attach to Ruang Irama which is why I wanted our meeting to take place here. Even before I formed my current band, I’ve always hung around here with friends and observed how Zahar runs a jamming studio. I constantly asked him about things regarding audio works and guitars. At the beginning of forming my current band, Hawa, this was the place we jammed in for the first time. It went really well and everyone really just…vibed” Eff talks through a straightforward grin. Her fingers subconsciously form chords as she appears to be right in her natural habitat.
“I bought a cheap guitar once during the start of the pandemic and kept coming here to get it upgraded only to learn that it still sounds soft and it could not produce the sound I wanted. I still have played shows with that guitar though. I was insistent on trying to help it sound good and persevered through extensive procedures, changes, upgrades, and by getting every pedal in the world until I was told by Zahar to simply save that money I was spending on the upgrades towards getting myself a better guitar. It took me about a year and a half of freelance work to finally get this guitar. It’s a second-hand guitar, made in Japan, a standard tele. Originally, this guitar’s pickguard was white but I changed it to black. I really wanted a pink guitar but after seeing it in natural hues, just black and white, it looked so versatile and felt like it suited my own ever changing palette” The Telecaster stayed on her through this introduction. “I really love it.”
Allowing my team and I the upper hand of a tour guide through her brain, the person sat in front of me looked confident, radiant, and ready. She tells us of her geographical history consisting of Mother from Perak and Father from Kedah who fell in love, got married, set foot in Sabah, fell in love a second time with the state, and decided to live there where they started their family. Though born and raised in Sabah, Eff remarks her diasporic questioning with careful casualty. “Weirdly enough if people were to ask me, I don’t completely identify with being a Sabahan. I thought that when I moved to Kuala Lumpur that I could for sure identify myself here or associate myself here. Then I actually lived in KL and I couldn’t identify with people here, because I’ve been so far away and isolated from everyone. I was so confused because my ideology of a Malay culture from the perspective of an outsider looking in was Petronas advertisements and TV3 dramas. I thought to myself that, yeah that’s Malay culture, I guess that’s me, that’s how I should be talking and that’s how I should be. Living here at that time though, I found that nobody actually talks like that. There are so many types of people coming from a lot of different states and backgrounds making me realise that, Woah, I actually didn’t know anything about Malaysia”.
Eff comfortably adjusts her sitting position throughout these tales without even getting up to leave her spot. Curating vintage clothing and accessories alongside making her own jewelry, it is impossible to miss her tastes trickled in her selections. The white ribbon tied to her jet-black long bob slightly catching the wind with each of her tilts and turns. Dripped in a cream houndstooth blazer and slit black skirt, this business meeting at 3, rockstar ready at 4 ensemble painted a characteristic conception of Eff as a person. “I have these two women in my life who pioneered the way I think and why I like what I like. My eldest sister was goth, really, death metal goth while we were growing up. I kid you not, I’d go into her room and see albums and posters with skeletons, ram heads, Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir. She was the one who introduced me to body art, piercings, dark eyeliners, gigs and events. Growing up, my parents would make her take me with her wherever she would go. I was exposed to these things at a very young age, joining my sister at her hangouts and meeting up with her friends but it was mostly gigs. My other sister is very athletic, playing sports like hockey and skateboarding. She really liked skating and was even featured in a newspaper article around 2007 just for being a girl who skateboarded. It was so random, she was just skating and that happened. That was how rare it was in Malaysia at that time”.
Crediting both her sisters for owning their personalities and showing her how to be unapologetically individualistic regardless of spaces where women and girls were the minority, Eff was never left to feel unwelcome or alone in facing adversities. “I was a really awkward teenager who didn’t have many friends. I watched too much TV and grew up with the internet in that era. Thank God for my sisters who made me want to mature so I could be friends with them. Because of our age gaps, I had to catch up with my sisters. Both of my sisters always had my back, if I was picked on or if they would wanna go out, they’d be the first ones there and they would always include me”.
The web of Eff’s internal world goes beyond familial influences, it is a nexus of collected experience. A curious 9 year old Eff was watching MTV one day and saw music videos by The Smashing Pumpkins, Blink 182 and Good Charlotte. Never had it registered to her before that this was a possible career path and went deep diving into the crevices of the internet to get a better understanding. “When I saw them on the TV I thought, woah, what’s this? What’s a rockstar? I googled, I watched youtube videos, found music magazines like Alternative Press, Spin, Revolver and I read about all these different bands from all these different countries. It was then that I decided someday, somehow, that I was going to be doing that but at the time, I had no idea how.”
Involving herself in the music scene before even knowing the path that she would take, Eff was content just being around musicians before starting something for herself. “I’ve always tried to be in bands, since I was 15, I really wanted to play in a band. I was friends with a lot of musicians but I somehow struggled to find my way in. I had a guitar but I wasn’t really playing it. It was only until I was around this person at the time, who taught me my first chords. He was in a band and playing shows. I followed him around to his gigs around 2007. He was playing a gig at Rumah Api and watching him perform, it was the first time for me to see someone I actually knew personally playing up on stage. I thought to myself ‘Hey, if he can do it, I can!’ I became really curious, I was hit by this weird, strange bug that wouldn’t rest. It made me want to know things like, how do I play guitar? How do I start a band? I kept trying to learn and find my own route to start. Even then, it took me so long to get better at guitar.”
“Your first relationship shapes your perspectives on all future relationships. I thought it was normal for people to be cheating on you and lying to you. I thought it was normal to be disrespected this way because it was my first time involved in another person like this. Because of this experience, I kept finding myself in bad relationships. My drive as a woman who wanted to be in music at that time was one of desperation because during that period there weren’t many women in this industry. There weren’t a lot of girls that were going to hold our hand, walk us through these things and teach us how to do the right thing, the right way. So who could I have turned to? When I turn to some random guy in a band, if their intentions are good, they’ll end up really nice and respectful towards you without any hidden agendas. A handful of times though, there are more people that take advantage of you and your vulnerability. I involved myself with way too many people that I shouldn’t have but this was a long, long time ago. Reflecting on it now, it wasn’t right for a 15, 16 year old to have dabbled in all these unhealthy relationships. There were many rumours spread about me, a lot of name calling and my reputation was jeopardised but I owned it. For my confidence and my rage, I was hell bent on being a rockstar. That’s my rage talking, but I know that I’ll be something”.
Studying psychology at a local university before following her sonic passion, Eff Hakim dropped out of her initial major with a balanced bravado and naivety. Having already been in a band that was getting paid to play shows both locally and abroad during this nonconformist period, Eff was deadly determined to live her truth. “I dropped out of college without even telling my parents first. I went to the Dean, filled out a form and did it. The next day, I went to Rock Corner and applied for a job. I had this grand idea that I didn’t need to study psychology or have a degree and I came back home thinking that my parents wouldn’t be screaming at me when I laid out my four year plan to them. I told them how I had quit psychology but I got a job at Rock Corner and my band’s going places, so we’re all good, right? Man, my dad basically disowned me for a while. I think he didn’t understand it at the time. I was at a low point. Coincidentally some of my friends told me that they were studying audio engineering and asked me to join them as I was already making music so I might as well pick up audio engineering”.
Eff Hakim’s physical body was present before me though her sharp winged jet black lined eyes told a separate story. Taking out the skeletons in her closet didn’t seem to scare her one bit. Eff was polishing these bones, giving them makeovers and tying rainbow ribbons on them. She possesses these stories of her past with open arms and a developed demeanour. “I think I was probably in ten different bands before Pastel Lite, even. Since I was 15, I never stopped seeking opportunities. I was in a reggae band, a wedding band, a jazzy art-girl band, an indie rock band that tried to be a version of Placebo meets The Strokes. I dabbled in playing bass, very poorly but I did play. I tried playing the drums where I could only do punk rock progressions. I tried playing guitar, again, not really that great. On top of being in bands, I was so hungry to be something in the indie music industry that I did everything else too. I worked with zines and independent publishings. I used to hang with Ricecooker Archives, just to be able to meet with many different tropes of people within the scene, just to see what everyone was up to, the things they were doing. I used to work for Drug Free Youth Association just to learn and get a hang of organising gigs. I used to illustrate for gig posters or work with bands on their album art. Anything, really, anything! I just genuinely wanted to be a part of it. I did all of it. The funny thing was, I didn’t want to be in a band again, I wanted to just stop with music because it was not easy to find the right people. I thought to myself that I was going to do music journalism and started my own blog though it didn’t gain much traction. My logic was that people didn’t read my writings because they didn’t want to read what I had to say as I was inexperienced with being a musician or music in general, and I had to get back to making music. So I made a demo and posted it online, which was when I found my last bandmate in Pastel Lite, and that later became ten years of my life”.
“Pastel Lite became the most commercially successful band that I’ve ever been in. I was in so many other bands before this that it wasn’t that new to me to be in another one. When we released our single, I felt that both members of the band were mentally ready to be as big as we were because we both had the same drive. We didn’t even know each other before, we found each other through, I think, SoundCloud? Then we met up and we just kept working. It’s hard to find people who are just like, ‘I don’t know you, I don’t care what you do outside of this but do you want to work with me?’ and it just worked. When it became too much about work and too little about anything other than work, it became detrimental for the both of us. The humanness of it subsided”, she reminisces these past years with a newfound independence. “At one point, we got comfortable in our careers. The mass acceptance towards Pop Bilik Tidur made us comfortable and afraid. We kind of just wanted to stay there and were scared of losing what we had. But in order to stay there, we had to sell out more and more. It became something that backfired on us and was eating us alive. I am not at all blaming any specific parties for it getting to that point, in fact, I am also at fault. We were both so young and it all happened so fast. We were a part of this thing that we both wanted so bad but weren’t prepared for everything else that came with it”.
Pastel Lite is a household name in both the local independent music scene and its loyal devotees. They were acknowledged, uplifted, loved and memorised by many during their short but hyperactive grouping. Their dissolution in 2021 didn’t go unnoticed with divided opinions and internet postings conversing this shared sorrow regarding the split. This he said, she said phenomenon went on with rumoured reasons relating to the cause of the decision made. In Eff Hakim’s own words, “It was a change of wind, a change of perspectives. I think MCO did a number on all of us in our own ways which was what catapulted the decision into what has happened now. I felt that if we weren’t completely stressed out with the circumstances of MCO, that a different decision would have been made. I used to blame it entirely on the circumstances, my past bandmate or just myself but weighing it now, I feel that it was just a matter of timing. I look back and think that even if all the drama, disagreements or the fiasco of feuds never happened, I hit a wall with myself during the making of the band’s third album not knowing what else could I do? How else can I push myself? What else could we do? It didn’t feel rewarding anymore and I felt disconnected, unable to get out of my comfort zone. At that moment, it felt like it was just convenient for me to be this certain person that people can look up to. When you fall into the mass market and then it works right, you would feel like you played a magic trick that everyone loved and then you think to yourself ‘Well now I’ve got to keep playing this trick!’ I realised that people like it when I’m sweet, people like it when I’m elegant, people like it when I’m soft, people like it when I write these kinds of songs or when I act like this, talk like this. I don’t blame the team, I don’t blame my former bandmate, I don’t blame anyone for this disconnect I feel between myself and the art that I am making”.
“I was younger and I just wanted to be good, I wanted to be great, I wanted to be liked and loved by people. It came to a period when I was writing almost 20 songs everyday, day-in, day-out and I was burning out because at the same time, my mother was sick and my father passed away. There were other personal issues emotionally, financially. I got really bored because we couldn’t be performing, I had limited ways to express myself as at that time I wasn’t engaged in playing instruments and I felt that at the time I couldn’t expand. My heart and soul was already telling me, ‘Dude, something is dead here. I don’t know why, I don’t know what. But it is’. I thought of myself as crazy during that period, I thought I was so ungrateful. The trajectory of the band was perfect, right? Everything is perfect, right? Again, I don’t want to point any fingers but something was triggered inside me. I felt mad that I was dishonest to myself by trying to be this version that everybody could digest and accept. I neglected myself. I questioned myself, thinking whether or not I was even telling the truth anymore. Something switched in me and I couldn’t fight it anymore”.
We got up after many solid minutes of both innocent and intense indoor conversation and headed outside for a breather. Eff was presently unshaken by her storied circumstances but rather liberated by it. Rested on a white bench inhaling and exhaling, the surrounding echo of that stairway amplified our conversation that strayed further and further from a full stop. “I had to let it go because I never really did it by myself. I came into the band with the mindset I had with any previous collaborations or relationships which was that someone was going to save me. I grew up thinking there was going to be a prince charming, an angel, an agent, a manager or a bandmate that was going to save me but at that point, I had already graduated from learning audio, I had ten years of experience. What’s not enough? I needed to rescue myself”. She admits to being guilty of owning a people pleasing tendency that matures into a present matter she is attending to. Questioning all her values, identities, perspectives and philosophies to arrive at certified conclusions that resonate truest to not only the person that she wanted, but needed to become. “You know when you go through pain like this, well, I went through all the stages of grief going through the disband. The denial phase stuck with me, making me think I could still save it somehow but I eventually evolved into accepting that this here, this thing has died. That was the saddest part but we all needed to move on. I wanted to use so many things and people as an excuse like this, that or they are the reason I am the worst or that I am the best. The idea of losing all by yourself is a lot more scary than losing as a team. Maybe it was just scary for me to take full responsibility for something. But the truth is, it’s not about my past bandmates, it’s not about Pastel Lite, it’s not about anyone or anything. They’re just a distraction or metaphor to my laziness because I didn’t want to go inwards and fight for myself”.
Referencing Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ in this phase of her life, the significance of Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, reaching her own conclusions through John Hurt’s narration of “The light now penetrated every unevenness and flaw in the buildings and in the people. And all of a sudden, she knew the answer to her question all too well. If she had acted like them, she could not have defended a single one of her actions and could not have condemned them harshly enough. It was as if her sorrow and pain finally assumed their rightful place. No, what they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so – For the sake of other towns, for the sake of humanity and not least, for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself”. The personality and person that Eff Hakim now presents to the public is one that she had to grow into, tend to and nurture in private.
Her evolution turned resolve is an optimistic option she chose in the form of a four letter word – Hawa. Formed in 2022 playing their first show in June of the same year, Hawa is the sensible next step for Eff as she continues to expand through experimenting sound as her medium. Although being with multiple bands and a record label prior to Hawa was never something that restrained her decision making and creative direction with Eff citing these past relationships as diplomatic, captaining the trajectory of Hawa meant new grounds for Eff with a polished perspective. “Back then, I just wanted people to keep coming to the shows and cared a lot about other peoples’ thoughts before my own on what I wanted to do. Hawa began as a selfish little project. The songs that I came up with under Hawa were songs of frustration and healing because I wasn’t able to express myself. I didn’t want the songs to add on to more boring drama but I needed to speak my truth and I wanted to do it through my art. I didn’t want to attack anybody or that all of my songs, my online presence or virality to only be about aiming at certain people and ambushing them. I really wanted to start something true for myself which is why I never came out publicly sharing all of this in this way before. Hawa is a product of my pain, pressure and emotions. The hurt was so intense for me and I needed an outlet”.
“Shoutout to my counsellor Nurin, who assisted me in being better equipped in learning how to healthily express myself. I felt like I had no idea how at first because I was so used to every single piece of expression I produce to be a sellable material and I didn’t know how I could use art as my means to heal. She told me to do it like no one’s ever going to read or see it. Draw, write, paint, sing, whatever, just get it out like no one’s watching. So I picked up my guitar and was just going at it, singing out all my thoughts and feelings which later became the first few songs I ever wrote for Hawa. Songs like “Cancer”, “Mayat Hidup”, “Aku Dah Mati”, which were all carrying this theme of how defunct and gone I felt inside. Hawa became this selfish hobby project taking me to Penang where I played to friends who encouraged me to continue it, and then there was the Malaya Roll show. I started playing it with Tinesh on bass and Ashraff on drums and it suddenly became legitimate songs, taking its own life form”.
Mentioning her boyfriend’s suggestions on what to name the band, Eff confesses it to be an easy decision in line with the visions she had for this grouping. “I wanted to call it ‘Telewati’ because I imagined it being an all-girl band but that will be for another project, I’m still not giving up on that. My boyfriend had this idea that I should call myself ‘The Hawa’, but there’s only one girl in the band so I decided to name myself just Hawa. I didn’t want to go with my own name as I wanted something that was more representative of every Malay girl’s name. Hawa also means breeze in Malay. It’s biblical almost, it’s Eve, it’s the female, it’s indicative of my roots, it means breeze – It’s both deep and not that deep at the same time. I met both my bandmates at local shows. Hawa’s drummer, Ashraff, is the frontman of The Fridays which was crazy because I’ve been a big fan of his work and I’m always at their shows. He told me that Hawa’s songs would be even better with a band so I took that insight and recorded him on the drums. I met Tinesh who plays music under Clapmother at a gig. I was hanging out with him, I think we were talking about monkeys and we gelled so well. The next time we hung out, he told me that he can play bass so I showed him my demo and without much question, he sent back his bass lines so fast and it was exactly how I wanted it”.
“This whole trip with Hawa is not easy. I am used to being very sensitive to what people want and I really don’t like disappointing anyone. The hardest thing for me is to say ‘No’, but I can’t afford to compromise my art this time around. I have to balance between being a hard headed dictator and a creative because now I know exactly what I want. The exact sound, technicality, style is very clear to me in my own head and I wanted to execute it exactly how I pictured it. It’s hard to stand up for myself now to achieve what I want, how I want it because I used to just be a Yes person and compromise my actual intent simply to avoid rejecting anyone’s input and avoid conflict. Sometimes you just have to think of yourself when it comes to your own boundaries, your craft, your tastes and respect that even though it’s hard. It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning to register”.
I stood leaning against a foam wall with Eff sitting at the drum kit, a voice recorder an arms length between us and cameras flashing every few minutes. Her voice remains a steady sonnet of conviction as she talks about Hawa. Opportunities for her current band are ones that she would like to attain as organic as they come. “With Hawa, I haven’t forced any show to happen. It has all happened from friends or friends of friends via word of mouth. This time I want the band to just move based off of our own progress with music. What I incorporate into Hawa that I learnt from my previous experiences is that you could be working hard and pushing yourself until you’re burnt out, but if it’s meant to be, it will be. The mindset used to be that we needed to meet the right people, we needed to say the right thing and market it well so that we would be more recognized. You can do everything you want to do with it but if you’re not happy, then what’s the point? I started this movement for myself because I just wanted to be happy and do this one thing that brings me joy. I love performing on stage, recording, making music, making new friends, getting to know people, making art, showcasing what I make and that is my only intention with this. Every aspect outside of that like the ass-kissing, band politics, social politics, financial, marketing which are all important matters that should still be thought about but being a self-managed band, I try to find my sweet spot with it to not end up hyper-focusing on the minute details surrounding the selling of the art instead of the making of it”.
“What I’m trying so hard to do with Hawa is a whole different ballpark. I used to be extremely calculative about how I’m going to make a perfect record but this time around, the mechanisms of how Hawa operates is so pure. When I was writing the songs for Hawa, my thought process was just owning up to what I was feeling and wanting to get it all out. It didn’t have to always rhyme or be catchy, I just wanted to say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do without apologizing for it anymore”.
Hawa is currently in the process of recording their debut release with songs that have already been written. With its current progress in motion, this upcoming piece will be produced and engineered by an internal team. “I’ve recorded the guitar parts already. My best friend is set to be the sole audio engineer for the record but the kicker as to why I’m taking my sweet time to really focus on this is that this will be the first time ever for me to produce my own thing. Prior to this, I’ve only co-produced other peoples’ work in past collaborations. This would be my first time doing this with the help of my bandmates, of course but with this project I’m taking the lead. The procedure of Hawa that I think some people don’t understand is that the concept is I produce, I compose, I come up with the art direction but what my bandmates come up with belong to them. They pitch in as much as they can but essentially it is my own project. Though I feel like a complete dragon lady and I hate saying that, when it comes to credibility in work, I have to be firm which was something I learnt the hard way”.
Eff Hakim is depending on herself to turn the conditions around to her own favor. Every series of stories she shared with us makes it an even more obvious factor contributing to the person she has helped herself become. Unpeeling this person unveiled with care, Eff contorts into a stronger self that has responsibilities, fun and a distinguished distinct sense of self. “Now that I have a fresh start, I want to be ruthless. It is after all my own doing, so I don’t see why I should be shy about it. Owning the fact that I’m fronting this band as a woman especially. There aren’t enough representatives in this sense that have an unobstructed punk mindset when it comes to producing and releasing art. Maybe through my way of taking action, that I produced this, recorded this or that I played guitar on this, maybe it could be helpful for some women out there who need a nudge to start something of their own. I hope that by doing this, I can become part of this larger wave of women who show that yes we do this, we can and we should!”