Where He Belongs

Published on 26 November 2017

Photo: Shaun Ng

He’s faced setbacks from East to West, but Sean Ghazi continues to embrace all cultures.

By Jo Tan

Born in Malaysia, Sean Ghazi studied in Singapore, trained in musical theatre in London, and performed in and directed high-profile musicals in Europe. He also featured in movies in the United States before returning to Malaysia to record albums, produce performances and make trips to Singapore to work on shows. While it sounds like a glamorous jetsetter lifestyle, Ghazi reveals that each continent has yielded as much heartache as success.

“In Europe, I was constantly subjected to Asian stereotypes. Performing The King and I in the United Kingdom, I was told to speak in a hammed-up accent — the British person’s idea of what a Thai person sounded like. Then when I went to Los Angeles to see if I could be a Hollywood actor, everyone told me I wasn’t really Asian because the roles available were for Chinese or Japanese characters rather than Polynesian ones,” he recalls. Even Singapore has afforded Ghazi disappointments because of his nationality: despite winning the 1995 Fame Awards, he was told there was little that could be done for him because he was Malaysian.

Yet Ghazi continues to embrace cultures from everywhere he’s called home. “I identify as a third culture kid where I belong nowhere and also everywhere. I’m both Eastern and Western, and I’ve always loved both P Ramlee and Frank Sinatra. So I decided to marry the music of both.”

In 2006, Ghazi recorded his hit album Semalam, featuring big-band jazz versions of classic Malay songs, as well as ‘Ku Impikan Bintang’, his own Malay translation of ‘Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love’ by the celebrated Pink Martini, a band he sang with in the States. He also continued performing in musical theatre, albeit not on the West End: he played the titular character in P Ramlee the Musical, and starred in the Singapore production of French musical La Cage Aux Folles. This year, he released a jazzy reimagining of P Ramlee’s ‘Gelora’.

“I’ve done diverse work, but what holds it altogether is my first love — music. Musical theatre, dancing, arranging… yes, I’ve acted in films, but for [Malaysian production] Spilt Gravy on Rice, I also composed its theme song. Music has always called the shots.”

This month, he uses music to share his international influences in An Evening With Sean Ghazi, a concert featuring Filipina Stephanie Reese. He adds that after facing setbacks in various cities, he has realised people tend to question where he belongs, but he’s over that. “I make my own shows and music. I lobbied for the P Ramlee role rather than wait for something to be offered to me. Now that I’m a producer at jazz venue Bobo KL, I’m giving other artists a platform to develop their own voice as well. I define where I belong, and that’s everywhere.”

An Evening With Sean Ghazi plays 13 & 14 December at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

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