By Shanon Shah
The first time I played at No Black Tie, it was during open mike at Songwriters Round 5. If I remember correctly Jerome Kugan, songwriter-troubadour extraordinaire, and Lorna Tee, empowered arts groupie extraordinaire, organised this particular round. Jerome, who was also performing that night, kept shuffling from the stage area to the front porch, stout in one hand, cigarette in the other.
I remember first stepping into the joint with some friends. It felt like I was discovering a portal into a parallel universe. With Hotel lstana at one end of the road and Frangipani at the other end, the last thing I expected to find was a dark side alley with a plant-laden doorstep leading into a cramped pub. But there it was.
When I entered, it felt like how a bar in downtown Moscow would feel like – if Russia were a tropical country. Slightly more than a year after returning to Malaysia from studying overseas, I felt like I had found my own Kuala Lumpur of returning exiles and bruised dreamers.
It was a strange experience. The cramped wooden chairs and tables reminded me of primary school, but the smoke, the alcohol and the empty bottles lining the walls reminded me of every place my mother had told me not to go to.
And the performing space. The drums, the grand piano, the speakers, the microphones, the wires – all squashed into this small space at the end of the room. I wondered how the performers were going to fit on the stage. But time and again, I have been impressed by just how well performers use the space, and how the space embraces performers. And I also love how the performance space is not elevated in any way. Performers stand or sit on the same ground level as the audience. This is just so intimate. Whether you are part of the audience or a performer at No Black Tie, it almost feels like you’re making love.
I remember when the show finally started there was barely any elbowroom to move. There was no space between my diaphragm and the side of the table, and there was no space between my spine and the back of my chair. I had to maneuver my forearm carefully so that I could drink without spilling anything. It was wonderful having to scrunch up to your friends in such close proximity and listen to the music this way.
I usually hold my bladder if I find that ifs too difficult to negotiate my way to the toilet. The toilet at No Black Tie is not only tiny – it is also unisex.
When the round was officially over and open mike was announced, half the audience left and it felt like half the Pacific had emptied out.
I remember talking to Pete Teo about the possibility of performing open mike. I was totally prepared to take no for an answer. I would have understood if it was too much hassle, since I am a pianist and not a guitarist. But he was so warm and accommodating. So when my turn came, I got up to perform. My palms could have soaked through cardboard, and they were trembling too. I did not know what to expect. I knew a lot of the people in the audience, but we were not exactly friends yet at this time. What if I made a fool out of myself?
But I played – and it was so easy. I always get this feeling when I perform at No Black Tie. Butterflies will be playing soccer matches in my stomach before I start, but when I finally do start, it feels like coming home.
And so I played two songs. And just when I thought I was the only one enjoying myself, everyone else cheered. It felt like first love. And I remember Pang hugged me, and I felt like I belonged.
And so now it’s closing down.
I have been back there a couple of times since I found out that it’s closing. It hasn’t been easy. I have been looking for Evelyn, the woman behind No Black Tie. I have been wanting to ask her why. But then I realise that so many people are probably asking her the same thing, and knowing Evelyn, she’s probably not telling anyone a whole lot.
I was there last on Monday. Again, waiting for Evelyn. I wanted to talk to her. By this time, I realised I could not possibly ask her why she’s closing it down. But at the very least I wanted to connect with her. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I wanted to try.
The first time I met Evelyn was during Songwriters Round 7. This was my first gig at No Black Tie, having been invited back to perform after that fateful open mike at Round 5. I remember asking her if I could have a bottle of water on the piano while I performed – to wet my throat should it become too dry. She glared at me. Her mouth looked as though it was on the way to forming the words “How! Dare! You!” I don’t know if she reacted that way because I giggled when I asked or what, but I backed off immediately. So I drank as much water as I could before we went on and did not keep anything by my side at the piano. I think Evelyn must have felt about my placing a bottle of water near the piano the same way some parents feel when testosterone-laden boys approach their 17-year-old daughters. So yes, I felt totally intimidated by Evelyn from the start.
But I was also impressed. I think well of people who love pianos.
I also remember her snapping at her bar staff intermittently that same night. And I don’t know why but whenever Evelyn opens her eyes wide and barks at whoever is around, I tell myself not to pee in my pants. But the people who work for her have genuine affection for her. As one of her employees put it: “Evelyn tu mulut jahat tapi hati baik.”
The first time I saw and heard Evelyn play the piano was during open mike for another songwriters round. Pete Teo, the organiser, called her up to play something. She shook her head and flailed her arms in protest. I remember thinking, “For the love of god, Pete, what are you doing?”
But then she played! I remember thinking, “Maybe she’s that drunk.” But that’s immaterial. I was stunned by her playing. Those very eyes that glared at me before, they scanned the keyboard urgently. The arms that flailed in protest were suddenly poised and supple. And then the piano sang. It responded to her caress. And there she was, a spidery beauty swaying and oblivious to everything but the music. I don’t know what she played, but it felt like I was reading her diary.
And since then, I have grown to respect and even admire her. I have even hugged her once, and she hugged me back, believe it or not.
So on Monday night, I waited to talk to her. I waited until I thought she wasn’t going to show up. So I got ready to leave.
As I was about to step out the door when I saw her. There behind the counter was Evelyn. I waited for her to finish writing her cheque. But then right after she finished scribbling her stuff, she just whizzed past me and disappeared. I don’t know why, but I was afraid to talk to her. I was afraid I would say the wrong thing, or ask the wrong questions.
But then she reappeared, and noticed me. She gave me a huge smile. I relaxed. I went up to her and told her I just wanted to speak to her for a while for an article I’m writing for Kakiseni. With a pained smile, she said “Not now.” Just for a little while, Evelyn, I just want to – “Not now. Not now. Not now.”
And I don’t know if she realises it, but those are the two words that best describe what I feel about No Black Tie closing down.
So I left.
I will be back for the other shows lined up before No Black Tie finally closes down at the end of the month. But just for that Monday night, I needed to leave while the music was still playing. Because, at least for now, that’s how I want to remember No Black Tie. With the music still playing as I close the door behind me.
First Published: 22.01.2004 on Kakiseni