The soundcheck was taking longer than it normally would. With his good friend Vinh going back and forth between the venue and the mixer trying to make the best of what is a basic gigging setup, Jay patiently stayed on the stage giving feedback after feedback for every slight change that Vinh makes. His patience is slowly wearing thin.
“Kita kena belajar jaga sound. Budak-budak sekarang perform tak reti jaga sound. Selagi tak betul, selagi tu kena soundcheck.” he explains as he finally puts down his guitar. Jay, full name Mohd Jayzuan, has been around since the rise of the indie scene in the early ’00s, earning his spurs from his involvement in the preceding underground movement which took root from the mid-90s. He has 10 books to his name, mainly novels and poetry.
The performance he is preparing for is part of his Gustavo Tour, a peninsula wide tour for his latest book ‘Sajak-sajak Gustavo’ that was released back in May 2016 by Rabak-Lit, the publishing arm of Projek Rabak. Projek Rabak is a collective that is also a registered company, whose main business is event management and special projects for arts and culture. Jay founded it.
I was fortunate to be invited to join along for this leg of the tour. The venue is a charming little bookstore called BACA, situated just outside Temerloh. It sells used and new books. Its owner is one of Jay’s many acquaintances and followers since his first book ’28 Hari: Jurnal Rock n Roll’. The bookstore is new; the carpet thick and bouncy. When the owner approached Jay to help her attract more crowds, the timing was right. ‘Sajak-sajak Gustavo’ was on its way.
“Kalau tengok dari jauh, orang ingat aku ni perasan rockstar. Aku selalu cakap aku bukan writer, tapi professional poser.” Jay’s self-deprecating humour is a charming weapon; him addressing crowds can be an understated masterclass of how to entertain. “Aku dah lali buat perform-perform ni. Aku start perform dari aku 16 tahun masa buat gig kat Ipoh, sampai lah sekarang. Dah dekat 20 tahun dah. Aku pernah perform depan beratus-ratus orang, dan aku pernah perform untuk 2 orang kat dalam café kat pekan-pekan kecik. It’s all about art, and your commitment to it. If you believe in your art, then you can perform anywhere. For anyone.”
BACA started filling up. Eventually over 40 people found their spots amidst the rearranged shelves for the gig. Jay notices someone from the crowd and smiles. It was another acquaintance from his early days. This one was special; he became Jay’s fan when Jay was still with his band Bloodymary from Ipoh. He made his way to Temerloh from Kuantan, a rare weekend highlight. And as Jay asks about the best places for a late night coffee, we hear the emcee welcomes the crowd for the first time.
I took my place behind the stage, listening intently as Jay bunch of friends opens the gig for him. I wondered about how homely the event felt despite its eclectic crowd; Termerloh is hardly one’s preferred destination when organizing a poetry gig like this. Many months on, BACA was is still a warm memory.
When Projek Rabak was formed, it was a collective. From small intimate events they slowly branched out into publication, with the formation of Rabak-Lit. That gave credence to their artists; writers were published, and musicians were invited to explore writing. Painters and visual artists were invited to exhibit.
Having published works meant that everyone could be taken more seriously than they were, especially by their own selves. Their passion started to have a direction, and they developed an entrepreneurial interest in their craft. Projek Rabak isn’t about making a statement or rebelling, Jay shares. It is counter-culture. Hence Rabak.
Projek Rabak marked a turning point. After toiling hard as a struggling indie artist in KL, Jay had an epiphany. After Rabak started running their own events in Ipoh, Jay moved back to help Rabak establish itself. Not too long before Jay returned to take a break on his own artistic career and focus on Projek Rabak, Khizanat opened up as an event space. Projek Rabak frequently held Rabak Social Club there, an informal event during the evening for youth to socialize and share their talents.
Projek Rabak became instrumental in setting the tone for the Ipoh Indie scene. They helped set up P.O.R.T (People Of Remarkable Talents), a youth hub, with the Perak state government. They also started becoming content providers for the likes of MyPAA and MyHarapan.
Now Projek Rabak has added to its offerings an annual cultural festival (Ipoh Kreatif at Ipoh, Perak) and a B&B service (Rumah Khizanat at Ipoh, Perak). It had a gallery at Wisma Central, KL which had closed down recently.
“Rabak is home.” shares Jack Malik, an upcoming writer from Rabak-Lit. His has a poetry anthology due out soon, and he is the first of a Projek Rabak’s next generation of artists. “What I got from Rabak; terlalu banyak. One of the lessons I learned from Jay is that don’t over-think about apa orang cakap. There are bigger things than poetry and arts.”
Jack represented Malaysia at the Causeway Exchange Festival in Singapore back in September 2016, where he is in the Malaysian poetry slam team that is battling Singapore. “Only Rabak punya performer can make me feel exhilarated. Mungkin masing-masing ada suara masing-masing; lain dari penyajak lain. That’s why Seyn is one of my heroes.”
There is a sense of belonging when hearing Jack share his story. It reminded me of the feeling I felt at BACA in Termerloh during the Gustavo Tour. It felt cosy and welcoming.
It felt homely.
Jack is a 23-year old culinary student in Shah Alam, with a passion in poetry. “I ventured into spoken word, in hopes to find a trail that could one day lead me to my voice. I want to be Rabak in KL’s spoken word scene.”
To Jack, Rabak is his own definition of his identity. Projek Rabak helped him understand that. After all, home is where the heart is. And his heart, like many other in Ipoh, is Rabak.
Art is commonly defined as expression, and is attributed as a medium for someone to embrace themselves while articulating their identities, philosophies or ideas in whichever preferred artistic genre or discipline.
What many forget though, is that art is a safe space. A space for one to be, and to become. In the pursuit of artistic excellence and elevation, it is easy to get lost in the technique and philosophies of art until we lose sight of ourselves. This sensibility is getting lost and diluted in this age of internet and technology.
One way to ensure that does not happen too easily is by sharing, by having a collective shared safe space. And as Jay and Jack has shared, Rabak – no matter how counter-culture it can seem to be – essentially embodies that.