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BOLEHLAND: AN UPDATED CULTURAL OVERVIEW

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Malaysia, Truly Asia? Courtesy of Associated Press

“It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up.” ~ Huzir Sulaiman, Notes on Life & Love & Painting (1999)

“When I hear someone talk of Culture, I reach for my revolver.”   ~ Hermann Wilhelm Göring

MALAYSIA is known as Bolehland by Malaysians inclined to snigger at heavy-handed bureaucratic efforts to propel the nation into “fully developed” status by the year 2020.  Boleh means “able” or “can do” in Malay. In the late 1990s, having spent several decades – and a massive amount of financial reserves – on infrastructural development in single-minded pursuit of rapid industrialization, the Malaysian government began to realize that “clothes do not a man make,” no matter how exclusive the brand. Thus the “Malaysia Boleh” campaign was launched to bolster national self-esteem – and there was a grudging acknowledgment that cultural output is perhaps a more meaningful measure of a society’s maturity than multimillion-dollar monuments and car factories.

Having been part of the British Empire for over a century, the post-colonial Malaysian remains Anglophilic to a noticeable extent. English is still the preferred language of the middle and upper classes, despite strenuous attempts to promote Malay as the official first language. Although Malay has been the language of instruction in schools and universities since the late 1960s, and all young Malaysians today can claim fluency in the official language, the majority of non-Malays persist in using either English or their mother tongue – or both – especially in the arts.

This has given rise to a multicultural parallelism in that each language stream tends to exist and operate along its own lines – rarely, if ever, intersecting with the others. The worlds of Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Malayalam and English theater, for instance, are distinct and separate realities. The same holds true for Malaysian literature – there is, in fact, no such entity as “Malaysian” literature, unless one classifies all literary works by Malaysian citizens or permanent residents as being “Malaysian.” In locally made films, the dominant language has been Malay, but there are signs that the new generation of independent filmmakers are experimentally crossing boundaries, if only because their low-budget productions are targeted at a more international audience (and film is one medium in which language barriers are easily overcome by good subtitles).

bananaMy own cultural perspective may be described as eclectically cosmopolitan – with a residual American influence which, like the reek of cheap perfume after a busy night at a bordello, is rather difficult to deny.

I was born Chinese, in 1950, to middle-class, English-educated parents. My childhood in a small, mercantile town called Batu Pahat was spent soaking up Hollywood movies (my father was a health inspector and had a free pass to all the cinemas, which I exploited with utmost glee). At 17 I spent a year in a New Jersey high school as an exchange student. Ironically, I returned from that experience fairly disenchanted with mainstream American culture, although I did acquire a taste for funky subcultures.

This explains why an otherwise “normal” Malaysian kid would be so au fait with American subcultural icons like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Bill Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenny Bruce, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Leary, Baba Ram Dass, Buckminster Fuller, and Tiny Tim.

My personal involvement with literary and theatrical affairs took shape during my year at West Essex High School: I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback from my Creative Writing, Drama, and English teachers. I earned a lot of A-pluses while I was studying in America (but only in subjects I enjoyed). It was inevitable that I would channel my passions into writing, theater, and music. So these are the specific areas of culture I can discuss – particularly the more “westernized” artistic output aimed at  the English-speaking Malaysian middle class.

The Literary & Dramatic Hall Of Fame

There are more good writers in English than can be counted on both hands (and possibly both feet too) – but Malaysians are not generally renowned for their interest in reading. A national survey in the 1980s concluded that, on the average, each Malaysian reads only half a page of literature per annum, apart from newspapers, textbooks, and magazines. I wonder if, thirty years later, the statistic is still valid. At any rate, it’s virtually impossible to earn a living as a full-time writer here – unless one hacks it in advertising, public relations, coffee-table books, or TV sitcoms.

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The suave & irascible Rehman Rashid

Nevertheless, A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid (self-published in 1993 because no publisher wanted to risk official disapproval) enjoyed record sales and has been reprinted several times. The book itself deserves a place in every home: each chapter is a masterful vignette of the Malaysian ethos, in all its glorious perplexity.

Journey earned Rehman Rashid enough to buy him a Mitsubishi Pajero, but he eventually returned to a day-job as a leader writer and editor at the regime-owned New Straits Times. Rehman’s superb command of the language and his incisive intelligence are a potent combination. However, his patriarchal bias and the Apollonian bombast of his political columns often reveal him as an apologist for a loathsome establishment. In any case, Rehman Rashid richly deserves his reputation as a Titan among notable (and exportable) Malaysian writers.

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Byronic bilingual poet Salleh Ben Joned: larger than life

Salleh Ben Joned is a living legend in Malaysian letters. His swashbuckling style belies a fierce dedication to spiritual and intellectual freedom. One of a few truly inspired bilingual writers and poets, Salleh achieved national notoriety with his acerbic column, As I Please, which ran sporadically in the New Straits Times – and which has twice been published as a collection of essays: erudite, witty, and often risque. A second collection of his spicy essays and columns was published in 2003 under the title, Nothing Is Sacred – a bold statement of his iconoclasm, as well as an allusion to the mystical view of Allah as the Primordial Void.

In recent years Salleh Ben Joned has become a godfather figure of sorts to a whole new generation of punks and disenchanted urban youth who flock eagerly to his poetry readings. Educated in Australia, Salleh returned to lecture in literature at Universiti Malaya, where his passion for words earned him iconic status with his students, especially the female ones.

Salleh Ben Joned’s genius has never been acknowledged in Malay literary circles (perhaps they aren’t amused by his affecting the Hebraic “Ben” in place of the Arabic “Bin”). Indeed, Salleh has endured venomous attacks by Malay sasterawan (literati) whose ethnocentric concerns and smug mediocrity grate against him. His readers, however, are grateful for the hilarious spoofs Salleh has penned, inspired by these parochially-inclined, poetry-declaiming sasterawan. I would unhesitatingly classify Salleh Ben Joned as a national treasure.

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Claire Wong & Huzir Sulaiman, an enormously gifted pair

Actor/director/playwright Huzir Sulaimanenfant terrible and prodigy nonpareil – wrote a dozen brilliant plays before he turned 30, and has tried his hand at filmmaking. Graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in literature and philosophy, Huzir successfully integrates his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. Among his most noteworthy achievements are Atomic Jaya, Hip-Hopera, Notes on Life & Love & Painting, and Election Day.

Fortunately for those who missed these superb plays when they were staged, Eight Plays, a collection of Huzir’s highly readable playscripts, was published in 2002 by Silverfishbooks. Disenchanted by the lack of official recognition and inadequate funding of the arts in Malaysia, Huzir relocated to Singapore some years ago and married his favorite leading lady, the beautiful and talented actress, Claire Wong (ironically, another Malaysian-born cultural émigré). It would appear that Malaysia’s loss has been Singapore’s gain.

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Jit Murad, brainy & puckish Oscar Wildesian griot beloved by all

Anybody who has seen more than six plays in Kuala Lumpur would surely know of Jit Murad – a scintillating luminary of the performing arts, commuting between acting, stand-up comedy, and playwriting. Apart from his puckish and ageless charm, Jit is endowed with the mind of a sage and the wit of a court jester extraordinaire. He returned in the mid-1980s from the U.S. where he studied acting and stagecraft, and almost immediately began to make his mark on the local theater scene – initially as a superb character actor with a distinct genius for comedy and, subsequently, as a playwright when his first major play – Gold Rain and Hailstones – was staged.

His most recent play, Spilt Gravy On Rice, won the Cameronian Arts Award for best script of 2003 and was later performed in Singapore. It has since been made into a film, under the robust direction of Zahim Albakri. Though completed 2 or 3 years ago it has yet to be screened at this writing, owing to local censorship and other petty complications.

Jit’s sympathetic insight into the Malaysian psyche, his verbal sophistication, his madcap but gentle humor and his warmth-of-soul have made him one of the best-loved performers and playwrights in the country. Jit Murad is a founding member of the outstanding Instant Café Theatre Company (currently led by the immensely gifted actor-director-playwright Jo Kukathas), and he is also a director/writer-in-residence with DramaLab, which he co-founded with his childhood buddy Zahim Albakri.

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Amir Muhammad, literary entrepreneur

Another “Young Turk” of Malaysian culture with an American education is Amir Muhammad, who started contributing waggish arts critiques to the New Straits Times when still an undergrad abroad. After establishing his reputation as an exceptional essayist, Amir began flirting with theater, and then film. Together with James Lee and Osman Ali, Amir instigated an independent film movement which has rapidly grown in momentum, riding on the advent of affordable digital videocams. His first low-budget feature, Lips To Lips, was a refreshing breakthrough despite patches of sophomoric humor: Amir roped in some of the best acting talent to add lustre to the zany proceedings. His next video venture was 6 Shorts – a quirky attempt to translate 6 essays into cinema. More recently, Amir struck a resonant chord with The Big Durian, which earned wide acclaim and has toured the international video festival circuit. He also edited the first Silverfishbooks anthology of New Writing and subsequently became a publisher of cutting-edge local literature. Amir Muhammad is, in effect, a formidable young man about town on the cultural front.

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Jo Kukathas as former beauty queen Ribena Berry

Now, from the partial inventory above of significant personalities in Malaysia’s literary and dramatic life, it can be noted that they possess Malay names (except, of course, Jo Kukathas who deserves a book all to herself, and James Lee whose dogged determination is worthy of more detailed documentation) – but not necessarily the typical Malay psyche, even though some of them may be full-blooded Malays. Rehman Rashid, for instance, is only one-quarter Malay; the rest of his genetic makeup consists of Portuguese, Indian, and Pathan. Huzir Sulaiman is part Malayalee, while Jit Murad is half-Welsh.

Salleh Ben Joned can claim to be a full-blooded Melayu from Melaka, but he has publicly adopted the philosophical stance of the apostate, and greatly admires Salman Rushdie’s work. Amir Muhammad is genetically a Malay-Malayalee – however, his wide-ranging love of world literature and his early exposure to cutting-edge arts in America have taken him far beyond ethnocentric perspectives. Why do I pause for a moment to reflect on this question of ethnicity?

After the May 1969 “race riots” (which, in truth, were instigated as a cover for a long-planned political coup) Malaysia entered the era of the NEP (New Economic Policy), which subsequently led to the NCP (National Cultural Policy), and the constitutional legitimization of the doctrine of “Malay Supremacy” (Ketuanan Melayu).

Not only was the population divided arbitrarily into Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera (literally, “sons of the soil” and “migrants”), special privileges and preferential quotas for Bumiputera were enacted into law. The tightly-controlled mass media would decide whom to glorify and whom to ignore. Thus it was immensely advantageous to sport a Malay name, since the creation of a new breed of cultural heroes was very much aligned with the political thrust towards ethnocentric nationalism. A handful of Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian names was, of course, permitted entry into the game, if only as tokens of racial tolerance and cultural diversity.

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Wong Phui Nam, banker turned poet

I am by no means implying that those I have mentioned thus far did not deserve their recognition; on the contrary, their individual talents are impressive indeed and make the whole issue of ethnicity irrelevant. Nevertheless, from 1970 onwards, it was certainly more “politically correct” to promote the cultural achievements of someone with a Malay name over any other sort of name.

Other reasons for the relative scarcity of non-Malay cultural heroes can be cited: the Chinese stereotype of materialistic pragmatism that would make them opt for more “solid” professions (like architecture, engineering, medicine, or business management) than a career in the arts; and, among the Indians, the pronounced preference for law, accountancy, and academia as career choices.

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Shirley Geok-lin Lim, academic & prolific writer

Thus we have a scattering of non-Malay poets and writers who initially began as academics, bankers, and lawyers: K.S. Maniam, university lecturer turned novelist and playwright with a specific focus on the Tamil ethos; Wong Phui Nam, who broke away from a successful career in banking to produce poetry, essays, and short stories characterized by a rarefied mandarin aesthetic; Shirley Geok-lin Lim, professor of English literature in California who has earned international recognition for her prolific writings; Chuah Guat Eng, who withdrew from a lucrative career in advertising to write and publish her first novel (Echoes of Silence, 1994, a metaphysical whodunnit); Kee Thuan Chye, whose professional resumé includes editor, actor, playwright, and political columnist; and we must certainly mention Cecil Rajendra, lawyer and soccer enthusiast, better known for his polemical poems (which have never been published or promoted in Malaysia).

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Cecil Rajendra: soccer fan & polemical poet

Going back to a slightly earlier era in Malaysia’s cultural history, there was Lee Joo For – academic turned playwright turned painter – who subsequently emigrated to Australia. He was certainly an inspired pioneer and might have lingered on had he been given the recognition he deserved.

Another academic turned writer and filmmaker, Patrick Yeoh, was gravely disenchanted by the lukewarm reception he received from the Malay-dominated local film industry in the early 1980s, even though his maiden cinematic venture, Kami (which starred the late Sudirman in his first film rôle), proved far more interesting than the banal and formulaic films of that period.

And, of course, we have Lloyd Fernando and Krishen Jit – two academics who threw themselves heartily into the new Malaysian cultural nationalism of the 1970s, only to be rebuffed as “outsiders” by territorial ethnocentricity.

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Lloyd Fernando, playwright & professor of English lit

However, Krishen proved an indomitable force (abetted by the artistic ambitions of post-modern dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz whom he later married), tirelessly plodding on to carve a dramaturgic niche for himself as the venerable and celebrated doyen of Malaysian theater. Krishen and Marion assembled three other colleagues and founded the Five Arts Centre in 1983 – and, though their artistic output has tended to be ingrown and incestuous, their sheer stamina and perseverance have been impressive. Five Arts Centre’s greatest contribution to cultural ferment has been its inspirational effect on and affectionate nurturing of youthful talents, many of whom cut their artistic teeth by getting drawn into Five arts Centre’s countless productions over the decades.

Sounding “Malaysian” On Stage

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Bangsawan revival of Sinbad’s Adventures

When I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1970, the local English-language theater scene was still dominated by amateur groups like the Liberal Arts Society and the Selangor Philharmonic Society, which had been around since the British colonial era. These were also the last days of Malay Bangsawan – a popular theatrical style akin to vaudeville – but I confess to only the skimpiest knowledge of this subcultural zone, although a deeper scrutiny is bound to unearth a colorful and intriguing history.

This post-colonial cultural hangover was experienced largely by the urban, middle and upper middle class membership of the amateur dramatic groups, who clung to old habits by staging and restaging well-worn theatrical and musical hits from the West End.

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Theater doyen Krishen Jit (1939-2005)

Those were the days when Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian actors and actresses endeavored to speak BBC English on stage, playing mostly English or European rôles. KL theater was dominated by the likes of Bosco D’Cruz, K.K. Nair, Leslie Dawson, Mano Maniam, Faridah Merican and Krishen Jit. Bosco and K.K. were already giants in the fringe Malayalam theater fraternity – and both were comfortable commuting between English-language theater and the vernacular.

The early 1970s also witnessed the advent of culture heroes like the brilliant cartoonist Lat (Dato’ Mohd. Nor Khalid) whose work refreshingly and coherently depicted the emerging “Malaysian” ethos, breaking through previous ethnocentric barriers. More than any other cultural icon, Lat succeeded in articulating a truly syncretic Malaysian perspective – and his influence can be seen in the rise of a new genre of satire with a distinctly Malaysian flavor  and a spicy cross-section of Malaysian accents – and even some political bite.

In the mid-1980s, Thor Kah Hoong  (Lat’s colleague in the New Straits Times) staged an engaging sitcom series – Caught In The Middle – in which a handful of promising young actor-comedians were featured, among them Jit Murad and Jo Kukathas who, a few years later, inaugurated the infamous Instant Café Theatre Company.

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Thor Kah Hoong, actor-director-writer, retired food reviewer & bookseller

Thor’s Caught In The Middle series would have been a smash hit on local TV – but he was bogged down by various political constraints pertaining to TV programming. The ruling party has always tolerated a modicum of political satire – so long as its audience is confined to the major urban areas which have traditionally voted for the opposition. However, TV reaches into almost every household in the rural heartland, the ruling party’s main voter base.

Thus, as has also been the case with The Instant Café Theatre, what might have been an immensely successful TV sitcom series (à la Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Not-The-Nine-O’-Clock News, or Yes, Minister) was deliberately confined to sporadic stage productions catering to a comfortable and complacent urban elite.

To achieve this degree of control over public performances, Malaysian law has armed itself with a plethora of antiquated legislation left over from the Communist Insurgency era (1948-1960): all TV stations are government-owned and closely monitored by the Home Ministry, or operated by those with close friends in high office; every play staged must have its script vetted by City Hall’s censorship board and the Police Special Branch. Any public assembly of more than five adults used to be arbitrarily classified by the police as illegal and forcefully dispersed – until April 25th, 2014, when an Appeals Court ruled that such a restriction was unconstitutional.

And, of course, the (recently abolished) Internal Security Act which allowed the government to detain anybody on mere suspicion, without trial, for an indefinite period. Taking over where the ISA left off, the Sedition Act 1948 (another colonial relic) is now wielded as an “ultimate weapon” against any and all species of political dissent.

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Zahim Albakri, consummate actor & director

Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s onwards, dramaturgs began experimenting with local plays about local folks speaking English with Manglish accents. Today we have consummate actors like Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas, Jit Murad, and Zahim Albakri portraying a kaleidoscopic chorus of characters, employing a colorful spectrum of local and foreign accents. Finally, Malaysian theater has come of age, having outgrown the usual incubation period of “cultural cringe.”

The establishment of the Actors Studio Academy in 1989 by veteran actress Faridah Merican and Lebanese-Australian actor/director Joe Hasham has been an important factor stimulating the development of professional stagecraft in Malaysia. Faridah and Joe not only share a passion for theater, they are both also major players in the advertising business – and are thus in a powerful position to promote their art with sufficient marketing savvy to make an impact on the public consciousness. Their positive links with the corporate sector and officialdom enable them to move mountains where others can hardly move molehills, as demonstrated by their most outstanding achievement to date: the inauguration of KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) – which will house several theaters and auditoriums as well as a performing arts academy, thereby serving as a national hub for ongoing cultural ferment.

Facing The Music

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Minah Angong, celebrated ceremonial singer of the indigenous Temuan tribe

It may be said that all culture is derivative to a lesser or greater extent, but when one considers the musical front in Malaysia, scarcely any originality is audible.  Even “traditional”  Malay court music is a legacy of Hindu-Buddhist influences: the Sri Vijaya and Majapahit Kingdoms extended from Sri Lanka to most of Malaya and Indonesia, between the 7th and 16th centuries.

Indigenous music is an integral element of healing rituals and consists, for the most part, of chanting accompanied by pitched bamboos. It goes beyond “original” to “aboriginal” in its basic organicity, content to generate repetitive, trance-inducing aural mandalas that often go on and on. Aboriginal tribes traditionally do not perform for “outsiders” – although in recent days some groups have adapted to the concept of public performances. To my knowledge, only Akar Umbi – an ethnic fusion group based in Ulu Selangor – has released an album for commercial distribution and, even so, the market for such music is negligible.

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Michael Veerapen, jazz piano virtuoso & composer

In terms of pure technique, however, Malaysia has produced an impressive number of excellent musicians who can hold their own anywhere in the world. I know of a few classical soloists who would be welcome in most orchestras; and when it comes to jazz, we can boast the likes of Michael Veerapen, an ace pianist whose chief inspiration has been Bill Evans. Paul Ponnadurai (whom I dubbed P.P. King) was hailed as one of the world’s top blues guitarists, Malaysia’s very own B.B. King. He could do things with the guitar you wouldn’t imagine possible, but his scintillating career was abruptly terminated when he died at age 51 in July 2012.

Sunetra Fernando is an ethnomusicologist specializing in gamelan music; her Rhythm In Bronze ensemble has set new standards of performance for contemporary gamelan. Over the years it has evolved into an astoundingly versatile and inventive gamelan ensemble, willing and able to explore exciting new musical and performance frontiers. With the departure to the UK of Sunetra Fernando, Rhythm In Bronze has in recent years been democratically led by various veteran members of the ensemble like Jillian Ooi, Shahanum Shah, Susan Sarah John, and Lorna Henderson-Omar, ably supported by jazz guitarist Isyam Swardy Daud and percussionist extraordinaire Kamrulbahri Hussin.

We now have well-known names in avant-garde composition: Saidah Rastam gave up law to devote her energies to exploring a different musical aesthetic. Her work – quirky, evocative, sophisticated – has been showcased in major theatrical productions, film soundtracks, musical revues, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performances, contemporary dance, even a full-scale operatic extravaganza (M! The Opera) staged at Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture).

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Kluang-born Chong Kee Yong in Toronto curating a concert of new music from Malaysia (May 2011)

Unbeknownst to the public at large, there has also been a miraculous flowering of hardcore talent in contemporary symphonic music as personified by extremely serious academic composers like Teh Tze SiewTazul Tajuddin and Chong Kee Yong - the latter born to a farming family and raised in a southern town called Kluang. After graduating in music from the Malaysian Institute of Arts, Kee Yong continued at the Xian Conservatory in China, and subsequently at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, Belgium. He has since acquired an impressive catalog of commissions from renowned orchestras around the world and won a string of awards for his unique compositional approach.

Yii Kah Hoe is another outstanding name among symphonic avant-garde composers in Malaysia. An accomplished traditional Chinese flute player, Kah Hoe has won a string of local and international composition awards and is a dedicated researcher of ethnic music from around the world, apart from being a conscientious music educator and festival coordinator. Indeed, there are many more contemporary Malaysian composers blossoming quietly, with minimal visibility, but with astonishing focus and passion, ready for international, if not local, recognition.

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Hands Percussion: spectacular theatrics & precision drumming 

Among the new generation of music-makers you’ll find grunge, garage rock, techno, hip-hop, ethno-fusion and metal groups – alongside electronica and techno-ambience freaks who perform with laptops. These fringe performers haven’t been around long enough for me to remember all their names – but some exciting work has emerged from Bernard Goh and Deborah Tee, who did the original score for the Actors Studio production of Rashomon. Bernard Goh subsequently formed a highly disciplined, widely acclaimed touring company called Hands Percussion which has really gone places.

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Weijun Loh: dancer, choreographer, composer

Goh Lee Kwang often collaborates with Chinese avant-garde dancer Lee Swee Keong, churning out trance-inducing tape loops and arty soundscapes; and Weijun Loh, a dynamic young dancer-choreographer-composer-audio engineer, returned from Australia a few years ago bursting with ideas and energy.

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The irrepressible Jerome Kugan

Jerome Kugan is another dynamic young presence: writer, critic, electronic composer, and songwriter whose evocative debut album (Songs for a Shadow) set stunning new standards for the burgeoning indie music scene.

Malaysian musicians, for the most part, tend to gravitate towards either pop or the “indie underground” (which has a surprisingly large following among the urban youth).

Jazz musicians who have ventured into ethnic fusion include Lewis Pragasam, whose group Asiabeat was perhaps the first to combine exotic percussion and oriental instruments (like the shakuhachi) with western jazz modalities. Unfortunately, our radio stations are not interested in pushing the musical envelope and prefer to play it safe by airing only commercial mainstream sounds.

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Lewis Pragasam, master percussionist & initiator of Asiabeat, a pioneer world music group featuring John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi

Breaking into the world music circuit isn’t a simple task either, especially with absolutely no support from Malaysia’s notoriously ethnocentric cultural agencies. Local record companies are predominantly interested in making money by distributing international recording artists, especially those topping the pop charts. In short, a great deal has been happening on the Malaysian musical front – but not many have been exposed to it, unless they’re hip to The Wknd – a vibrant music portal founded by Fikri Fadzil, showcasing up-and-coming musicians, especially local and regional acts. And there are indeed some truly gifted singer-songwriters in our midst, such as Azmyl Yunor, who engagingly represents what some might call the “neo-existentialist Generation Y” ethos.

Take for instance the recent emergence into global prominence of a world music fusion band called AkashA whose members come from a broad spectrum of ethnicities and cultures. Its musical soul is essentially Carnatic – with Kumar Karthigesu on sitar, Vick Ramakrishnan on tabla, and Sivabalan S.Shanmuga Sundram on mridangam – they all honed their superb musical prowess at the Temple of Fine Arts, performing classical Indian music with a contemporary feel. The silky funk of jazzy Latino blues is provided by Australian-born guitar ace Jamie Wilson with the help of seasoned keyboardist Eric Li and bassist Greg Henderson. Following its sensational debut on the international stage at the 2008 Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, AkashA released a couple of CDs and swiftly evolved into class act greatly sought after around the world.

My own experiment with attempting to introduce novel sounds into the local music scene has made me uncharacteristically pessimistic. In 1984 I produced a solo album with folksy “protest” songs on Side A and ambitious avant-garde soundscapes on Side B. The album (Solitary Vice & Other Virtues) received favorable reviews – but no record company was interested in a distribution deal. Indeed, one of the songs (“City Hall”) was played on the radio once or twice before the DJ (Patrick Teoh) was told to stop by the program’s corporate sponsor. Still, I was able to recoup my modest production costs over the course of a year or so, and actually sold out my limited stock of 600 cassettes. Subsequently, I released only 500 copies of my second album (2nd Coming) which was almost entirely instrumental. Again, it received generally good reviews, but no offers of distributorship. Record companies are happy selling 150,000-200,000 copies of a popular Malay album; why should they waste their time trying to promote a complete unknown, writing songs in English, to a potential market of less than 10,000?

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Amir Yussof, rock god, nature mystic, animal lover & conservationist

A decade later, Amir Yussof encountered similar problems with his groundbreaking debut album (Some of this is Real) – which won awards for best local album (in the English song category) but sold no more than 5,000 copies. His second and third albums met pretty much the same fate, although they all achieved new levels of musicianship and technical excellence. Amir eventually dissolved his record label and worked at various other things, including a stint as entertainment manager in the KL Hilton; later he relocated to Sabah and took over a small restaurant cum pub, designing and selling chic gear on the side. However, he continues to play gigs around Southeast Asia and is popular at music festivals.

Sabahan Pete Teo released an arty album in 2003 called Rustic Living For Urbanites which he marketed independently as well as online. The prospect of exporting Malaysian music is hardly bright, simply because much of it does sound like already well-known western music: in Amir Yussof’s case, he has been compared with Mark Knopfler, Cat Stevens, and Sting; while Pete Teo often sounds like his heroes, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Tom Waits. Vatudu? (as they say in Malaysia) – nobody knows what “Malaysian music” ought to sound like! So how…? Well, the odds against making real money in music locally has compelled many musicians to become extremely resourceful and enterprising. Pete Teo has since gone on to make a splash as a screen actor and independent film producer.

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The incredibly talented, tough-talking, street-savvy Brian Gomez

Speaking of versatility, Brian Gomez warrants at least a brief mention here. He has been dubbed “Guardian Angel of the Indie Scene” because he runs a cozy pub called Merdekarya where young musicians, stand-up comics and storytellers can gain experience and exposure. Not only is Brian an accomplished singer-songwriter with a penchant for wry, earthy humor, he also happens to be a damn good writer and all-round intellect. His 2008 debut novel, Devil’s Place, blew me away with its sheer gall and gumption – and his facebook notes have acquired an avid following.

Stepping Lightly Into Dance

I could say a few things about the dance scene in Malaysia – if only to include Ramli Ibrahim’s name in this overview. Much has already been written – even a documentary film made – about Ramli Ibrahim, who has attained godlike status as a cultural mover and shaker. Ramli began dance lessons in Australia where he was studying mechanical engineering. Inspired by Chandrabhanu (a native of Perlis who changed his name from Zamin Haroon after he embraced Classical Indian Dance and its attendant philosophy, and migrated to Australia),

Ramli started out with Bharatanatyam and Odissi when he returned to Malaysia in 1983, and later extended his choreographic scope to Contemporary. Three decades later, Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Company is dynamically alive and well – and the man himself has got involved with acting, playwriting, painting, and sociocultural commentary, besides being an energetic and urbane impresario. I once described Ramli Ibrahim as “Malaysia’s answer to Diaghilev and Nijinsky” – which greatly pleased him.

Sadly, as a Malay performing and promoting Classical Indian Dance, Ramli has had to battle accusations of being a cultural traitor; until fairly recently, he received virtually no official support for his laudable work. Today Ramli Ibrahim has achieved what seemed impossible when he returned to Malaysia in the early 1980s – he is now the globally acclaimed artistic director of Sutra Foundation, leading his talented dancers in spectacular performances around the world and regularly winning accolades. A bona fide Malaysian success story.

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Butoh dancer-choreographer Lee Swee Keong in ‘Green Snake

It was western classical and jazz ballet all the way till the mid-1980s when postmodernism was introduced to Malaysian dance audiences by Marion D’Cruz, co-founder of Five Arts Centre, who studied under Martha Graham and later delved into Javanese dance. Nobody was doing stuff like this at the time, so Marion managed to get a fair amount of mileage out of her avant-garde choreography. In the 1990s, dancer-choreographer Lena Ang brought butoh to Malaysia and it infected the likes of Lee Swee Keong, whose monkish discipline and ascetic dedication to sublime aesthetics as a performer more than compensates for his exasperating tendency to mystify as a conceptualizer.

In 2003 Sutra hosted a Contemporary Dance Festival which showcased several exciting new talents in Malaysian dance – among them Aida Redza, who has spent a lot of time in Copenhagen, and whose wild, unpredictable, and shamanic choreography is always thrilling to watch. Syed Mustapha Syed Yasin is another innovative “trance-dancer” whose company Tandak Dance Theatre explores the magical roots of Malay culture in a highly theatrical modern context.

Interestingly, political events in recent years have significantly impacted on the cultural scene. The Reformasi movement led by sacked deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim spawned huge street protests against the Mahathir regime in October 1998, and these continued sporadically for a couple of years until almost all prominent opposition leaders, particularly the younger ones, had been arrested and detained without trial under the anachronistic ISA (Infernal Security Act). The ruling Barisan Nasional party banked on the Chinese voters’ desire for business-as-usual (and fear of abrupt political changes) to stay in power during the 1999 general election – which deliberately disenfranchised about 700,000 newly registered voters who might have dethroned the despotic Mahathir from his 22-year run as prime minister.

ZUNAR

Political cartoonist Zunar (Zulkifli Anwar Haque) constantly faces police harassment

A significant spin-off from Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest, mock trial and subsequent 15-year jail sentence has been that a large number of arts practitioners began to get involved in political activism – with quite a few, like conceptual artist Wong Hoy Cheong, actually joining opposition parties or campaigning on their behalf.  Artis Pro Activ (APA) was formed in 1998 as a response to the escalating political oppression and continues today as a virtual forum for the arts community, even though most of the steam has been discharged with Mahathir’s retirement on October 31st, 2003.

What became increasingly clear was that the greatest threat to the power structure came not from the Chinese and Indian minorities, but from among the new generation of Malays. After more than three decades of special privileges, a large section of the Malay population had become sufficiently educated and self-confident to demand more accountability from their public servants.

Recognizing this in late 2003, the new administration led by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proactively began to promote the notion of multiculturalism and multiethnicity – rather than foolishly attempting to suppress languages and cultures other than Malay. Indeed, the Tourism Ministry began its “Malaysia, Truly Asia” campaign, promoting Malaysia as a colorful microcosm of Asia. This “rainbow of cultures” marketing strategy was accompanied by a series of government-funded concerts featuring Chinese, Indian, and Western cultural performances.

Bersih-Protest

A massive political awakening that can neither be silenced nor suppressed

A positive upshot was the reversal of narrow prejudices, and the relaxation of ethnic tensions – at least for a few blessed years. The Barisan Nasional government under Abdullah Badawi was aware that it needed the loyal support of the ethnic minorities to remain in power; while those in opposition discovered that the desire for justice and good governance transcends all racial boundaries – particularly when they found themselves arrested, interrogated, tortured, and detained alongside their Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian compatriots.

Alas, when Najib Razak took over from Abdullah Badawi in April 2009, the psychic atmosphere turned toxic almost instantly with political intrigue of the most despicable order. Instead of inspiring a culture of innovation, initiative and greater excellence, Najib’s obsession with clinging desperately to power eclipsed all other national considerations – and this inevitably led to the return of jackbooted jingoistic Mahathirism in defence of an entirely corrupt status quo and the systematic privatization of public wealth through scandalous abuse of.power.

YBeee

Instant Cafe Theatre skit featuring Jo Kukathas as YBeeee, deputy minister of desperately smug incompetence & constant denial

Within the ranks of the predominantly Malay bureaucracy, there is a great divide between the more cosmopolitan and westernized faction, and those still carrying a provincial, parochial chip on their shoulders. Thus, a welcome surge towards  liberalization of official policies and active encouragement of the arts is often followed by a reactionary backlash – invariably instigated on quasi-religious grounds, in self-interested defence of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy).

A case in point would be the Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s heavy-handed attempt to punish the Instant Café Theatre in June 2003 for mercilessly lampooning thick-headed flat-footed bureaucracy. Spitefully, City Hall revoked Instant Café’s performance permit one day before their production of The Baltimore Waltz was scheduled to open. This ill-advised move backfired when Malaysia became a laughing stock on the global stage, with ICT’s banning mentioned on the BBC World Service and snidely commented upon in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, and Time magazine. In the end, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur personally intervened, allowing the show to go on. However, a few months later, an ad hoc censorship committee was set up to vet all future theater productions.

And so, in typically Sisyphean fashion, a few steps in the “right” direction are often nullified by several steps in the “wrong” direction. However, the artistic impulse cannot be thwarted or stopped, at least not for long – and those who would stand in the way of cultural evolution and intellectual maturity are doomed to terrible disappointment – unless they open themselves to a spontaneous awakening, and begin to embrace a deeper, broader, and wiser worldview.

© Antares

3 February 2005, updated 2 December 2014. Originally published by Goethe-Institut as part of collection of essays commemorating 50 years of German-Malaysian cultural exchange.

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

Posted on

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

 

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