let’s make something together

Give us a call or drop by anytime, we endeavour to answer all enquiries within 24 hours on business days.

*Five Arts Centre is moving! New address and phone number coming soon.*

Black Mental Nation

  • January 11, 2006

By Pang Khee Teik

Rafil Elyas, 39, engineer, builder of mathematical models and rock musician, wasn’t playing at the ill-fated New Year’s Eve concert at Paul’s Place that was raided. But he was outraged all the same. So, with some help from the Centre for Independent Journalism, he organised a press conference at Paul’s Place on Mon 2 Jan 2006, two days after the raid. Including Rafil himself, the panel also consisted of feminist activist Jaclyn Kee, owner of the premise Paul Millot, blues guitarist Julian Mokhtar, concert organiser Mohd Iskandar Zulkarnain, Second Combat band member Khairuddin Abd Aziz, lawyer Amir Hamzah and singer-songwriter-lecturer Azmyl Yunor. Rafil tells me that one of his initial ideas was to try and define Black Metal for the public, and more importantly, the cops and the press. Because, if the cops could bust into a Hardcore Punk concert and call it Black Metal, then obviously nobody really knows what kind of goat they are dealing with here. But Rafil changed his mind, partly because the genre is admittedly difficult to defend (more on this later). More importantly, as the musicians and audience at the raided concert (titled “This Year’s Final Threat”) kept saying, they were playing Hardcore Punk. Not Black Metal. The difference between the two is as clear as the difference between waltz and riverdance. But for some, the difference is easily collapsed into superficial signs (black tshirt + loud music = evil).

An enchanted world

As you already know: While many of us at our respective New Year’s Eve parties were happily waiting to take advantage of our fellow drunk party guests, 380 kids who were attending a supposedly satanic concert at Paul’s Place on Old Klang Road were detained by the police. Subsequent reports saw our newspapers scrambling, some more creatively than others, to come out with their own versions of the truth.

According to one paper the next day, this concert was a replacement for a sex party that was supposed to take place in Langkawi. The beach party had been earlier banned by a superintendent who saw the flyer for the event and deduced that it was an outdoor sex party – this conclusion he made from the picture of a bikini-clad woman (was she expected to wear the National Service uniform?) and the advice to bring own condom (are condoms only used for public sex?). At last week’s press conference, the organisers of the concert denied they had anything to do with the sex party. Besides, the cops and the press have yet to provide any proof that the Langkawi party was going to be an outdoor orgy. So, in relating two fictionalised events, the press has created quite an enchanted world of its own device. It is a world of frightened imagination and thick superstition, overrun by a population with demons on their minds. Everyone here has the penchant for seeing the devil in each other. I will call it the Black Mental world, so named after the Freudian slip made by one TV station.

Now, the police claimed that they were tipped off regarding the Black Metal concert, and thus arrived with nine trucks. After hauling in everyone at the premise, they also took in folks selling tshirts and CDs at makeshift stalls as well as folks hanging out along the walkway and at mamak stalls nearby (among whom were a Singaporean couple on holiday who were having supper with friends). Everyone was taken to the Brickfields police station and detained without a charge. One girl, when she asked a police officer if he had a warrant for arrest, was rebuffed: “Tak payah waran, ini bukan Hong Kong!” At the station, the police denied the detainees their right to an attorney, yet managed to call a press conference and subject them to interviews.

Over the next few days, the reason for the raid varied: first, it was a Black Metal concert, then there was suspicion of drug abuse and sale of alcohol to Muslims, and finally, the premise’s lack of permit for such an event. The last indictment, some insist, surely doesn’t warrant the detention of those innocent of the crime. Secondly, after testing those 380 people, the police found only seven who tested positive. That was the first testing – nobody knows for sure the result of the second test, but some believe that everyone eventually got out, suggesting that not even one person was charged for drugs. As for the sale of alcohol, Paul Millot, owner of the premise said in an interview with Malaysiakini: “The three crates of beer uncovered by the police were under a table. Thus, we were accused by police of selling alcohol to a mainly Muslim crowd. But wouldn’t beers be normally chilled before being served?” As it appears, the police would have been better off searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

And lastly, the Black Metal reason for raiding. As far as we know, it is not yet a crime to play music of any kind in Malaysia, unless of course, the music is construed to be contravening Islam. So “satanic elements” which can be deemed illegal can basically be deemed out of anything. Hence one of the questions asked by a journalist to the detainees during the police’s press conference was: “Is it true that there is no element of devil worship in your music? Why does the brochure confiscated by the police have the word Syaitan and a Jewish symbol and the word f***’?”

Rafil, which the papers wrongly described as a hardcore punk musician (I’ve heard him play anything from rock and roll to polka), wrote down this particular exchange with a reporter who called him:

Reporter: Did you notice any indication of Satan Worship at Paul’s Place?

Rafil: No

Reporter: Was there a goat present?

Rafil: Excuse me?

Reporter: A goat.

Rafil: Kambing?

Reporter: Ya, kambing.

Rafil: Kambing hidup?

Reporter: Ya, kambing hidup.

Rafil: Kambing hidup, lari-lari kat venue Paul’s Place?

Reporter: Ya.

Rafil: Kat luar ada kedai mamak, ada kemungkinan besar diorang jual kari kambing. Tapi dalam venue tak nampak.

Reporter: OK, so takde kambing?

Rafil: Yang lari-lari kat stage, takde. Kalau tapau kari, roti bawak masuk, saya tak pasti.

Nietzschean philosophy

Before I explain what Black Metal is, allow me a disclaimer: I am neither advocating nor purporting to be a follower of the following. But knowledge is always good. So here goes…

Before Black Metal, there was Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal, like most music, is born of Blues, but with the rhythms squared off, pounded on and driven with more aggression and volume than your parents can understand. The guitars are also more distorted and chunky. As implied by the moniker, the sound is “heavy.” Like King Kong jumping on your ears. And then there is Thrash Metal, defined by its wild thrashing speed, and Death Metal, known for its themes of death, mortality and suicide. Both have complex guitar work, fast changes in time signatures and chords, and tend to use two bass drums for the sheer drama of it. And given the way the world treats us and leaves us to fend for ourselves, is misanthropy so hard to understand?

Black Metal takes Death Metal up (or down) a few more notches with even more throat-tearing vocals, and darker themes. Popular among Scandinavian countries, Black Metal is often associated with a rejection of organised religion (particularly Christianity) and a celebration of the occult or the pagan legacy of Nordic mythology. The music may express Nietzschean philosophy, but concerned parents don’t hear the thesis through the barking vocals, they see the word “Satan” in the titles and they go ape-shit.

However, modern Satanism, as founded by Anton LaVey, is NOT about worshipping a dude called Satan, using spells to invoke his manifestation, and then trying to bring his baby into the world. Satanists are more likely to worship themselves, celebrating their freedom to divine their own destiny – yes, it did come about during the hippie era. To them, Satan is nothing more than a symbol, a literary character whose essence is gleaned from historical and religious texts. He represents indulgence and cosmic defiance against all the inhibitions imposed by society. In principle, it doesn’t seem different from the way many of us are living our lives now. We just haven’t been caught.

To many religious folks, Satan’s name strikes a Voldermort-like fear. So it is hard to make that leap of imagination between the figurative Satan and the literal Satan; the dichotomy is visceral. I remember at one point, many Christians tried denouncing The Eagles’ “Hotel California” as a Satanic song, failing to make the distinction between a song alluding to satanic ritual as a metaphoric device and a song worshipping Satan. Of course, many make the Bush-like proclamation:  if you are not with God, you are with Satan. And that is one of the main problems when discussing religion in this country. It often leads to prescriptive statements, and is rarely the open-ended discourse it needs to be. In our minds, everyone else is still going to hell. How to be muhibbah like that?

But still, as Rafil said, Black Metal is a genre that is hard to defend, especially in Malaysia, where religion plays such a complex, delicate role in the collective psyche, thanks in no small part to the government’s censure. Also, while the music may have philosophical undercurrents, not all the fans and musicians wade to the deep end of its intellectuality. Some may actually be dumb enough to believe in the violence they sing. It doesn’t take long before someone surfs Wikipedia and learns that two of the genre’s top bands, Mayhem and Burzum, are embroiled in murder, suicide and arson. Again, the superficial reflex kicks in: we ask, did the music cause the violence?

I have heard that Mahler’s 6th Symphony can inspire violence. And gang murders surround Hip Hop with far more regularity. Suicide happens enough in the arts all the time, and nothing inspires it among fans as quickly as disbanded boybands. The Bible and the Quran have both been interpreted as manifestos justifying genocides. Do we ban everything? Or do we teach people how to look beyond the surface? And for artists – and the authorities – to be more responsible? And how else do we do it but by open debate and feedback, rather than outright prohibitions?

A voice of sanity rang out in one of the recent articles by The Star. A hiply named Jesuit priest in Johor Bahru, Father Jojo Fung, said: “Of course, the anti-Christ ideology is rejected by the Catholic Church but at the same time, we must recognise that many use this kind of music as a form of social protest. Do not sit back and judge them without understanding why they are subjecting themselves to the culture.”

Having a clear mind

Punk Rock started out with a desire for purity – rock reduced to a few basic chords and an attitude. Unlike the moody, self-absorbed Heavy Metal, Punk is political and celebratory, often described as fist-shaking, anti-establishment music, giving the finger to authorities. It is a no-brainer that Hardcore Punk is a more “hardcore” version of punk: add speed, add attitude. Hardcore Punk and Heavy Metal both share the incredibly fast speed and vituperative vocals (though you can make out slightly more lyrics in Punk), but you will find musicians quite insulted if you confuse one for the other. While raging against the machines, Hardcore Punk also encourages a DIY philosophy among its adherents: print your own magazine, organise your own gigs, create your own community, don’t depend on the system. Even more prevalent is the Straight Edge lifestyle: a lifestyle of abstinence. According to Wikipedia:

“Some straight-edgers feel that having a clear mind is a better way to approach life and/or spirituality. In many cases, straight-edge is associated with Christianity, it is a useful way to resist the temptations of drugs, alcohol, and sex. However, they can be atheists or agnostics, and believe in self-responsibility and rejecting the idea of a deity or any divine moral law. There are also Muslim straight-edgers, especially in Islamic countries, most notably Malaysia.”

And it so happens that many of the concertgoers at Paul’s Place on the night of the raid are straight-edgers, hence the low percentage (or complete lack) of drug-taking and alcohol-consumption. So what if they are dressed in black? And so what if our youths are angry and disaffected? They have good reasons to be: see how irresponsible our authorities are with them, see how little we think of young people. It is even admirable that our youths have this much initiative to come together to find a platform to express themselves. Unfortunately, straight edge kids don’t make news in a Black Mental world. So our self-appointed witch hunters have to keep inventing witches in order to keep their jobs. What frightens the people sells the papers. So, after the press conference at Paul’s Place, a few papers continue to call the punk rockers “black metal fans.” The paper which related the Langkawi party with the concert did not attend the press conference, but managed to continue publishing articles describing the concert as a satanic initiation rite.

It is fast appearing that the cops, the press and all other self-appointed moral guardians don’t really care what music you play. They are just looking for easy targets. Yesterday hardcore punk fans, today transsexuals, and tomorrow responsible journalists. In my opinion, these raids appear to be strategies employed to constantly disempower the citizenry. It is meant to keep us toeing the line, to silence us, so we won’t question, or even look, as the more powerful ones gets away with yet another abuse of power. Given their appalling conduct at the raid, the police are obviously more in need of moral guidance than us. But who raids them? Their indemnity to negative portrayals in the press and in the arts ensures they have no accountability. As we know, the really satanic stuff is often unseen.

At the press conference, activist Jaclyn Kee reminds us that this is not just about the music – it is a human rights issue. And it affects everyone of us. It is great to see folks like Julian Mokhtar, Azmyl Yunor, Rafil and Jaclyn, all of whom had nothing to do with the concert, up there in the panel speaking for the punk rockers. So, while it is important to establish that “We are straight edge, we are not Black Metal, okay?” it also serves no purpose to start painting each other blacker than necessary. If you imply that it is okay for the police to take them down instead, then the space for expression becomes that much smaller. The police simply have no right to pass judgments on anybody’s music taste or fashion sense or diet. If musicians across the genres spoke in defence of one another, they become harder to take down. If they spoke up about issues of injustice done to others in this country, they will find their base growing. Because that is what music is about, providing a voice for the community. It’s time to be heard.

Finally, I end with something from Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling For Columbine. Heavy metal musician Marilyn Manson, who called himself Antichrist Superstar, was cited as a major influence on the teenagers who murdered their classmates in Columbine.

Michael Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?

Marilyn Manson: I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did.

First Published: 11.01.2006 on Kakiseni