The singer-songwriter scene in Kuala Lumpur is turning the city into the Greenwich Village of Malaysia. For today’s Global Hit, The World’s Marco Werman tells us about the man behind the music.

By Marco Werman, The World – PRI / BBC

Pete Teo is not your typical singer-songwriter. He’s composed theme music for TV in London. He led a Cantonese pop band in Hong Kong. He became a financial analyst and moved to Malaysia, pretty much giving up on his music. Then Pete Teo’s marriage ended. That’s when an old friend and music mentor named Leo Fung came to visit.

Pete Teo: We had a long chat. And he said you don’t look very happy. I said I’m not really. I’m going through a lot of stuff. And he says have you been writing? Why aren’t you writing? And I said no, not really, I haven’t been writing that much. But I’ve written this song and it’s called “Marianne Called.” I said I’m not sure really about it at all because it’s in some ways quite personal. In some ways, it’s written not for an audience. It’s written for myself. And Leo loved it. And Leo said why don’t you write another 50 minutes of this?

Like “Marianne Called,” a lot of Pete Teo’s songs are personal. That’s in keeping with the singer-songwriter tradition. It’s a tradition that Teo is trying hard to transplant at the No Black Tie, a small club in Kuala Lumpur.

Pete Teo: I produce a show in a live music venue called ‘Songwriters Round’ which really was inspired by the songwriters circle that happens in America.

More than inspired, you might say duplicated. A few years ago, Pete Teo was in New York’s Greenwich Village. He had just started writing the songs for a new CD, and he went to the club that’s been hosting songwriters’ rounds for the past 35 years.

Pete Teo: I went down to the ‘Bitter End’ in the Village and saw a songwriters circle in action. I thought it’d be a fantastic idea to showcase local, original, English or otherwise, other songwriters who work in Chinese, or Tamil or Malay, provided they are original music, they are welcome to come and play. And obviously that platform has been really successful, it’s gotten tons of press, it’s something new that the city of Kuala Lumpur has accepted and has welcomed as an alternative to endless rounds of ‘Hotel California’ when they go and watch live acts.

Of course, not everyone in Kuala Lampur accepts or welcomes the new sounds. But there are enough people who are fed up with the cookie-cutter MTV view of music that local songwriters are a breath of fresh air. The artists at Pete Teo’s ‘Songwriters Round’ at the No Black Tie typically perform to standing room only crowds. And the publicity hasn’t hurt Pete Teo and sales of his own release, “Rustic Living for Urbanites.”

“Jesselton Tonight” is the you-can’t-go-home-again tune from Pete Teo’s album. He was born and grew up in Jesselton, the capital of the Malaysian province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Jesselton is the colonial name. Today it’s called Kota Kinabalu. Pete Teo hadn’t been back there since he was a kid.

Pete Teo: And then I went back to it a few years ago. And I was on a plane, and as the plane came in to land it went below the clouds, and what I saw shocked me because it certainly wasn’t the memory I had of Sabah, which is green and full of pristine, primeval jungle. What I saw was essentially just earth, basically, yellow earth.

Environmental ruin is what Pete Teo sings about in “Jesselton Tonight.” The other musicians who gather for his ‘Songwriters Round’ write their lyrics about equally weighty issues.

Pete Teo: Some of them are extremely political, and some of them are extremely moving, by way of addressing social, personal problems, or problems of displacement. I mean it’s a huge problem here which I fall into. In the sense of cultural displacement. Are you east? Are you west? Does it matter? That sort of stuff.

The singer-songwriter scene in Malaysia is growing. But even for Pete Teo, it’s still a mom and pop operation. And he gets support through the contract with his record company.

Pete Teo: They place it in the shops, we handle all the promotion and everything, I’ve got a small team of people helping me out, and we’ve managed to sort of get some airplay and reach as high as number two. We’ve missed number one by a bit, but…

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.