In the open mic scene, the clinking of coffee cups and glasses at the counter, make for wonderful instrumental accompaniments to the sound of poetry and music.
Arts in Malaysia is as diverse as it gets. This goes beyond just genres and industries, but also the ever-present separation of the mainstream and the independent scene.
And lurking around the corners of shop lots and alleys or mushrooming with “hipster opulence” in suburbia & urban centres, are the even more unheralded and the-barely-celebrated.
Occasionally, featured acts would be prominent influencers, musicians or poets. And if Lady Luck visits (once in a blue moon) with a record deal or a decorated public relations portfolio, the other performers would also join the ranks. But for the most part, the rest remain unsung.
Yet the unsung are not unimportant.
Small, sometimes dingy, venues are about more than just opportunities for people to make it big. Places like Merdekarya, Rumah Api, Gaslight Cafe, Minut Init, Wood and Steel, and Morningwood offer a refuge for people from all walks of life. Outside Klang Valley, there are also places like Khizanat in Ipoh and Route 66 in Kuching. Little spots where people perform in front of a loving crowd, or to a group of strangers – where they make the days of the tired working class heroes and heroines better by giving a spectacular show. Or to they make mistakes, just to come back another night with the same fervor.
They come in many different hues. Some are acoustic abodes where people come to sit down and soak in the peace, and some are nests of angst, unbridled mosh pits, where – through stage-dives and crowd-surfing – peace is found in going crazy and letting go.
In other parts of the world, certain places like these become cultural landmarks. The CBGB, a bar in New York City became the birthplace of American punk rock, from bands like Ramones to the likes of Green Day. And then there’s Cafe Wha?, home to legends like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.
Some of these places are still around, while others only remain as memorable insignia of art history archives, or embedded in the minds of loyal patrons. The sleazy entertainment district of Soho in London, originally home to icons like David Bowie and The Sex Pistols, get gradually replaced by “cleaner” shopping malls, or tacky elaborate rip-offs. Franchises like Hard Rock Cafe bulldoze the small and disheveled, fooling the slightly ignorant into thinking all of rock came from their display museums, filled with fake Elvis pantsuits and about a thousand manufactured guitars signed by a million robot Bruce Springsteens (probably).
When these cafes, bars and clubs closed down in Soho, many people protested. Places most of us would probably only treat as just “another F&B that couldn’t pay their rent”; when to others they were a cultural heritage where they first heard about a cool new band and grew up with them, whether they make it to the big stage, or stay homely and small. And if Rumah Api, Ampunk shuts down, it’s almost certain that a significant number of people from the punk rock, hardcore, metal subculture of Kuala Lumpur would hold demonstrations too.
But how attached are we to these places, really? How strongly does it affect the bigger creative industry? Or are they just cultural enclaves; tiny fallout shelters indifferent to the masses?
Recently, Unit 23 – a café in Seksyen 9, Shah Alam – closed down. The owner, Nana Zul, established it in August 2012 as an art café with the main aim of being an art hub for music, poetry, paintings and many more. A free platform of expression, where the good art thrive, and the bad art (if there is such a thing) come back to try again.
They, like several other venues akin to them, are given life by the many events that they host, e.g. open mics, poetry nights, stand up comedy and hip hop nights. Unit 23 has received support from many recurring acts and fans of the art scene, specifically local musicians and poets; such as Sekumpulan Orang Gila (SOG), The Patriots, Tila, Scarlet Heroes, Empty Page, Project Rabak – the list goes on.
“The open mic culture in Malaysia is definitely increasing in size, and many cafes are implementing the same concept,” said Nana Zul. “I totally support this. But I reckon, cafe owners should really do it for the industry, and not just for profit. Because if it’s just for the profit, it’d just be another trend. It is more meaningful when you do it for the passion.”
When chatting about whether the open mic scene contributes to the mainstream scene enough, Nana Zul stated that she doesn’t think it will affect the mainstream much due to the presence of YouTube, Soundcloud and other social media.
“I don’t think it will affect the mainstream scene much. The busking culture has gone around for years. It’s just another platform for people to express their talent and maybe get discovered. If the open mic culture is meant to affect the mainstream scene, then maybe the mainstream industry people should do more to help it?”
We also interviewed Nani Zul, sister to the owner, who is also directly in charge of the events at the cafe, shares this sentiment.
I love seeing new people get up on stage to sing and read poetry because they’re inspired by all the other open mic-ers. At one point, all my friends who I never even knew read poetry started reciting theirs at Unit. – Nani Zul
“It’s hard to say how it would affect the mainstream scene because I realized musicians tend to be stuck in the open mic scene. I know a lot of talented musicians who are still playing open mics and not getting any shows of their own”.
Regardless of its effects on the bigger world, Unit 23 has a special place in the hearts of many, just as the other venues are comforting beacons to their own visitors. Even if it does survive parallel to the bigger industry, maybe that’s a good thing. Not having to pander to the bigger demographic of Aiman Tino or Ayda Jebat lovers, they’ve become a place of experimentation and expression. Some find new families in an often underrated bond of artistic chemistry. Through sweaty concerts, or poignant poetry. Where the weird birds of similar yet unconventional feathers, flock haphazardly together.
Even if it is in conservative Shah Alam, where the hard-to-contain and at times incomprehensible creativity happens in full view of the iconic Masjid Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah. A testament that free expression and artistic affluence can be found anywhere.
This might serve as a mini eulogy for Unit 23, and the many cafes that have also come to pass, but more than that, it is a call to appreciate those little cafes at the corner, where those who’ve just learned to play the guitar come together with the veterans who’ve seen their years fly by as cassettes turn to CDs.
Even with the rise of the Internet, and people getting famous through digital followers, nothing beats the sweet sound of messing up a chord, or a verse, in front of an audience, whom if you’re lucky enough, would just laugh it off.
Nothing compares to taking your first step into the bigger world as an artist, through the most human way possible – just you, the mic, and some hazy silhouettes of people watching you from the bar or the coffee table.
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