Archive for January, 2003


Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

By Yasmin Yaacob, Options2 – The Edge

Johnny Cash put it best, says Pete Teo: ìWhere have all our love songs gone?î For Teo, popular songs of the past were narratives of universal experiences. Love, life, growing up, coming of age, change and social consciousness were given nuance by the voices of the times.

Today, music has become synonymous with visual excitement ñ the desperate hawking of sex appeal ñ and big business, the ësharedí experience of listeners is homogeneity rather than communion. ìStorytellingî in three minutes soundbites. For Teo, who categorises his music as contemporary folk, local acts catering to purported ënicheí needs are invariably the worse off. Teo once released a Canto-pop-ish albums that attracted a following in Hong Kong, but quit that scene to ëwrite what I want to writeí. He is presently recording a new album with an indie producer.

Then Teo met Evelyn Hii, A Sabahan who had earned her bachelors and Masters in Music in the US and had worked as a musician in New York for a few years. As the owner of No Black Tie, she had the venue and the passion to showcase local performers. He has the will to reproduce in KL an American concept he calls the ëSongwriters Roundí. Four performers, seasoned and newbie alike, take turns to play their won original, and often deeply personal songs, chatting up the audience as they go along, making the open-mike session later less daunting. Teo and Hii test the uncharted pool of talent that is KL and talk about embracing music ñ and musicians.

PETE TEO, Musician

ìYou write music because you love it. If you find an audience itís like winning the lottery. But thereís a lot of great music out there thatís sold two dozen copies. Todayís less romantic business culture makes it increasingly about positioning, image, videos ñ music has ceased to be the core. By contrast, in the 70ís, the labels were run by people who loved music and were serious about artist development. A five-year deal meant you werenít expected to rake in profit with the first few records; today much of it has become quarterly earnings. I have nothing against todayís popular music, but it is not what I prefer.

But how do you find music you like? If musicians are not signed to a big label, their distribution suffers. How would you ever know about them? And if youíd heard of them you wouldnít find their CDs at Tower Records. The Internet has helped musicians communicate with their audience, but when you search for ëfolkí on, you have to sieve through a million songs. Independent producers are businesses too; they need to know that they will get something back for every CD they put out. Malaysians still donít consider music to be intellectual property like they would a house or a car.

In the end, I think weíre back to the old-fashioned approach of going on the road, shaking hands. The Songwritersí Round attempts to blur the line between performer and audience. To draw the audience, we may have two well-known performers like Julian Mokhtar and Amir Yusoff, and two newbies. You may come to watch Amir, but discover someone new in the process. Weíve had performers who are jobless, professionals, and waitresses. The only thing we insist on is that you sing your own songs and that you canít bring a band. Itís an acoustic show.

The energy in the room is amazingly supportive. People sit or stand for hours, just listening. I think itís because these performers are telling stories about their lives, their experiences. In between, theyíll chat about their songs. All communities need this because these songs come from the contact points of our society ñ the writers were moved enough to write about their experiences and surely there should be a place to accommodate this. May be one out of 100 singers will ever make it big, but thatís not what itís all about. Once music transcends entertainment, it becomes more about self-expression and communion.

The open-mike session has unearthed some serious talent. Weíve made efforts to publicise this to the labels, but so far, no oneís turned up. I guess we are labelled as ìEnglishî music (and hence cater to a small market), which is not true. People sing in all sorts of languages. The labels are essentially foreign outposts of US companies. If you are earning a salary of RM20,000 a month, why should you risk your job pushing an local unknown (instead of the American Top 40)? You canít blame these guys. The industry is in flux; the big labels cannot continue putting the entire blame (for the plunging profits) on the likes of Napster.

KL needs more people like Evelyn. She had already started No Black Tie to support local artistes even before I met her, including Joe Kiddís Unclogged and Hassan Brownís Acoustic Jam. She is passionate about this and deserves this success. She may sell some drinks on a good night, but the cover charge, minus expenses, goes entirely to the performers. For both of us this is a labour of love.î

EVELYN HII, Owner of No Black Tie

No Black Tie began as a concept where Iíd get people together to play classical music at various venues. But one day we thought, wouldnít it be great if we could offer this kind of platform to all musicians? And thatís how we opened the series to different types of music, took over this venue, and finally we were performing No Black Tie at No Black Tie. As serendipity would have it, when I was in KL, I rented a room just down the road in what was then called 2020 coffee shop!

Pete first came here with his guitar in December 2000 one Sunday night to do a recording. I remember the floor was newly varnished and the recording was beautiful. A few months later, Joe Kidd proposed doing Unclogged here and one of the performers was Pete. Later, Pete came back from a New York music festival, excited about this concept of a songwritersí round. We launched it with Pete, Julian Mokhtar, Rabbit and Sei Hon and it was a success from the start. What I love about it is the atmosphere. Thereís so much camaraderie and genuine friendship all around that it makes it easier for people to step up to a mike. In a way, I was surprised that this was a KL audience ñ weíre so used to blasting music. But yes, I suppose we set the tone; this place is about appreciating music. And thereís absolutely no politics among the performers. Theyíre up there, supporting each other. Pete makes sure itís a good mix ñ that there are those who can help the ëshyí ones; give them a nudge to say, ëHey, come on, you can do it.í

The feedback has been amazing. Both Pete and I get lots of phone calls from people who want to perform. People find the music refreshing; it fills a gap. Its completely different from mainstream pop, which churns out the same old stuff. Here, performers reach out to the audience and vice versa. I always tell people that you get out of it as much as you put in.

I think thereís always been an audience for a place like this. KLites are more ready for it. The networking has been amazing ñ foreign musicians who come into town always seem to find their way here, or someone brings them. Weíve had members of the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas series and Winston Marsalisí band walk in, pull out their instruments and play!

I am doing this for the love of music. I could never do anything else. I am a performer and playing alone is not enough, so the more the merrier! And it becomes a family, a community. One of the first thing that Pete ever said to me was ëEvelyn, you should have open-mike here, thatíll bring the community together ñ and what do you know, now weíre doing it!î