The Star Online > eCentral > Music
Friday July 7, 2006
Four years ago, singer-songwriter Shelley Leong couldn't even find a venue to play an acoustic gig, let alone dream of a network of acts and a dedicated crowd willing to invest their time in supporting the home town new acoustic pop/folk generation.
It is astounding how much the live circuit has changed in recent times, with an active list of musicians generating a wave of interest in live performances at either cafés, college halls, run-down pubs or classy jazz clubs and restaurants in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
“The live scene has become very diverse here. It used to be all about rock bands at gigs. And as much as we tried, it was a struggle for a solo artiste to just get on stage with a mere guitar and be accepted,” said Leong, who cut her teeth at noisy wine bars and cafés right up to the first Penang Island Jazz Festival and an AIM awards nomination.
“Realistically, the singer-songwriter genre in Malaysia is a fairly young movement, and it did have its teething problems. From gig promoters to entertainment outlets, nobody knew how to accommodate this sort of acts and there was no audience to talk about. There used to be a time when we were just booked to provide incidental music at loud and crowded clubs – and we had to fight above the noise to play our music,” she added
Leong, presently studying songwriting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States, can afford to make insightful observations about the DIY singer-songwriter scene here since she was one of the pioneers to help raise its profile. Also, her debut album The Storyteller in 2004 is one of the few recordings that has been received warmly by the mainstream set.
And this storyteller has mapped out various possibilities to tell a good tale, it seems.
“As far as songwriting goes, it’s narrow to think of the idiom as just melodies to fit words or vice versa. It’s not just the lyric sheet and reorganising words. Some of the best songs come through spontaneously, maybe haphazardly, but you fall in love with them. The free form approach cannot be underestimated,” she explained.
At Berklee, Leong has also added Indian percussion and rhythmic world music styles into her course work and she blushingly revealed that she “taps her guitar more” during gigs.
Helping Leong with her music career has been fleet-fingered guitarist Az Samad, who has worked on her album, and has been a familiar fixture at her live shows. It’s hard to believe that both these artistes are now considered the veterans of the local new singer-songwriting community. Like Leong, the jazz-inclined Az is also based in Berklee, finishing up his BA in jazz composition and guitar performance. He released his debut Acoustic Gestures in 2004.
The duo left for the US nearly two years ago, but have been making trips back home regularly during their college breaks. They remain in touch with their fanbase and friends here through the Internet and regard the current scene as extremely fertile in terms of raw talent.
“It’s good to find musicians hanging around their peers and coming up with new music and stuff. It’s a busy scene now. It used to be hard to hook up with other singer-songwriters or find a venue a few years ago. We’ve gotten past that stage – and the improvements in the way shows are organised, the network of support and the more venues opening up, have been encouraging developments,” said Az, who alongside Leong is back home for the holidays.
Both will be a big part of the KL Sing Song festival on July 14 and 15 at the KLPac in Sentul West in Kuala Lumpur. They are slotted for workshops and performances for the event, now in its second instalment.
“Nobody knew what to make of us ... but we had to get our music heard and it didn’t matter if it was a café or not. Back then, there was no platform or opportunity to reach the masses, it wasn’t such an accessible circuit,” added Az, before rationalising that it was necessary for the scene to start somewhere.
“In terms of exposure, I think the (singer-songwriter) scene has gained a solid following and what matters now is how it progresses and evolves in terms of recordings and gigs,” he noted.
Leong does recall a list of early DIY type shows like the Acoustic Jam series, the Unclogged parties, the Songwriters’ Round and the Sapu Sapu gigs.
“It was people like Hassan Peter Brown and Pete Teo that took the first steps to give us some recognition and most importantly, directly inspired others to create their own scene,” she said.
At the same time, Leong interprets the influx of new blood in the movement as a distinct sign of maturity and confidence. She cited the Moonshine series, the Troubadours collective and the Doppelganger collaboration as crucial outlets in engaging the new talent available now.
Comparisons to the Boston open mike scene might be too far-fetched, but Az reckons that the weekly and monthly shows organised by the various collectives here have demonstrated a demand for a broad range of material that caters for the new acoustic crowd.
Az has had an experimental spirit to his guitar playing, and many would remember his time with the Dalcha Duo in Kuala Lumpur for uncommon tunings.
With new-found friend Loque (guitarist of the Butterfingers) based in Berklee now, Az is eager to talk about the live scene there.
“In Boston, you usually find about 40 artistes queuing up to play an open mike night. You get all sorts – the avant garde individuals, the new bohemian artistes and so forth. You’re bound to find at least five jaw-dropping names in a single night. In Kuala Lumpur, the scene is growing from just artistes with acoustic guitars, and it’s great to have some spoken word and poetry readings thrown into the mix,” he said.
It’s only a matter of time before a local singer-songwriter act makes that vital crossover step, and Leong feels that a solo name like Broken Scar is the sort of artiste to draw in the rock crowd while also introducing them to a completely new array of acoustic-style acts.
“Maybe, it’s not a financially-rewarding scene yet – but a lot of the basics are in place in terms of performing regularly, collaborative spirit and the grass-roots support is there. Airplay and an indie retail network is the next step, but that will take more time and effort,” she noted.
However, with the pro-active individuals pushing for changes and a steady momentum laid out, both of them reckoned the scene is in good hands.
And yes, they won’t be having any problems finding a gig whenever they are back from Boston again.