Archive for February, 2003


Friday, February 28th, 2003

So here I am, a couple of hours after Round 7 ended, tapping away trying to write a report for those who couldn’t make it earlier. I know its pretty sad, but if I don’t write it now, the weekend is so filled with work I might not get to do it at all. Well, that’s my excuse anyway. The truth is, I’m probably just a sad and insomniac wanker with nothing better to do than spew spam at unsuspecting souls like you. Now, should you tire of my rambling, please unsubscribe – because, other than being a sad insomniac wanker, I am also known to the cognoscenti as an extremely verbose insomniac wanker. So there is no hope of these torrents of words stopping any time soon.

To the 45 new names on the list (welcome!), I’ll show you just how verbose I can get. Don’t faint.

When I first considered starting the Songwriters’ Round, it worried me whether we’d find enough performers in KL to sustain more than a couple of shows. Look at it this way – the live music scene in KL is so dominated by lounge music and assorted cover acts that I wasn’t sure how many musicians out there actually wrote their own material. And so what if it turned out that many people did write their own stuff? The vital question then would be this – would the quality of these originals be good enough for entertaining other than fawning relatives and cohorts? Would the quality of the material be good enough to help create a sustainable scene for songwriters in our community (whether professional or amateur), showcase their work and perhaps even build a non-partisan and mainstream audience over time? Hell, given that a whole generation of Malaysians have grown up expecting no more than Hotel Bloody California when they go to a live music joint, would there even be people interested in listening to a bunch of unknown songwriters strut their stuff? As though this is not bad enough, these unknowns would not be armed with full backing bands – they’d just be equipped with one or two instruments and nothing else – there would be no bass guitar to anchor the sound, and no drums to flatter it, just the instrument they wrote the song on – the true test of a songwriter if there ever was one. I had no way of knowing whether it’d work. But, true to form (i.e. like a mule), after getting the blessings of No Black Tie to support the show, I went ahead and produced the show anyway. Then, lo and behold, seven shows later (each one packed to the brim and superbly entertaining), we’re still going strong. I can’t tell you how pleased I am about that.

Truth be told, there are critics to the show. The Round has variously been accused of being nothing but a haven for ‘yuppie scumbags and toilet cleaners’ (Yep. Go figure), a ‘mutual appreciation society participated by musical wannabes’, and ‘glorified amateurs’ night. Hell, in spite of hosting its fair share of under-employed musicians and buskers, the show has even been accused of being ‘not working class enough’ – whatever that means. Anyway, I’ll leave the fairness of these critique for you to judge. The only response I’ve ever had is that the Round has never wanted to be a hip cat attitude / professional / class struggle show. We’ve had the opportunity of presenting professionals such as Amir Yussof, Jason Lo, Rabbit, Eugene Ng, Sherry, Rafique Rashid etc – and we’ve also made it a point to host first gigs for unknown talents who hold day jobs (from barmaids to writers to accountants) and who mostly write music for no other reason than that they love to do it. The only thing that had ever mattered to the show is this – ‘is it interesting enough to be presented to a broad-based audience’? Hell, I’d be the first one to admit that there has been the inevitable dodgy moment in the series, but I maintain that, in order to seriously gripe about the legitimacy of the show (especially given the modesty of what it tries to be), you’d either have to be really humourless or hopelessly canine. No, rather, the show is about people who write music – whether professionals or amateurs. It is about presenting a slice of someone’s life or work, preferably without the cool cat attitude. It doesn’t care for genre or reputation, let alone any concerns for sub-cultural axe grinding. It’s about the song writing voices in our community, pure and simple. That’s it. And if it should be deemed that the voices that sing our songs are ‘not good enough’, then my only response would be, ‘not good enough for who?’

You must be wondering, whatever got on my tit to make me go into such a tirade at 4 in the morning? Well, there are several reasons: (i) I am in a shit mood for no apparent reason (perhaps mid-life crisis); (ii) apart from one time after the first show, I’ve never been bothered enough to argue the point, but I thought it is high time I explained the background noise to people on this list; and most importantly (iii) I want to thank all of you for supporting the Round. I believe local original music deserves to be supported by our community at large (even if for no other reason than that it belongs to us all), and I think continuing support from folks like you are vital for the scene to survive and flourish. And if scenes created by events such as Songwriters’ Round, Acoustic Jam and Unclogged (and others like these) were to wither and die due to lack of interest, then as a community, I think we would be much poorer for it. So, once again – thank you.

I guess I’d better move on to the report of Round 7 before I start sobbing in gratitude.

Another packed Thursday night Round. In spite of the God awful traffic jam. In spite of the rain. In spite of having no ‘known’ names on the billing. Rather, we had two up-and-coming performers on the verge of their debut album releases, and two performers on their ‘first proper gig’ – one of whom is not even a musician. We also had Rafique doing the sound once again. And what joy it is to have Raf back behind the console! He was as meticulous as he ever was and totally professional in his approach. At one stage during the sound check, he asked me to share with him the sonic difference between the house sound with and without the house speakers turned on. You’re confused? Well, so was I. Raf is still mad as a hare, but wonderful. I said it last night and I’ll say it again – welcome back Raf!

The show started late to accommodate folks who got stuck in traffic jam. As the house filled, there was a sense that more unfamiliar faces were in the crowd than usual (I guess about 70% were new faces). Whether that was due the recent spade of media publicity on the Round or just the pulling might of the respective performers, I have no idea, but from the outset, it was clear that we had a good natured and somewhat rowdy crowd. As I paced up and down nervier than an expectant father, I noticed Shanon sitting by the door, pale with stress. It’s his first ever gig. I remember how nauseous I felt just prior to my first ever public performance and bought him a Tequila shooter to distract him. I have no idea whether it worked or not, but I think he looked calmer thereafter. Then Singletrackmind (Alex) walked up to me and intimated that he, too, felt strangely nervous. Alex is not a seasoned old dog, but he is not normally the nervous type either. I wagered him that the nerves will disappear 2 bars into his first song. He accepted the bet then bounced away. I walked across the room to check how Pang is holding up. Rather unexpectedly for a non-musician on his first gig, Pang was chatting happily to a group of friends as though he wasn’t shortly going to be bearing himself to strangers. I guess people deal with stress differently. What of Jam? She was sitting by the bar, calmly chatting to Eugene her sideman for the night. Well, she is after all, a full time musician and performer. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at her though. She looked barely old enough to be in a bar. But having seen her play, I know half the room would be in love with her before the night is over – and so it proved.

Alex and his guitarist Shah started the ball rolling as the packed house hushed into silence. As a performer, Alex was so comfortable and confident it made me wonder how he does it. I mean, the guy has transformed himself from a go-kart racer, to one of the world’s best jetski racers, to a corporate grinder, and now to a music performer – all in about a decade. I’ve had to deal with the psychology of a much less drastic transformation in the last 24 months too, and must admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with the schizophrenia. Still, I’ve known Alex for an awful long time (we were in the same band once) and I must add that it does not surprise me one bit. The guy has enough drive and go-spirit to feed an army. What of his music? Even back then when we were jamming in his house, Alex used to write really really melodious songs – ones I’ve never been capable of – and so it came as no surprise that his penchant for accessible melody has remained to this day. Based on what he played last night, his songs are almost tailored made for the American mainstream market, where I believe he is making not insignificant progress with his soon-to-be-released record and potential song sales. I wish him success knowing that, as with everything else Alex attempts, he’d excel. Yam Seng matey.

Shanon obviously got over his nerves pretty quickly. He launched into that broadway style of his with abundance, and it was brilliant to get a songwriter who writes and performs in that style on the show. I don’t think it’ll be an exaggeration to say that the entire crowd absolutely loved what he does. His piano playing was solid, his singing inviting, and his songs filled with literary wit and absolutely brilliant writing in both Malay and English. He reminds me of Randy Newman, except Shanon has a better voice. For me anyway, the song that absolutely took the cake was his little guitar accompanied love ode to Bernard Chauly. Not only was it supremely brave to undress his emotions so thoroughly, but Shanon did it with such style and craft it never once threatened to descend into cheese (which given his somewhat larger than life broadway style, it could easily have done if handled with less adroitness). And with Bernard himself sitting in the crowd, the atmosphere was frankly, charged. But there was no denying that Shanon belongs to a very special category of songwriters who have so far graced the Round – one of the blessed ones – one of those are equally at ease with music as it is with words. I don’t know if it was the same for those of you who were there, but I am definitely a fan. For those of you who missed it, fear not, for I’m sure he’ll be back.

Then came Pang the writer. My decision to invite Pang to play at the Round was driven by the single time I saw him read his writings at Jerome Kugan’s post-Merdeka event last year. In spite of the manifestly manic energy and rapid fire delivery (in as localised an accent as you’d hear this side of ‘don’t pray pray’), his stories are always about something more important than at first sight. He’d dress up an apparently funny story about his sexuality, or how he learned the arts of masturbation, or how he goes to cruise parks – and everyone laughs because they ARE funny. But what struck me was also how he succeeds in making us (even across the sexuality divide) laugh with him. Then, after a while, you’d find that his stories are actually profoundly sad too. Bar a few pieces where he tried to engage in slapstick writing, his ‘serious’ stories have a degree of sadness and loneliness that is truly impressive. Put another way, Pang makes people laugh with his tales of alienation and loneliness – if that is not art, I don’t know what is. And through it all, what struck me as totally amazing (though on reflection self-evident) is this – Pang writes about his experiences as a gay man – yet so much of what is poignant about his stories – the loneliness, the fear, the conflicts, the sadness – are common to us all. Anyway, to be totally honest, he took a bit of persuading. He worried about the fact that the Round is a songwriters’ show, and he is no songwriter. He was also unnecessarily uncertain of the merit of his work. But I tempted him with some lies about being able to offer him world fame, and being young and impressionable, he took the bait. And what a performance it was too. He put music to most of his pieces (backed mainly by Shanon on piano) and actually co-wrote a song with Shanon and Jerome Kugan especially for the occasion. The crowd cackled along with his humour, then in turn was shocked by the lewdness of ‘so big…’, then completely silenced by the poetry and desperate loneliness of ‘Cruising Park’ (?). To be frank, I am not a fan of his slapstick, which pitches too hard for ‘in-joke’ humour, but when this man bears his soul, it is well worth a listen. Thank you Pang for lending us a slice of your life. And yes, I am straight. Too bad. Heh.

Then came the pretty pretty Jam. I personally know several people who heard that a sweet little thing called Jam is playing, and came down only to check her out. Well, I am sure they weren’t disappointed – because everything about Jam is sweet. She looks sweet. She has a sweet personality. She has a sweet voice. She plays the piano sweetly. Her melodies are sweet. Her words are sweet. Hell, she even has a song about falling in love with Spiderman. Hm. Her mum must have overdosed on some really funky glucose diet when conceiving her 24 years ago. But her sweet nature belies a steely will. During sound check, when rehearsing an assemble group finale for the final song of the night, she was as certain of what she wants for her music as any seasoned pro I’ve encountered. And yet, between Eugene Ng (who backed her on guitar and played the last Round) and her, I haven’t seen such enthusiasm for playing and performing for a long long time. They couldn’t stop playing. They played well after sound check was finished and they played on well after the show itself was finished. And boy, can they play. It is so refreshing to see a couple of people enjoy themselves so much just playing music – and I am not talking about some over-keen newbie here – for both of them are seasoned performers in the Mandarin music circuit in KL. I suppose what is truly impressive about them is this – there seems to be a complete absence of the sort of hip cat posturing and cynicism that plagues so many of our musicians. You can tell that they simply like playing and don’t much care for anything else. I’ve got such soft spots for these people you wouldn’t believe. Well, both are signed to labels, and Jam’s album is expected to be released under Rock Records in May this year. Look out for it.

Anyway, for the entire time we’ve had the Round I don’t think I’ve ever across euphoric cheering and wolf whistles after every song , but last night was just one such occasion. And when the show was done, we took the customary 5 minutes break then launched into the open mic section of the show. First came Izuan (?) and friend, who had called me earlier upon a recommendation by Sara Lo, and asked for a chance to play open mic. Poor Izuan had a cold, and his vocals obviously suffered for it. Still, their raw grungy style was a welcomed contrast to the polish craft that went on before. They should really come back and play again. Then the whole room hauled Rafique up to do a couple of his classics. As usual, he brought the house down. Then we got Jerome Kugan to play a couple of new songs. Then Eugene (backed on piano by Jam this time) came up and threatened to change the sexuality of all those seated in the ‘alternative lifestyle’ section at the front. From where I was sitting, I swear everyone of those at the front table was lusting after him. Chak then came up and brought Round 7 to a proper close (backed in part by a drunk drummer).

So another good show. Thanks to all who came and all who played. The only thing is – I was so tired that I didn’t dare drink. For the entire night, I had one Tequila shooter with Shanon and a few Sangria. That’s it. Sad. After settling the performers and a few other necessaries (Alex admitted I was right about him loosening up after 2 bars, and now you must bear witness to the fact that he owes me a drink), I went for supper with a friend and then came home. Kind of a low key end to what was a really up key show. Then instead of going to bed like most sane people, I sat down and typed this. That was 2 hours ago. It is 6am now and I must catch some sleep before I collapse. I only want to add one more thing – Jam has a Tom Cruise look-alike boyfriend and all you lechers can forget it.

So there. Don’t cry too loud. I’m heading for bed.