By Chan Siew Lian
There is a certain coolness in being a female guitarist. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good, or even if you’re wearing the instrument the wrong way. People will gladly entertain you if you come in strings and heels.
This excuse for sub-par playing, however, was shattered when I heard that the band Tempered Mental was scheduled to play before me at my first ever gig. Some other female singer cum bassist, with blue-tinted hair to look even more mengancam, would be stealing my moment of glory. I was pissed. Soon I would be relegated to the ranks of a me-too; a nobody; a guitar-toting maggot devoid of any gender.
There. I said it.
For apart from being distinctly reproduction-friendly, the fact remained: I was a me-too, a fameless, nameless so and-so with pipe dreams of performing before a crowd. This time, however, there was a chance that my constant reflecting about the ‘could-have-beens’ (fan club, recording contract, limo, etc) was about to come real, thanks to the Fete de la Musique.
Excuse for noisy orgies
For the unknown artist, opportunities to perform publicly in Malaysia are relatively few. Open mic sessions, underground gigs, Songwriter Rounds and Battle of the Bands competitions are viable options, so long as one doesn’t mind playing to an audience of fellow musicians and their bed mates. Then there are Malaysian Idol auditions; pretty daunting stuff for the closet amateur’s ego.
Here’s where the Fete comes in.
On the longest day in 1982, French musicians took to the streets and heralded the first Fete de la Musique with gaiety and gusto. The concept was simple: “You play music? Go to the streets and show your talent. Not a musician? Go out and support your buddies and fellow citizens.” News of this festival quickly spread. At last count, the Fete is celebrated in over 250 cities worldwide, each playing to its own tune.
The Fete reached our shores in 1996 in the form of a private annual party. I was not invited and thus do not know if music was just an excuse for what I suspect were noisy orgies. Thankfully, a few years later, HELP Institute (now HELP University College) decided to adopt the musical romp and extend it to the public.
And so it was, that on 21 June 2002, a total of 40 acts paid homage to their musical gods, unleashing a stream of rock, pop, jazz, folk, and everything in between at Pusat Bandar Damansara. Amateur and professional musicians shared the airwaves, joined by 1,500 revellers who took advantage of the free sounds. It was a success.
The following year, Fete de la Musique was back. Weekend shoppers around Bukit Bintang stepped out from muzak to musique in the largest ever street music festival in Malaysia. This time, the good folks at Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) joined forces with HELP, the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise to mobilise 170 performances. The crowd? An estimated 10,000 people.
We’ll never really know how many fake Medical Certificates were issued to participants of the Fete de la Musique 2004. Despite being held on a Monday, more musicians took to the streets of Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Imbi, Changkat Bukit Bintang and Tengkat Tong Shin from noon to midnight, playing to an estimated 20,000 people in 230 performances.
This year, around 150 acts signed up for a total of 234 scheduled performances. Four stages were set up at Low Yat Plaza (main stage), Sungei Wang Plaza, Times Square and One Utama. Performance spots were at BB Plaza, Piccolo Mondo, Lot 10 and KL Plaza, but these were less utilised due to power supply and equipment constraints. There was also an island version up in Penang, organised by Alliance Francaise.
It was to One Utama’s Rainforest – within the light-well of the new wing, presently filled with man-made waterfall, man-made rocks and man-planted foliage – that my support group and I flocked to that Saturday in June for my first public performance. My first SOLO public performance. This is all my Penang friend’s fault.
So you doing it alone
When assigned this article by Kakiseni, I had immediately contacted an old friend in Penang. The last time we jammed together was a decade ago, but he has that sort of boyish charm that makes crappy mistakes sound cute. I decided to let him share my fame; he agreed to share my potential ignominy. I happily registered us as a duo for Saturday at One Utama, and with my church band for Sunday at Sungei Wang Plaza.
On the day of the compulsory briefing at HELP’s lecture hall, three days short of the Fete, my Saturday partner dumped me with an SMS:
“Hi, really sorry, can’t make it this Sat. Product coming in Fri. Have to test. Sorry :(”
A surge of stomach acid echoed my thoughts. Suddenly, I felt alone, like a back-up vocalist whose band had regrouped without her. I looked around. The room continued buzzing with questions and seemingly more professional concerns expressed by other band reps present. Schedule changes, type of equipment provided at the various stages, and whether the stage would be made out of wood or cement (which came from some feather-weight dancers). Only my church bandmate with whom I came sympathised with my plight. At least the Sunday performance with the band was still on. “So you doing it alone?” he asked.
It was a question no one in the room knew the answer to then. After the SMS, I had nightmares.
They were the mathematical sort; not the stuff you’d find in a regular dream book. For example: If a disgruntled crowd has 10 rotten eggs and six squishy bananas, divided by two lousy musicians on stage, how many eggs and bananas would each get pelted with? (Answer: 5 and 3) Next: Assuming there is only ONE failed musician on stage, how many… (Answer: All) Or: If an audience hurls 240 insults every 5 minutes, divided by two pairs of ears, how many insults would one hear by the end of the second song? The calculations got more complicated each time I would sing out of tune, or if someone carrying a tray of eggs would enter the picture.
Inside A Whale
The main objectives of the free-for-all Fete are “to provide the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the different genres of national and international music,” and “to provide an avenue for both amateur and professional musicians to showcase their talents.” In other words: You can still play even if you suck.
The latter – disturbingly comforting – is what kept me from going AWOL as Tempered Mental grooved overhead. I was parked on a bench one floor below hoping to practise last-minute – an exercise in futility, I discovered. My blue-haired nemesis dug deeper into her bass lines, possibly killing one or two of the Rainforest’s resident koi. More applause from upstairs. Tight playing, with indecipherable vocals. Over the weekend, I would realise that articulation is a major problem many local bands have.
Just before Tempered Mental’s set, the stage area had been pretty deserted, save for some HELP crew and musicians hanging around. The crew was busy turning the stage 180 degrees around, which meant that earlier bands had been performing before an audience of swaying foliage. It didn’t look promising. Luckily it had been drilled into us at the briefing: “The Fete is not a professionally run event.” I registered myself, tried to change the ill-fated name of Inside A Whale, failed, then hid in some lonely corner to pray.
Another bead of sweat trickled from my neck to the guitar’s.
Only a few minutes to go.
“You ready?” asked my best friend, smiling. I nodded, then gulped like a dying koi. Seven hours later, this is what I prayed as I retired that night, tired but fulfilled:
“Dear Lord, thank You for the performance earlier. Thank You for Your divine protection from the audience, security crew and the ISA. Thank You for that guy who said I had good material – please bless him. Thank You that despite the failed jokes (“Hi people, welcome to Guitar Lesson 101: this is a capo, and it has nothing to do with kay-po-chi”), the performance went okay and my voice didn’t break. I actually enjoyed myself, Lord. Please help me forgive those incompetent sound guys who screwed up my sound. I commit tomorrow’s performance at Sungei Wang into Your hands. Amen.”
Building a participatory atmosphere
Mike, our 17-year-old guitarist and usually tan, was looking rather pale. On stage, the guitars were screaming away to a pounding beat, while the band members, clad in lard, sweat and grimy long hair, thumped the makeshift foundations up and down. Anytime now, The Undertaker could appear, slowly making his way to the front before uprooting the lead singer by the crotch and slamming him into a collapsible metal chair. But no such entertainment was scheduled for today. Instead, our band was up next.
Earlier, the crawl to Bukit Bintang had been indicative of a good turnout.
Just outside Low Yat Plaza, where better known bands like Popshuvit, One Buck Short and Naked Breed would be performing, a professional-looking stage had been erected, complete with metal chairs for the audience.
These were sparsely filled. The crowd, which seemed to be there more by chance, preferred standing by the sides, as though committing to a seat would make them guilty if they decided to walk out. Dozens of HELP students in black T-shirts teemed about, giving the illusion of an audience.
I arrived just as Jabal, a French outfit, started to play. Theirs was typical carnival fare: free-spirited and in a foreign language. A few souls braved the cynical glances of onlookers, and got up to dance. These were either tourists, members of the colourful, chain-smoking Wwanao, or HELP students on a mission to “involve the audience during performances in order to build up a participatory atmosphere” (as advised in the 2-page document, ‘Instructions to Crews’).
Hiding behind the tiny lens of my camera, it wasn’t long before I realised I was actually enjoying myself. The dancing seemed to have loosened up the crowd a bit, as seats started filling up. Thanks to the previous night’s experience, I felt a sense of being at home.
I observed that the better performances came from those who played for (versus to) the audience. Wwanao, a large band playing “tribal experimental musica” with hints of Bob Marley, justified their presence on the main stage with their entertaining act. It felt weird at first, but soon I was bopping to Malay reggae. Then I found out just how polite the Malaysian audience is when I was the only one laughing at some girls from Kolej Tengku Kursiah dressed as guys, dancing to a badly choreographed French number. Cross-cultural business can be downright dangerous.
Back at Sungei Wang, the Rambut Panjang band celebrated their Sunsilk locks with a little ditty that went “Rambut aku panjang / Rambut dia panjang / Kamu patut berambut panjang.” The few hundred-odd crowd, made up of mat motors, druggie look-alikes and Sunday shoppers, stared transfixed as the musicians stroked each other’s mane.
Then the din died. Crap.
Rachael Lau, one of the emcees from HELP, was already on stage, introducing our band. She is part of the 350-member taskforce, comprising students and staff from the college, charged with making this year’s Fete a success. In return, she gets to keep the T-shirt she is wearing.
Backstage just now, she asked, “So, why are you guys called Believing Thomas?”
“Because Doubting Thomas was already taken,” I half-shouted over the noise.
“Oh-kay…,” said Rachael, frowning. “But why Believing Thomas?”
Incidentally, I’ve known Rachael since she was a kid. I was counting on her to be kind to us and not make us look like fools. Too late.
Quickly, our band scrambled onstage, heaving a donkey’s load of instruments and music stands with us – the latter proving useful shields against a potentially hostile audience. Fortunately, there were helpful sound guys around, unlike yesterday’s morons at the Rainforest who just sat and stared.
I pulled a mic close to me. Ugh. I closed my eyes to stop my head from spinning. Obviously, the singers before me had no oral hygiene whatsoever.
As the sun melted into gorgeous hues of pink and deep purple, we were ready. We turned to face the audience, only to be hit by blinding lights. I squinted uncomfortably. It’s funny how little you see when you’re the centre of attention. My lead singer commented on the lights, which were immediately turned down. I took a deep breath, away from the mic, and reminded myself this was all for fun. Bravely, our drummer counted us in.
Chan Siew Lian is trying to leave her advertising job.
First Published: 04.08.2005 on Kakiseni