SINGER-SONGWRITERS IN KL: A LITTLE HISTORY, A LITTLE HOPE FOR ITS SUSTAINABILITY
When Peter Hassan Brown organised the Acoustic Jam series of gigs at Commonwealth Club back in 1999-2001(?), it really made an impact on the music scene in KL. Granted it didn't always feature singer-songwriters. But it emphasised two things that still resonate five years later: that people will listen, even if you're just a voice and a guitar. And that you can play your own material, you don't have to play a fucking cover to get respect.
Meanwhile, over in No Black Tie, Joe Kidd's Unclogged series which happened less frequently, made it clear that the drive of the individual to expression could not be hemmed in by musical genre. That perhaps the most punk thing one can do is actually say 'fuck off' to the electric gee-tar and the whole band thingy and just do it yourself. Acoustically and independently.
Those two paved the way for Pete Teo's The Songwriters Round, which also happened at No Black Tie. This was an even more concerted effort to put solo acoustic performers in the limelight. There was something magical about seeing four singer-songwriters on stage taking turns to perform their own material. There was a sense that, yes, the solo singer-songwriter did not have to be fodder to fit in between bands. And that perhaps there is a community of singer-songwriters out there working beneath the veil of haze that is KL, producing songs worthy of people's attention. Many of the more established singer-songwriters in KL have played at The Songwriters Round. For a brief time in 2002-2003, it seemed like a renaissance for KL singer-songwriters.
There were other gigs too worthy of mention here: Valhalla, organised by Jasmine Low at Liquid, Paul's Place and NBT, similarly mined the singer songwriter circuit as its main feature; Apuke, a poetry and music event organised by Buddhi Hikayat that was popular among the literate Malay crowd also featured singer-songwriters. Not to mention band-oriented gigs such as KLue's Urbanscapes 2004 and Sapu-Sapu 2004 that gave space to singer-songwriters.
Of course, the singer-songwriter scene did not suddenly pop up just like that, nor was it really ever a solid entity. The pioneers of the scene - people like Rafique Rashid, Karen Nunis Blackstone, Amir Yusoff, Prema Lucas, Meor and many more - courageously underwent the slog of having to play to unappreciative pub audiences. The later crop of singer-songwriters - people like Shanon Shah, Mia Palencia, Shelley Leong, Mei Chern, Ariff Akhir and others (including my fellow troubadours Azmyl Yunor and Tan Sei Hon) - are both lucky and kind of unlucky in comparison. Lucky in the sense that the audience they're playing had already been primed by the pioneers. But unlucky in the sense that, like their older counterparts, they're still struggling to find a captive audience. And the same goes for the latest crop of singer- songwriters - Reza Salleh, Izzy, Jasemaine Gan, etc.
But maybe this is because of how the the singer-songwriter scene came about. Despite the fact that most of the performers knew of each other in passing, it was still very much fragmented. Also the attention span and sympathies of the audience could only be sustained for so long. Not to mention the stress this put on the organisers to deliver the goods on a regular basis.
Peter Hassan Brown gave up on Acoustic Jam after having had enough of poor attendance. Unclogged has been on an extended hiatus since NBT closed down. Meanwhile, The Songwriters Round has bravely continued, happening intermittently at Alexis Ampang, though losing some of its original intimacy. Our debt as singer songwriters in KL to these three acoustic and singer-songwriter-focused concert series is immeasurable.
And I guess here's where Troubadours comes in. Pete Teo has made his admiration for local indie filmmakers very public. (We backtrack a bit. The local arts community has always been rather close-knit. Individuals associated with the theatre, film, music, art and literary scenes in KL have always been rather supportive of each other's work. In fact, most people involved in the arts are multi-disciplinarians.) And it's been quite a trip, really, for all of us, to watch the rise of the indie film scene. From terribly low budget features to international recognition, it's worth studying how the indie film scene have pooled their resources and made themselves seen and heard by an ever-growing public.
Pete suggested if perhaps the same thing can happen for the singer-songwriter scene. If only we could pool our resources and strengths in the same way, perhaps we could overcome this pessimistic feeling that Malaysia is not ready for its singer-songwriters to be successful. If I remember correctly, Pete said that: "One superstar singer-songwriter does not a scene make." Meaning we can't expect the audience to single out any one singer-songwriter and expect this to lift the profile of the scene as a whole.
To that end, Troubadours was set up in the spirit of community. We wanted singer- songwriters to come together as a sort-of united group, to show that we can be stronger because of what we do. You may or may not agree with this. Sometimes I wonder myself if this is the right thing. But doubt is good I suppose. The singer-songwriter genre, by its nature alone, is not something that's an all-out popular genre. It takes a bit of getting used to. These naked songs can be hard to digest. But we're trying to turn this perceived weakness into a strength. What if the things that make us 'difficult' to listen to - our personal stories, our acoustic approach, our DIY spirit - become the very thing that people want?
You know, I don't mind appearing on MTV or whatever. You can call me a publicity whore or whatever. But at the end of the day, it's really about getting the music out there. And for what? It's so that we can sustain this enthusiasm to create more music. There have been many instances where I see musicians just give up because they don't see a future in it. That's a personal choice, yes. But I can't help thinking that maybe if there was a glimmer that, yes, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that there would be more reason to stick with this art, this craft.
To me, the audience can come and go. But the singer-songwriter, the artist behind the song, the human that is the song, has to continue believing in the power of the music. It doesn't matter if the lyrics are ugly, or if the talent needs a lot of polishing, or that the music may come across too pat or bloodless, what matters is that the scene is there to receive the lightning when it strikes.
Jerome Kugan, singer-songwriter