Rockin’ in the Free World

Music as a tool of political consciousness doesn’t happen often enough — perhaps unsurprisingly for a society wary about the uncontrolled consequences of freedom of expression. But that rare occasion of bands banding together to bandy an important issue did happen recently when, on the last weekend of May, groups like Farasu, Carburetor Dung, Revenge, Y2K, 360 Degrees Head Rotation and Negation rocked and raged at that no-tickets-required, arts-for-the-masses space that is Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market.

Called Free Voices, the gig featuring local alternative rock bands was the culmination of a series of events organised by communication rights watchdog Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) to mark World Press Freedom Day which falls annually on May 3.

Though this wasn’t my poison (too old to rock), I was nevertheless compelled to go on the second day as a CIJ volunteer. In the end, like the 300-plus crowd who took some time to warm up, I couldn’t tear myself away from the bands. The budget-constrained acoustics could not crank up enough energy or achieve the right balance of sound, causing the drums and electric guitars to render the vocals unintelligible. But standing right in front of the stage where the speakers were, braving the direct hit of the afternoon sun, afforded one the full blast of the music. Most people however stayed sensibly in the shade of the building and trees. But there was no stopping them from surging to the front when rock legend YK2 made their appearance. Irresistible in their fearsome Mexican wrestling masks, the band attracted gawking attention from the usual downtown shopper unused to such sights. The antics of Revenge’s lead vocalist were even more engaging, coupled with his cute, rotund figure and hard rock get-up (including minor costume adjustments). When he climbed onto a speaker to jump from it, I was positively worried for the speaker.

The sun not withstanding, things were really heating up nicely. The crowd swelled in anticipation of the final band, Negation — they have saved the darkest, metalliest band for the last. Scores of Indonesians got their heads and bodies shaking at the first beat, staging spurts of wild body-surfing which didn’t last long due to the forbidding presence of a Special Branch officer who stood in front of them (well, I was told he was Special Branch but the crowd couldn’t have known since he was in plain clothes; so it must be his frowning countenance and that walkie talkie that gave him some authority; and he was not alone). It was interesting that the Special Branch should approve of this concert and then turn up to monitor the safety and security issues as opposed to the “internal security” issues — though we cannot be too sure if they weren’t also taking notes. In any case, frown or not, the show went on and the crowd kept on mashing. Kudos to all sides for keeping cool despite the heat, especially gig coordinator Hasbee who kept an eye on the crowd. There were no “untoward incidents” (take note, DBKL) in spite of an anti-black metal and anti-punk exhibition in the foyer (a paper titled “Ciri-ciri Black Metal” includes among the ciri-ciri: “Gitar kencang dengan petikan tremolo” and “Bunyi gitar lemah atau bunyi gitar yang agak kuat, biasanya tidak berbunyi sederhana”).

While the music went down well, the poor acoustics made it difficult to decipher whether the lyrics added meaning to the whole event. Fortunately, a few politically aware musicians got the message out in between sessions. According to Lainie, a self-professed artworld addict who was there on both days, Chinese-language band NAO slammed the media blackout of the Bloody Sunday affair at KLCC which saw a public demonstration against the fuel price hike turning into a demonstration of police brutality. It also urged support for independent online daily Malaysiakini, the only medium which reported the news. The next day, the message bearer was 360 Degree Head Rotation’s lead vocalist Rafil Elyas, who presented the Kambing Hitam Awards:

  1. Berita Yang Paling Tak Masuk Akal: Saipul Adli Mohd for “Dalang Black Metal Jawa”
  2. Berita Yang Paling Kurang Tepat: Mohd Jamilul Anbia Md Denin and Zainal Zawawi Mohamaed for “Konsert Lepas Geram”
  3. Kambing Boring Award: Akmal Abdullah (notorious for his national TV appearance in ‘arts’ talk show Bicara Seni in which he accused Yasmin Ahmad’s Gubra of polluting Malay culture, and for alleging — at first, without having seen the film — that Amir Muhammad’s now-banned documentary Lelaki Komunis Terakhir glorified communism), for the most non-entertaining entertainment story. He was awarded a mental rosak.
  4. Kambing Hairan Award: Harian Metro, the publication which published both the Berita Yang Paling Tak Masuk Akal and Berita Yang Paling Kurang Tepat, for most confusing story. It was awarded a mangkuk (figuratively: an idiot).

No representatives of the honoured publications and journalists were present, so the award was accepted on their behalf by CIJ’s executive director Sonia Randhawa.

It may seem at odds for the musicians to be criticising the media for biased and bizarre reporting on an occasion to promote its freedom; but not to Sonia. “This is part of the same issue,” she said. “The lack of ethics in the media is directly related to freedom of expression and the lack of it… This (disillusionment with the media) is a reflection of the current media landscape. A highly controlled media such as ours is a breeding ground for the targeting of minority groups such as non-mainstream bands. Hate speech has been really effective where speech is controlled, such as in Rwanda [genocide of the Tutsis] and during the Nazi rule [of Germany]. To deal with such targeting, the minority groups would need to have their own space to have their say… That’s why we need media freedom.” In the case of bands playing non-mainstream music, this is crucial especially since the likes of Harian Metro, which reported the raid at jamming pub Paul’s Place for allegedly playing black metal, appear to have no obligation to be fair in their coverage. “Some of the reports were made up and gross lies,” Sonia said indignantly.

She continued, “The media here are bound to follow the government’s agenda and choose easy scapegoats. When you have no fear of reprisal [from a particular group], it’s easy to target [them]. Yet when the police [a powerful group] are targeted for criticism, the media are immediately chastened,” she said.

Yet ironically, the bands had been told to tone down their language for the show — no cuss words. Though the condition was not of CIJ’s making, Sonia had a justifiable explanation for it — the open nature of the gig, with a mix audience of adults and young kids (not the bovid kind, as per DBKL’s instructions), for whom the kind of music played might be a first exposure. “This is more a question of making sure we’re sensible about spaces we use,” she said.

Sensible or not, some members of the public appeared emboldened by the events. The Bloody Sunday resurfaced at the one-hour drama workshop held at the food court when some participants staged a five-minute, improvised sketch on the issue. Artis Pro Activ’s Fahmi Fadzil, who conducted the workshop, found the experience “scary and interesting” because it was “out in the open” and there was no way to predict how the audience would react, especially as the dialogue had someone shouting “Police! Police!” However, this mini workshop as well as others on film (by community communications NGO KOMAS) and radio production (by CIJ) held upstairs next to the food court didn’t get as good a response as the gig outside. Fahmi said the transitory jalan-jalan crowd there made a poor source of participants. A targeted group, perhaps from colleges, would have gotten things going. As it turned out, the few participants were indeed students who had participated in the government’s Tunas Budaya programme for schools and had come purposely for the drama workshop.

The gig and open workshops, the first ever of their kind organised by CIJ, marked a radical approach to the traditional NGO events of talks, book launches, etc. where the same faces are seen. Ensnared by the music, people were more receptive to the flyers distributed with the intention to reach out to fresh blood (none from goat sacrifices, DBKL can rest assured). The musicians, too, were enthusiastic, though one suspects a large part of it was due to a chance to perform at what Joe Kid of Carburetor Dung calls their “spiritual home”, the site of their busking and busting days.


Chuah Siew Eng is born in the year of the goat.

First Published: 12.07.2006 on Kakiseni

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