Martin Looi
Martin Looi

Violin music has somewhat faded from public consciousness since the halcyon days of Nigel Kennedy and Nicola Benedetti. Both musicians are still playing: Kennedy has moved into jazz and Benedetti leads a trio as well as putting on solo performances. They’re just not raising the headlines that they did at one time.

However, lovers of the violin in popular music need not despair. Martin Looi is here to help. His new five track EP, called Maddy, has just been released to streaming platforms and it brings the sound of the violin right up to date.

Martin Looi is Malaysian but studied in Australia, emerging from his studies with a degree in music and audio engineering. He combines these two abilities in recording and production work, adding software plugin effects to his tunes after recording. This allows his standard acoustic violin to sound more like a Spanish guitar or a saxophone at times, depending on the mood of the track.

Looi has been playing violin for 20 years, and now blends the instrument’s trademark sound with elements of jazz, hip-hop, modern R&B and reggaeton rhythms. It sounds unlikely, but it works well. The violin sparkles and croons by turns, backed by fresh, modern rhythms.

The opening track, Getaran Jiwa, was originally recorded by P Ramlee in the 1960s. Ramlee was a huge star in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand and his pieces are regarded as classics. Listening to this, you can hear why, as it evokes the 1930s Paris jazz scene. It’s a mix of 1930s American swing and gypsy folk music with brushed drums, atmospheric piano and the violin front and centre.

Track 2, Good Ol’ Bounce, does just that. Its g-funk influenced sound has an R&B beat which calls to mind current chart hits.

Third track Bowin’ Bars shows off the violin’s dancing shoes. The melody sounds like a Spanish guitar with a suitably insistent beat and a complete range of notes and complexity.

The penultimate track is the one most people will know. Kenny G’s soprano saxophone playing on Songbird was everywhere in the 1980s, and Martin Looi’s smooth and lush cover is just as good.

The final track is named Lil Latina, although it is not a cover of the Wes Devine tune, but merely shares a title and influences with it.

Despite his relative youth, Martin Looi has played with some of the biggest names in Malaysian pop music, including Hazama Azmi, Atilia Haron, Syafinaz Selamat and Salamiah Hassan.

Now, he has his focus set on taking the violin to musical places it hasn’t been before, melding the sound first heard in the 16th century with modern backing less than two decades old. His plan seems to be working so far, at least.