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Omedetou Gozaimasu, Joe & Faridah!

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Rashomon Gate in Kyoto

Antares congratulates Actors Studio on their triumphant production of RASHOMON

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Faridah Merican, director

Ten days before Rashomon opened, a horrendous flash flood wiped out the Actors Studio’s Plaza Putra facilities: two theaters, the Actors Studio Academy, the Coffee Shoppe, and Joe Hasham’s chic new office. However, none of this appeared to have dampened their spirits as Faridah Merican personally welcomed the first night audience to her milestone directorial effort.

“Milestone” in that Faridah Merican’s realization of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s classic short story (to a script intelligently adapted by Joe Hasham) proved impressive on many fronts – aesthetic, dramaturgical, and the purely technical – and took Malaysian stagecraft to a new level of professionalism.

Hasham’s script adaptation was largely inspired by a close study of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film version of Rashomon.

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Bernard Goh, music director

The cinematic influence was further underscored by the use of a live orchestra playing what was pretty much a full-scale “soundtrack” to the action. The original music composed by Bernard Goh and Deborah Tee was artfully interpreted by Gideon on guitar, Yii Kah Hoe on flute and shakuhachi, Tay Chiew Lee on keyboard, and Jimmy Ch’ng on percussion. Indeed, the passion, precision, and sheer beauty of the orchestra’s performance was so outstanding they almost stole the show from the actors. I’d gladly sit through Rashomon a couple more times just to enjoy the music.

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Ramli Hassan
as Tajomoru

Working with a highly accomplished cast, Faridah was free to focus on maintaining the dramatic flow and credibility of the characterizations. Ramli Hassan was a natural choice for the charismatic rôle of the bandit Tajomoru. He brought to the character an animal magnetism that aptly personified the id – instinctual, cunning, dangerous, yet not without a certain feral innocence and candor.

Merissa Teh was absolutely convincing as the Wife. Deceptively delicate, but fully aware of her feminine power, she portrayed the adaptability and fluidity of the lifeforce when the brittle shell of social decorum and cultural conditioning is cracked. One might even surmise that the Wife manifested her own rape in order to free her wild spirit from the sterile bonds of a passionless marriage. We are indeed blessed to have Merissa Teh grace the local stage with her unassuming beauty and impeccable talent as an actress

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Ari Ratos as the Samurai

The Samurai represented the last vestiges of a feudal tradition – desperately clinging to his dignity and manhood against the unpredictable ravages of swiftly changing circumstances. To this challenging rôle, Ari Ratos brought an extraordinary integrity and humanity. Such is his skill as an actor that even as we empathized with the Samurai’s misfortune, we secretly rejoiced at his undoing, which symbolized the collapse of rigid tradition, of law and order, and the façade of respectability.

Lee Swee Keong’s lyrical movements – and the fact that he speaks exclusively in Mandarin – defines the Monk as some sort of superego, attempting to extract clarity, truth, and unity from the morass of contradictory data that constitutes the samsaric world.  A consummate dancer trained in buto, Swee Keong’s intense dedication to his craft stands him in equally good stead as an actor. His noble bearing and serene demeanor lent credence to his spiritual authority and it mattered little that one may not have understood his lines, so clearly focused was his body language.

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Lee Swee Keong as the Monk

By the play’s end it becomes clear that all the main characters – the Bandit, the Wife, the Samurai, and the Monk – are really integral aspects of the human psyche in a dynamic interplay of perspectives.  Akutagawa’s detachment from his characters gives the lie to the validity of an “objective” viewpoint. Reality is ultimately a subjective experience – and only the Monk’s spiritual grounding can encompass the drama and confusion of the sensory world and transcend it all. Of course, this is merely one way to interpret the multi-layered Rashomon – a work that undermines all notions of certainty while celebrating the infinite complexity and exquisite vulnerability of the human psyche. The Samurai and his Wife represent, perhaps, the male and female aspects of the ego.

The Woodcutter – a sort of Everyman polarized between truth and falsity – was admirably played by Terence Swampillai, who brought a tangible organicity and warmth to the character. Indeed, Swampillai’s performance was nothing short of award-winning, reminding us that there is truly no such thing as a small rôle – only great or indifferent acting.

I was surprised to find in the program no biographical reference to Caecar Chong – whose animated performance as the Medium and as an overzealous law enforcement officer was a memorable dramatic highlight. His exuberance injected high-octane energy into the proceedings and contributed significantly to the dynamic flow. As the second woodcutter, Mark Wong was unremarkable but did a sufficiently good job so as not to attract undue attention.

The special part of the Gatekeeper was inserted to serve as a sort of “Japanese chorus” cum narrator. Gan Hui Yee’s physical movements were indeed wonderful to behold, but her difficulties with English diction (coming as she does from a Chinese theater background) were a bit distracting in the opening scene. Fortunately, she eventually warmed up and began projecting her voice much better.

One suspects that the Monk’s two disciples (and lantern-bearers) were included mainly for visual effect. Nonetheless, in these auxiliary rôles, Kiea Kuan Nam and Ian Yang gave their best, especially in the choreographed sequences. I don’t usually comment on the costume design (unless it sticks out like a sore thumb), but in this instance, Cinzia Ciaramicoli’s exquisite taste and flair made the performers’ outfits an integral part of the lush visual experience.

Beautifully lit by the award-winning Mac Chan, the splendid set was conceived and constructed by a team comprising Actors Studio general manager Teoh Ming Jin, special effects expert K.L. Cheah, and the director herself. The clever use of bamboo and rear-projected foliage imagery effectively created the forest scenes; but I was most impressed by the thunderstorm effects which featured real water cascading through holes in a bamboo rafter into a hidden trough – leading a member of the audience to quip during the intermission: “Looks like Joe and Faridah are trying to drown THREE theaters!”

I left the theater elated by the overall excellence of the production and moved by the Actors Studio’s resilient spirit – Joe and Faridah’s capacity to seize yet another artistic triumph from the face of such recent tragedy.

24 June 2003

Rashomon received Boh Cameronian Arts Awards for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design, Best Original Music, and Best Lighting.

Review of Rashomon by Choy Su-Ling

 

A LOW-KEY TOUR DE FORCE

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Antares encounters The Dalcha Duo at SOUNDZ OF THE KL UNDERGROUND

Az Samad, flamenco-flavored lyricism

Never heard of The Dalcha Duo? Not too surprising, considering they came into being only a couple of months ago. Before that, they existed only as a couple of highly skilled and remarkably dedicated young guitarist-composers named Az Abdul Samad (pictured above) and Hardesh Singh. Both recently earned themselves Cameronian Arts Awards nominations for best solo performance and best original composition in a musical outing called Viva Voce, presented as part of the Music Circus KL series of concerts showcasing fresh musical talents.

A great deal of their charm stems from their refusal to take themselves too seriously  – even though they seem truly serious about their music. Calling themselves The Dalcha Duo, for instance: What’s dalcha? A mildly spicy Indian veggie stew. And using a rubber frog as a mascot for their performance, which, at one point, featured synchronized cellular phones in a number engagingly entitled The Mamak Symphony (inspired by the electronic beeps and ring tones playing spontaneous fugues at outdoor tea-stalls).

At 22, Az Abdul Samad (youngest son of well-known poet A. Samad Said) qualifies as a guitar prodigy of sorts. His flair and passion are almost Latin and are revealed in his penchant for Latino jazz rhythms. An ardent admirer of the late Michael Hedges, who pioneered the “new age” sound that established the Windham Hill label, Az paid tribute to his musical hero with a witty piece called Echoes of Bangsar – a quirky exercise in percussive harmonics and unpredictable chord progressions. His other compositions tend towards a dreamy, contemplative lyricism evoking a gentle, quiet inner strength. Occasionally tossing back his head of long, wavy hair with the hauteur characteristic of all flamenco guitarists, Az manipulated his acoustic-electric Takamine with the nonchalant ease and flamboyance of a matador.

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Hardesh Singh, disciplined multi-instrumentalist

Hardesh, 27, came across as the more musically eclectic of the duo, deriving his inspiration from genres as diverse as classical Indian and jazz-pop-fusion. An accomplished guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Hardesh anchored the groove with his trusty red Yamaha, switching midway to gambus and tabla on Jalan Yang Jauh – an extended exploration of cultural pluralism written by Az. He appeared a mite shy (perhaps because his mother happened to be in the small but appreciative audience) – but this could also be due to Hardesh’s predilection for control, precision, and technique. Undoubtedly useful skills, but definitely no substitute for spontaneous expression and feel. Quite possibly, Hardesh is one of those who can only relax after a couple of beers – but his grasp of music as a craft is utterly impressive.

Az and Hardesh are certainly well-matched as The Dalcha Duo. Indeed, the dynamics between them – and the generally high level of musicianship – reminded me of a spectacular concert I witnessed in Munich years ago that featured Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin on the same stage, performing dazzling solos and explosive duets.

I was reminded, too, of heady days (in the mid-1980s) when guitarist-composers like R.S. Murthi and Rafique Rashid performed their own works to rapt audiences at the British Council.

Something brilliant and breathtaking was happening at Soundz of the KL Underground, for sure: I could sense that local musical history was being made, that these young virtuosos were destined to make a lasting mark on the scene.

The Dalcha Duo was ably augmented by 17-year-old Ahmad Rafiyuddin Mohamed (“Just call me Byrd”) on congas and Nokia 3210 cellular phone; and 19-year-old Lim Hui Chieh (“Just call me Bambi”), on gu zheng (Chinese zither) and saron (bronze xylophone). Ms Lim, from Sabah the Land of the Winds, was allotted a bedazzling solo during which she played up a storm (the piece was descriptive of a typhoon and its aftermath).

I was disappointed to see a mere handful at the Actors Studio Box for the Sunday matinee. Many people didn’t make it to the show apparently because so many roads were blocked for the Tour de Langkawi bicycle race. This only served to make The Dalcha Duo’s low-key debut performance more intimate and captivating.

Going by the technical sophistication of the material presented, the event was indeed a refreshing musical tour de force. These Music Circus KL concerts jointly presented by SoundWorks and The Actors Studio are an ongoing project, so keep an ear open for them if you’re interested in where contemporary music is headed in Malaysia.

13 Feb 2003

A BAND CALLED HERITAGE

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Heritage at the Roadhouse: Ashley Jansen, Gordon Jansen, Chris Ong, Atwell Jansen

The blighter was obviously drunk as a skunk.  He kept making a grab for the mike so he could scream abuse at the band more effectively…

Atwell Jansen held the mike beyond the rowdy’s reach, shooing him off the stage while the rest of Heritage began packing up for the night.  It was about 3 a.m.  Another heavy gig at Cee Jay’s – one of KL’s clubbier watering holes – over and done with. Phew.  What was that all about? Pre-election fever?  Another outbreak of rabies on the estate?  Wife done a runner with the meter reader?

“We didn’t play any of his requests,” Atwell explains. “Usually we try to oblige.  But some people don’t just request – they DEMAND!”

When you’ve played Johnny B. Goode for the 5,000th time in approximately 17 years, this kind of hassle is something you take in your stride.  Heritage has been around all right.

It must have been 1977 or thereabouts when I first caught them at the National Theater near the Van Kleef Aquarium in Singapore.  The theater has since been demolished.  Structural fatigue, I’m told.  And a lot of the other hot groups that used to share the stage with Heritage have succumbed to time’s ravages.  Yet Heritage keeps going – and they’re getting tighter all the time.  In fact they’ve gotten so good I keep wondering when the rest of the world will discover them.

Heritage is essentially the Jansens.  And the Jansens are sort of like the Osmonds or the Jacksons minus the milky smiles and the Mickey Mouse gloves.  They also happen to play some REAL music.

Ashley, 41, is the band’s musical guru and bassist.  He looks like a funky archeologist or some doomsdayer on the dole.  His is a quietly groovy, enigmatic presence – almost like a permissive but protective mother who’s happy to see her kids doing well and having a good time.  All through each session Ashley just stands there nodding his venerable head to the music while he lays down some solid basswork in his effortless, laid-back style.

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Atwell Jansen, consummate muso

Atwell, 38, used to be a journalist.  Now he plays electric violin (“An original Barcus-Berry,” he says with pride), concert flute, harmonica, kalimba (African finger-piano), and he carries most of the vocals.  He looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and Joe Cocker – and he sounds like it too.  As a musician, Atwell is extraordinary.

Gordon, at 33, is the most energetic and inventive drummer I’ve seen (and heard) in my life.  He combines Ginger Baker’s diabolical stamina and intensity with the incredible precision and percussive subtlety of a fine jazz drummer like Billy Cobham or Dave Weckl.  Hunched over his kit like a highly-educated mutant dung-beetle, Gordon’s enthusiasm on the job verges on mystical ecstasy.

The group has featured a number of superb lead guitarists since brother Bill dumped his axe and took up law.  Shah Tahir played with Heritage for years till he took off on a solo career as hotshot producer, sound engineer and sessionist.  Chris Ong took over with his jazzed-up Jimmy Page guitar sound and some slick showmanship.  Mr Cool himself these days, Chris used to really ham it up as the chrome-and-leather guitar hero, sometimes grinding out an electrified orgasm or two while writhing around on the stage floor.  Time has fleshed out his lean jeans somewhat but his guitar is as mean as ever.

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Atwell & Ashley Jansen, still passionate after all these years

Heritage do high-energy covers of old favorites by Cream, the, Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Hendrix, Dylan, the Beatles, Santana… good organic pre-industrial stuff.  But what they do best, and the reason I really respect them as musicians, is their own material.  Much of it is instrumental, atmospheric, exploratory, rhythmically intricate. The influences I detect include early Mahavishnu, Jethro Tull, Genesis – and there seems to be recurring references to Irish and Scottish folk modalities.

Stranger In Town, for example, opens with an Irish-sounding jig performed on the violin.  A strong Celtic flavor pervades Together Again.  However, on Boy Becomes Man and I Don’t Know, they go absolutely African.

On something called The Easterner they go the whole hog with Javanese, Chinese, Indian, and Middle-Eastern motifs exotically beaded together.  Heritage is one of the few bands with the intelligence and taste to swing this sort of pan-ethnic fusion successfully.

Their mastery of the mixed musical metaphor comes across on epic compositions like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which begins as a jazzy ballad and then transforms itself into hard, hideous rock.

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Heritage today includes David McGuire (drums), Sadeq Nezamudin (bass), Robert SK (guitar)

The number of bars allocated to solo improvisations varies with the mood of the band and their audience’s receptivity.  On a good night the solos stretch to five minutes or more.  Gordon, when the energy’s right, can easily sustain a 20-minute percussion interlude without losing his audience for a second.

How do they work out new material?  Is it all written out?  Heritage compositions are notable for their sophisticated structures and tempi.

“Well, I do read,” says Atwell with an earnest grin, “but not fast enough to be comfortable with scores.  So we work everything out on tape.  Everyone contributes his own ideas.  After you’ve listened to the practice tapes a few dozen times the music gets kind of absorbed into your system.”

In this manner Heritage have generated intricate Mahavishnuish pieces like Wheel of Life and Worlds Within A World, both highly engaging exercises in contemplative funk, as well as folk-rocksy numbers like the Legend of the Headless Horseman - according to Atwell, “a galloping instrumental.”

The Horseless Headman?  That gets a chuckle pout of Atwell: “Yeah, sometimes it turns into that.”

The band must get pretty tired of playing in noisy pubs, to pretty much the same crowd every week.

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Gordon Jansen now lives in Australia

“Three months is a bit too long,” Atwell admits.  “But long stints also give us time to experiment.  We just wrote a new one while we were in KL. It’s called Second Wind.  Actually, we really like our Malaysian audiences so far.  They seem a lot more adventurous musically.  I’m surprised when people actually request Nexus - make sure you get the spelling right. It’s a spooky avant-garde piece and the Singapore pub crowd didn’t seem to like it – but in KL they actually stop talking and listen. Yeah, we’d play KL again anytime.”

Why not try Australia next?  Or Europe?

“Sure… but how? We have no contacts there. We don’t even have a manager now.”

That’s the problem.  Heritage badly needs a video. They deserve one, dammit – they’ve paid their dues.

27 January 1990

A recent interview with Atwell Jansen

LOOK OUT, HERE COMES ANOTHER RAVE!

Members of the Gamelan Club in a rare group portrait

Antares angles for a KICKBACK from the Gamelan Club 

How much does a minister get paid? RM9,000 a month? RM15,000? Okay, let’s say RM12,000. How much in kickbacks? Hmmm. Well, I’d be willing to take on a ministerial post for a year or so, just so I can make sure the Gamelan Club gets it own gamelan, instead of having to rent a set for practice sessions. And I’d make it a point that arts funding is channeled only to those with proven talent and pride in their craft, not to extravagant exercises in neo-fascist propaganda staged in glittering palaces.

Being a minister may get my hands dirty, but at least it’s an alternative to writing online reviews and being accused of gushing whenever I stumble upon something really fantastic. Yikes, I’m trying so hard NOT to rave, this review might turn into a self-indulgent ramble.

Perhaps I ought to begin with some mild criticism of what may well have been the new millennium’s most exciting breakthrough in Malaysian music, apart from Saidah Rastam’s emergence as an internationally recognized composer.

The amplifier in The Actors Studio Theater at Dataran Merdeka hums audibly and this annoyance was like a smudge on the lens marring an otherwise perfect composition.

It would have prolonged the pleasure if a brief intermission had been inserted two-thirds into the program. Forty minutes is a comfortable duration for the ears. Instead we were treated to more than 80 minutes of bumper-to-bumper gamelan experiments; and though none of it was boring or mediocre, too much of a good thing at one sitting is inadvisable. A short pause for some fresh air (or a hit of nicotine) would have been most welcome. The Gamelan Club, in their irrepressible enthusiasm, left us little time to absorb and integrate the very novel and invigorating sounds we had just heard.

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What a full gamelan ensemble looks like

This ensemble is destined to go places. It would help if the male members of the Gamelan Club didn’t dress like paramedics or overaged sixthformers. The women all looked like earthy, fun-loving angels. I kept thinking the group would gain greatly in visual appeal if the guys were less conservative in their apparel. Nonetheless, the sheer exuberance and easy camaraderie of the group made their vivacious performance a tremendous joy to watch.

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The remarkable Jillian Ooi

And what of the music? The Gamelan Club successfully blends musical integrity with popular accessibility. The introduction of electric guitar and 6-stringed bass (gracefully and tastefully played by Isyam Swardy Daud and Zailan Razak) was handled with wonderful finesse and sensitivity.

Take a bow, musical directors Shahanum Shah and Jillian Ooi, not least for the exemplary way you have instilled inner discipline in such a large group of diverse individuals without stifling their spontaneity. The fact that there was no visible leadership or hierarchical displays during the performance is proof that democracy works – at least in the arts.

The resonant tones of the gamelan evoke courtly scenes of regal splendor. It is indeed the music of gods and world-conquerors, heard throughout most of Southeast Asia, from Burma to Borneo since the start of the Bronze Age. Gamelan players treat their instruments with reverence, remembering their ancient pedigree and mystical kinship with other pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, the t’rung, and the xylophone.  A gamelan orchestra usually consists of a few sarons (bronze xylophones) accompanied by bonangs (small breast-shaped bells), and a variety of large gongs.

For this performance the Gamelan Club had 14 members playing, apart from the traditional gamelan, a wide range of ethnic drums (including Malay gendangs and an African djembe, impishly played by the precociously percussive Mohd. Kamrulbahri Hussin) plus contemporary stringed instruments (acoustic and electric guitar, 6-stringed bass, and 3-stringed Thai lute). The only thing missing were winds.

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Zailan Razak, ace bassist

The effect was nothing short of mesmerizing, especially since the gamelan retained its characteristic nobility and sonority throughout. New genres in world music were generated by this bold synthesis of traditional and contemporary musical modalities: gamelan funk-fusion, gamelan pop, gamelan symphonic, even a touch of gamelan rock. Others have attempted it before, but never with such authentic dedication to the gamelan mystique and its hypnotic and elevating qualities.

Gaia, composed and arranged by Susan Sarah John, was a glorious paean to Mother Earth’s beauty in an ethereal “new age” mode. Malu-Malu Kucing, composed and arranged by Jillian Ooi with lyrics by Juliana Mohamed, was an amusing vocal duet rendered in vintage asli style. Zailan Razak’s Putra Variation No. 2 was a daring showcase for his superb, Stanley Clarke-ish jazz-funk basswork, and Sluku-Sluku Bathok (pardon my French) was a happy marriage of whimsical keroncong and hardcore jazz.

I think it was the intricate bonang passages in the elegant finale, Kosalia Arini, that reminded me of Burmese opera (heard blaring from battered radios on the shores of Inle Lake). But the evening’s highlight for me was a beautiful pop ballad written and sung by Maya Abdullah, Don’t Speak Too Loud, which stands a chance of extensive airplay and could turn out to be the album’s chart-topper when released.

I certainly hope someone rich has the aesthetic sense to step forward and offer financial support to the Gamelan Club. They’re ready to record a groundbreaking album, but they should opt for a live rather than studio ambience. What they need is a series of performances in an acoustically supportive space – with state-of-the-art microphones and the services of an audio engineer experienced in field recordings of classical concerts.

Once the new, upbeat Gamelan Club has produced its own CD, they’ll be ready to take on the world. For a start, I expect they’ll be a big hit at next year’s Rainforest World Music Festival. It has been a 7-year gestation for the group, which attracted a surge of interest through the inspired leadership of Sunetra Fernando (who has since left to do her own thing in the UK), but this new incarnation of the Gamelan Club is simply too funky and too brilliant to ignore. If you’ve been having trouble feeling patriotic of late, the Gamelan Club will soon have you yelling, “Malaysia sungguh boleh!”

17 September 2002

A Little Guitar Magic in Munich

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Al di Meola, John McLaughlin & Paco de Lucia often perform as a virtuoso trio

The entrance to the Deutsches Museum was jammed with shivering people closing umbrellas. They had just made their way through the evening rush hour and the cold rain to catch two of the world’s fastest guitarists in action on the same stage.

For one night, Münchners (as Munich residents are called) could pay homage to two living legends in contemporary music – John McLaughlin (of Mahavishnu and Shakti fame) and Paco de Lucia (the astounding flamenco guitarist featured in a 1983 film version of Carmen by Spanish director Carlos Saura) – an event not to be missed, even in this city of eternal concerts.

We were 5½ minutes late – and a lone figure was already seated on the stage of the Congress Hall, introvertedly exploring complex chord combinations. Our seats were so far back I just couldn’t make out who was playing, but it sounded loud and clear.  “Is that Paco de Lucia?” I whispered. My companion had no idea what either performer looked like.  After a few minutes I heard some familiar high-speed runs. “Ah! John McLaughlin! Nobody has an attack like that.”

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McLaughlin: an extremely handsome guy

My companion was listening with her eyes closed.  We hadn’t expected the hall to be so packed, that’s why we had gone for the cheapest tickets (well, DM25 cheap, about $35). Apparently, for that kind of money, all you get is the audio – not the video, for which you should be prepared to fork out at least DM42 (about $59). There were some people sitting in the aisles, some leaning forward in their seats, and others who had trouble finding their seat rows.

The distinguished silver-haired figure on stage was warming up and beginning to sound more like the John McLaughlin I knew: reeling off harmonic arpeggios with an almost angry passion and a power reminiscent of his youthful jazzed-up head-rock days. I thought to myself: “This guy doesn’t seem to have mellowed at all. He’s still as impatient as ever.”

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De Lucia & McLaughlin on their 1987 German tour

Right then he finished the piece and, without waiting for the applause to recede, began the gentlest, mellowest, most contemplative and sublimest guitar piece I’ve heard in my life. He didn’t even bother to introduce it or address the audience.

From the brilliant harmonics and the brightness of his notes, it was obvious that McLaughlin was using an acoustic-electric with metal strings, probably custom-made. The thought of him sitting alone on the bare stage, beside an empty leather-covered stool with only a couple of mikes for company – and playing to this capacity crowd (it might have been over 3,000 people, mostly below-40) gave me a spine-tingling sensation of vertigo: how could any performer stand such heights?

This was naked virtuosity – no frills, no chorus, no dancing girls. McLaughlin abruptly ended the piece, raised his guitar in acknowledgment of the thunderous appreciation, and launched immediately into something almost funky but undoubtedly impossible for anyone else to perform.

Now and again, it sounded like pure show-off stuff. But if you were a virtuoso – and one of the most awesome guitar greats alive – you’d have no choice but to turn a few tricks occasionally.

Otherwise, people might say you were losing your touch. This particular audience, it appeared, came to see Paco de Lucia whom they knew from the Carmen movie. Only the older ones had heard McLaughlin and knew something of his stature in the musical universe.

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Paco de Lucia: Andalusian aloofness

Again the abrupt finish, the loud applause, the raised guitar salute. Then the conservatively-dressed silver-haired man was gone, without a word. A few minutes later, from the opposite wing of the stage, a darker, shorter man with straight dark hair and a Spanish guitar strode on.

No patter, no preamble – he just sat down and caressed his instrument, coaxing a fiery yet mellifluous flow of fluid, flamenco ecstasy out of it, without visible effort.

This was Paco de Lucia, the world’s latest and greatest divine incarnation of the Andalusian soul, as only the Spanish guitar could convey it.

A haughty man, proud of his absolute ability. One of those rare prodigies who simultaneously embody a tradition and yet manage to enrich it with an individual sensitivity and flair.

After McLaughlin’s metallic velocity and nerve-jangling verve, de Lucia’s gut-stringed gallantry and graceful restraint was immensely soothing. For a while I found myself wondering if that was the reason for McLaughlin’s having opened the show – that Paco de Lucia was the rising star of the guitar, and getting John McLaughlin to precede him in concert was his way of announcing his arrival at the celestial gates of superstardom.

The more melodious and more accessible material de Lucia was playing certainly grabbed the audience by their heartstrings.

Having only watched Saura’s Carmen on video, I hadn’t really registered Paco de Lucia who, apart from contributing some original music for the soundtrack, also starred in it as (what else?) a flamenco guitarist.  This was indeed a wonderful way to get properly introduced to the man.

Never mind that he didn’t appear particularly approachable, sitting with his precious guitar with such an utterly aloof aura emanating from him. Enough that the music he was producing was far from aloof – it was exquisitely seductive.

After three solo pieces – intense, serene, and flamboyant – Paco de Lucia stood up, waved a hand in formal response to the ovation, and walked solemnly off the stage, in the same direction he entered. The house lights came on for the intermission.

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Long-time amigos: de Lucia & McLaughlin in 1982

Naturally we tried to get better vantage points in the center aisle when the second part of the show started – but a huge bouncer in black leather shooed everyone back to their seats. Undaunted, we crouched in the side aisle – and, after a little pleading with one of the younger ushers, were left in peace to witness a little guitar magic with Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin.

Their first duet sounded familiar: ah, Chick Corea’s Spain – a great performance piece with a totally catchy but acutely difficult to play melodic refrain. Each guitar had its turn at playing lead but the good moments occurred every time they came back together with unforced precision. Somehow they managed to sound totally spontaneous – though it was clear that these two men had spent some hours with some wine and gossip and serious practice.

As the duet performance progressed it became obvious that McLaughlin was doing most of the solo acrobatics with his steel-stringed. He seemed to have at his command a far wider range of expression and wit than de Lucia who favored 32nd note scale runs whenever it was his turn to turn a variation or two.

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Unbelievably diverse resources

McLaughlin, on the other hand, had resources from unbelievably diverse guitar backgrounds, running the gamut from jazz-rock to raga to pure, contemplative guitar meanderings towards the musician’s personal nirvana.

After a while McLaughlin appeared to be getting into a mischievous mood. He began playing catch-me-if-you-can with de Lucia, altering the rhythm and tempo without warning – and looking up with an impish grin at the poker-faced Spaniard. It wasn’t that much fun for the Scotsman – these Latin types don’t have the same sense of humor. At least, not in musical terms.

By now we had edged very much nearer the stage and were able to see the men’s expressions as they played. It made a world of difference, of course, and it seemed ridiculous that such an intimate recital should ever be staged in a venue as imposing as the Deutsches Museum’s Congress Hall, without the benefit of giant video screens. There are things to be learnt from rock concerts.

Anyway, with the benefit of close proximity, I learnt that John McLaughlin is an extremely handsome man – and that Paco de Lucia is balding at the top.

Before anyone knew it, the performance was over. The guitar legends stood up in unison, bowed and walked away. We knew there would be an encore, to be sure. But we didn’t expect something like six!

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Going strong: Paco de Lucia in April 2012

The crowd simply refused to let the exhausted virtuosos off, clapping and chanting and forcing them back on stage just by staying rooted to their seats. Nay, most people had stood up and were pushing their way towards the footlights.  My companion and  had wisely secured excellent positions right against the stage apron, within spitting distance of the performers.

Every time I thought it was going to be the absolute final piece, the exuberant crowd won out… and we were treated to more and more amazing improvisations than had gone into the formal part of the show.

By the time we eventually left the Congress Hall, I was ready to vote John  McLaughlin for President of Anything and Anyplace – and ask Paco de Lucia for his autograph.

September 1987

A Lavish Paean to Muhibbah

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Malaysia’s RM210-million Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture)

SIMFONI RAKYAT MALAYSIA was a pre-election promo for Malaysia Inc – but fortunately a well-produced one

With another general election around the corner, it was inevitable that the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism would seize the opportunity to present a glorious feel-good concert showcasing a veritable ethnomusicological rainbow – emblematic of a harmonious and prosperous national destiny. As to be expected, when a public relations agenda takes precedence over musical content, a large portion of the show was merely cosmetic – politically correct candy for the ear and eye.

Prestige, privilege, propaganda

Featuring the works of 10 prominent composer/arrangers – performed by a gigantic orchestra of 100 musicians and embellished by 6 popular vocalists – Simfoni Rakyat Malaysia came across in parts as a rustic roadshow with philharmonic aspirations.

Nonetheless, kudos are due to artistic director Sabri Buang, concert director Ridzuan Salam and music director Pauzi Majid for pulling off this spectacular multi-ethnic concert – considering the nightmarish logistics of working with such a motley cast and crew. So what if the vulgar reek of pre-election perfume was a bit obvious – there were enough sublime musical moments to make it all worthwhile.

Pretty but purely decorative

The first half of the program was celebratory and extrovert – with Liza Hanim’s soulfully patriotic rendition of Pahlawanku (“My Warrior”), followed by Elaine Kang’s elegant (but thematically trite) Shanghai Beach. Next came a spirited, Bollywoodish instrumental, Chinnamamiyeh, topped off with a scintillating vocal medley winningly performed by Datin Sri Manimala and Muthu Kumaran. Bland, safe, populist stuff indeed: a tokenistic kebaya-cheongsam-sari routine that would have looked good on TV as a Gongxi-Raya-Thaipusam greeting card from your friendly neighborhood government.

Not exactly the sort of fare that demands devout attention, but those caught sending SMSes were finger-wagged by an ever-alert Istana Budaya official armed with a walkie-talkie. I can understand strict adherence to the rules when attending a theatrical performance or classical recital – but the festive atmosphere, not to mention the almost deafening volume of the music, made us feel we were at an open-air pesta where eating, talking, and receiving phonecalls were all par for the course. That’s the Malaysian ethos for you: guided democracy, controlled fun.

P.Ramlee (1929~1973),
quintessential creative genius

The volume was mercifully brought down a notch or two for the second half of the show, which in any case carried a higher cerebral and deeper emotional content – with more adventurous and exploratory compositions/arrangements by Nasir Tan Sri P. Ramlee, Saidah Rastam, Yii Kah Hoe, Narawi Rashidi, and Ayob Ibrahim.

Nasir’s majestic arangement of Kau Laksana Bulan brought out the sheer visual grandeur of watching a hundred musicians perform as one vast organism – in itself a mighty accomplishment, and a fitting acknowledgment of his late great father’s monumental contributions to contemporary Malaysian culture as an iconic singer-songwriter-actor-filmmaker of the 1960s.

Teguh, an original work by outstanding avant-garde composer Saidah Rastam, was a bold departure from the tried and tested. The music’s sonorously dissonant harmonics were poetically offset by a recitative sung with passion and verve by Khir Rahman. However, the orchestra sounded a mite tentative at moments and might have performed with more conviction and feel, given more rehearsal time than was possible under the circumstances.

Representing the richness of Sarawak’s “world music” resources, Narawi Rashidi’s Berserumpu featured young sapē virtuoso Jerry Kamit in an instrumental romp through a lush, metaphorical rainforest (alas, with all the lumber that’s been exported, not much of the real thing remains).

Yii Kah Hoe, cutting edge
serious composer

Yii Kah Hoe – young maestro of traditional Chinese music – composed, arranged and conducted an immensely interesting piece (unfortunately not listed in the souvenir program) which generated an uneasy dynamic tension even as it sought to integrate Chinese, Malay, Indian and Greco-Roman musical modalities. Perhaps Yii was simply being realistic in articulating the difficulty of fully reconciling the frequency differences between pentatonic, Moorish, Carnatic and Western musical scales. Yet, mysteriously enough, it did hang together as inspired music – despite strident altercations between reed instruments from different traditions (but, then, it’s always the wind instruments that represent ideological discord).

Ayob Ibrahim, now deacon
of Aswara’s Music Department

The concert’s high point was undoubtedly three numbers arranged and flamboyantly conducted by Ayob Ibrahim, featuring the legendary Ramli Sarip, fondly known as Papa Rock (from his heady days fronting the rock group, Sweet Charity), and the charismatic Zainal Abidin (who rose to fame as lead singer of Headwind, and subsequent international acclaim as a solo act).

Raspy-voiced Ramli’s phenomenal stage presence – but most of all his virile blend of earthiness and mystical ardor – lent the entire exercise in racial-harmony-through-music an authenticity and heartfelt warmth that more than justified Simfoni Rakyat Malaysia’s RM400,000 budget (a ballpark estimate I heard mentioned). His moving renditions of Kampong Rakit and Nyanyian Serambi (in which the indigenous Semai troupe were finally given a prominent vocal and rhythmic rôle) cut straight to the core and brought a tear of joy to many an eye. Conductor Ayob Ibrahim succeeded in making the huge and ethnomusically disparate orchestra sound like a very tight jazz-rock combo, generating an infectious and effortless groove.

“Papa Rock” Ramli Sarip, a living legend

Zainal Abidin

Even a hardcore cynic would have felt a surge of loyalty and pride during Ramli Sarip’s authoritative and impassioned performance. And when Zainal Abidin belted out his greatest hit, Hijau, accompanied by smiling dancers waving daun pisang (banana leaves), nobody seriously minded that the production had veered dangerously close to definitive Bollywood kitsch.

The show really should have ended right there with this obligatory nod at cinta-ing our natural heritage… but, sadly, artistic director Sabri Buang was either too naïve or too docile to say a firm NO to attaching a truly tacky Malaysia Truly Asia as grand finale, thereby dashing any hopes that may have arisen in my heart that at long last our cultural bureaucrats have realised that if a woman is truly beautiful, it’s overkill and counterproductive to include the description “Beauty Queen” on her calling card. 

10 March 2004

 

Will Success Spoil Uli Lenz?

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Uli Lenz by Isabel Schnapka

Uli Lenz began his love affair with the keyboard at the age of 4 and was giving his first classical recitals by the ripe old age of 10. Now 46, Lenz appears poised on the brink of international success as the most exciting proponent of the jazz piano. His solo concert at the Actors Studio Theater, Bangsar, on November 29 (2001), was part of a promotional tour for his latest release on Bob Karcy’s Arkadia label, Rainmaker’s Dance, which just might propel the young virtuoso to the lofty ranks of established masters such as Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Cecil Taylor, or the vastly underrated Denny Zeitlin.

Lenz has certainly paid his dues, after four persistent decades of crafting his very own jazz piano voice and improvisational style. Innovative German jazz pianists like Uli Lenz and Matthias Frey have added a crisp intellectual dimension to a musical genre unique to America, and long dominated by Americans. It’s about time jazz interpreters outside the USA received their share of global fame.

As a result of an invalidated prepaid phone card, my pre-arranged date for the evening fell through and I found myself at the concert with my computer techie friend (whose acquaintance with piano music extends no further than Richard Clayderman). At the intermission I asked if my friend was enjoying himself. “The piano is like a child’s toy in his hands,” my friend observed. “It’s quite exciting to watch!” If Uli Lenz can wean my friend off Richard Clayderman, more power to him.

Lenz is a highly disciplined magician walking the fine line between technical virtuosity and musical shamanism. Unfortunately, the rented Kawai baby grand was quite unprepared for his polytonal clusters and percussive attack: the high notes came out tinny while the lows were rather dull. But it was educational to see Lenz trying to befriend and cajole the unfamiliar Korean-made instrument into willing compliance with his priapic pianistic ego.

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Animistic approach

He exchanged small talk with the Kawai – whom he named Bina or Sabina (“It’s obviously a she,” Lenz quipped) – which revealed his acute awareness of the animistic Weltanschauung where matter and spirit form the warp and woof of reality. I was impressed by Lenz’s mastery of fluid lyricism as expressed through mushy ballads like My Foolish Heart and Body and Soul. But his sophisticated stride technique came through on the fiery Latin exercises combining syncopated cross-rhythms and staccato chordwork.

I found myself envying the long years of academic discipline Uli Lenz possessed but had obviously outgrown. At many points I was secretly pleased to note that Lenz’s love of extemporization – and his instinctive good taste in deconstructing musical conventions – were not too different from my own ambitious (and outrageously amateur) attempts. This was especially true whenever the young master spontaneously composed onstage a piece inspired by the moment (and Lenz treated us to several displays of his remarkable self-confidence). One of these experiments he decided to name Visit From Planet 7 – a title that struck a chord with me, if only because I’ve been fascinated by the fact that Earth was called the seventh planet in Mesopotamian records. It is indeed the seventh planet to any visitor arriving from beyond the Solar System!

There were loads of local musicians in the audience, as to be expected, and more than one commented afterwards that Uli Lenz came across as more a showman than a shaman: “So he has an incredible voice, but what does he have to say?”  Perhaps that’s being ungenerous, but to a certain extent I agree. Uli Lenz may have mastered the secrets of the keyboard, but he has a little way more to journey before one can say he has mastered the secrets of music – which must surely extend beyond the dandified domains of contemplative jazz. But judging from his cool, confident performance and stage presence, the man is certainly capable of anything.

7 December 2001

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