KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – I was sitting in the Cafenine in Kuala Lumpur last night having had a nice meal of noodles and beer, when after an hour or so of hearing DJ music, seeing some musicians go up and play drums and bass and other instruments along with the electronic DJ music and having it explained to me that that was kind of the flow of things at the “Music Flow” night at the Cafenine, when I decided to get up and go. I couldn’t see myself going with that particular flow, with my guitar and vocals with no mic apparent.
But just as I stood, another musician, a woman named Jan Yuen, stood up with her ukelele and asked me to play some of my music, and she’d play some of hers – or we could play music together. That was it. The flow had just changed, and the flow night turned into a real, free-wheeling, moving, fun open mic cum jam session.
And as the bar/restaurant filled up with more and more musicians from that point on, I was told that that, in fact, is just exactly how things generally work out happening at the Cafenine on Thursday nights. They started off holding a regular open mic a few months ago, but they found the format too strict, and they decided they would no longer call it an open mic – even though it is that, and more – and they would call it the Music Flow night.
One of the other big goals of the Music Flow night, though, is to feature Malaysian musicians doing Malaysian music. And while there were pretty much ONLY Malaysian musicians last night, most actually played the regular Western canon of pop music. But Jan did some traditional Malay songs, and there was definitely a Malaysian theme elsewhere. The jam turned into a free-for-all, and I ended up taking to the mic twice and doing what amounted to two short sets, having others join in on both my own songs and cover songs.
It was amazing how quickly it all turned into a generally fabulous celebration of free-flowing, free-form whatever you wanted, with DJ sounds, drums, kazoo, guitars, bass, multiple vocals, and air keyboards. And I may have arrived after 9 PM and it may not have started until after 10 PM, but it was still flowing madly when I left at 1 AM!
I had been intending to go to the fabulous Warehouse open mic that I attended on the same day in KL last year, but I learned that it no longer exists – the Warehouse itself was closed down. I was enormously disappointed, because as I wrote in my post about the Warehouse open mic last year, it was insanely great. But it was one of the organizers of that former venue who told me of the existence of the Cafenine open mic, and it turned out to be about a 20-minute walk from my hotel. So I went. And I have Jan to thank for stopping me on my way out and changing the flow of the soirée!!!!
PS, I must add, that once again I have found that Malaysians have a very high share of wonderful young singers with amazing voices. I don’t know what the phenomenon is all about, but I’ve noticed it every year I’ve played here now – going back five years….
A number of the musicians were the same last night as the night before. But this time, the scene was completely different. This time, it was no quiet, intimate, back-room loft-like affair out in a lost suburb on a hidden street above a food-stall. This time, it was a romping, wild, hip, high-ceilinged art gallery and performance space on the ground floor beneath a semi-posh, yet laid-back, steakhouse eatery up a very steep flight of stairs in a venue-cum-restaurant called The Warehouse. And this time, it was in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, in Chinatown and across the street from an historic Hindu temple.
I had planned to go to The Pan bistro out in the suburbs again, to meet up with some friends I met a couple of years ago who now run what looks like very cool open mic in Klang. But I was a little gun shy about that disastrous taxi ride from the previous night, and I had an intuition about this Warehouse place after one of the musicians from the night before had recommended I attend.
I did NOT regret it – not from any point of view. Well, OK, maybe one point of view. The vocal mic and sound system was not up to the standard of the previous night; but that is the only thing that was lacking at an otherwise exceptional evening in every way. I have been simply astounded on this trip to Kuala Lumpur at the developing underground scene in music and the arts, and this Warehouse seems to be close to the center of it.
The open mic started around 9 months ago, and according to Tunku Khairil Ibrahim, who owns The Warehouse, and who runs it with his wife, Lauren McAughtry, (who is also a journalist), they had a two or three months of fairly calm open mics until suddenly the thing ended up growing into a wild weekly party with sometimes hundreds of people attending and practically no ability for anyone to move from one spot of the cavernous room to another.
Last night, the key points for me were: the art on the wall, the cool musicians and other mix of international crowd, a real coming together of Malaysian and many other international cultures, the relaxed and caring service from the bar and other staff, and the clear and obvious understanding of the value of this scene by the owners. I mean, this IS a scene. It is a place that many of the attendees told me they return to each week to hear great music and meet people from all sorts of walks of life.
The real high point for me, aside from my two musical sets – in both of which I had people join me (it’s got a jam angle to it, this open mic) – was my meal. As I mentioned, upstairs is a classy restaurant with tables in white cloths, and photos on the walls, and a sense of wood and white and the high ceiling…. Well, when I arrived fairly late – after 10 PM – I asked if there was food, at the bar.
I was handed a small menu and told, “This is the light stuff.”
“Is there any ‘heavy’ stuff?” I asked.
“We can order for you from upstairs and you can eat it down here,” I was told.
So the bartender went upstairs and returned with the menu from the restaurant. I chose a beef rib, although there was a large selection of steaks and I was told they were excellent. I then took a glass of red wine – actually, that was offered to me by a fellow musician I had never met before, but who saw that I was new and decided it was a nice welcome gesture!!!
I then waited maybe 20 minutes, and next thing I knew, the staff from the restaurant had set up a table with a table cloth, my meal, cutlery, chair, in this almost surreal way in the middle of the rear part of the gallery, as I would become the only serious diner with a classy meal in the middle of the salon, art gallery, open mic and jam party that had begun to rise to a higher level. I felt like that astronaut in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where at the end of the film he is in this 18th century bedroom with a table of food set for himself.
I ate the meal, enjoyed it immensely – it was excellent quality and cooked to perfection by Tunku Khairil Ibrahim – and then after I finished I went up to perform my first set within 10 minutes.
It was difficult to leave the open mic, which goes on sometimes until 3 AM, I was told, but I had to do a full day of work at the racetrack the next day – so I left after another set.
AMAZING! Kuala Lumpur’s music scene is really developing, considering how I have seen it grow in the last four years since I started this musical journey. Check out The Warehouse, either for the music, the art, the scene or simply a great meal.
The third night in Kuala Lumpur became in several ways a reflection of the night before – and just as amazing. I started off with a gig at the Frontera Mexican restaurant in the suburb. I had learned the night before that this was only five minutes or so drive away from rockaFellas, where I had played the night before after wending my way there via the failed gig and then the Backyard pub. So what happens Friday?
Russell Curtis, the owner of, and musician at, rockaFellas bar in Kuala Lumpur talks with Brad Spurgeon:
Remember that on Thursday I was invited to do a gig and the person who invited me called up and said she could not make it? And there was no one present at the gig venue? And I played anyway? Well, bizarrely, on Friday night I found myself a few hours before the gig at the Frontera learning that the guy who booked me could not show up. His excuse was very serious and I thanked him and wished him the best, and prepared myself for the gig – also knowing that if it was a disaster like the night before, I could make my way over to rockaFellas.
So I showed up at the Frontera and found the place bubbling with energy, customers, a kind staff and a nice sound system. And soon I was joined by a few people who had come last year when I played in the open mic at Frontera – which no longer exists. So I played for nearly an hour and a half in two sets, and had a great time. The neat thing about Frontera is that it is located in a shopping mall called Jaya One and so the restaurant opens up into the mall and you can see when people at nearby stores step out in the hall to listen to you singing, or others stop by out front and listen, and you know the whole time you play that you are not ONLY playing for the clients in the restaurant you are also playing to reach people down the halls and in the stores and drag them in to Frontera – where you can just sit and drink beer or other alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks too, if you want.
So I finished the gig and spoke for a while with my friends from last year – some music students and their teacher – and then they offered to take me over to rockaFellas.
There, I found the place moving with the full band of Russell Curtis, the singer, guitar player I mentioned the night before and who had brought me there from the Backyard. Russell had invited me to come around on the Friday to see the full band, and I did not regret it. They were great: Bass, two guitar players sharing lead and rhythm, and the drum player.
Then much to my surprise and delight, after I ate an excellent meal of Cantonese noodles – copious – Russell invited me to play a couple of songs again. So after their next set, I went up and started playing “Mad World” again, at his request. Halfway through the song, the bass player and Russell took to the stage and joined me. This time Russell played drums.
So we just cruised through that one and I headed directly into “Wicked Game,” which I thought would be simple enough for us to make our way through it adequately. The audience – much bigger and more party-minded than the day before – was really responsive, but especially on the next song.
It was like magic, Russell asked me to play “Cat’s in the Cradle,” although I have no idea whether he knew if I knew how to play it. So I proceeded to play the most upbeat version of “Cat’s in the Cradle” I’ve ever played, as I have never done it with a drummer and bass player.
There was only one thing that burned me, and that was how the jam was the most delightful, fun and cool thing I’d done so far on the visit, and because I was not prepared for it, I did not record it on my Roland R-26 as part of my project to record myself playing with the local musicians in every country I visit this year. Fortunately I did get that on a song the night before, but this was a golden opportunity lost.
Still, the purpose of this journey above all is those moments of delight on stage, and so that was more than fulfilled. I would not be the only “other” person joining the stage to jam with Russell and the band, as they called up another drummer and another singer after that.
As you will hear in the podcast interview I did with Russell, he opens his stage into not an “open mic,” but a jam session for friends and like-minded musicians. It’s part of the spirit I love and seek out in this open mic, open jam adventure.
The craziness continues in Kuala Lumpur as my fourth year of musical madness spreads its wings and reaps its harvest. Last night I had a gig to perform that was booked at the last minute the night before for the Doppel Kafe in the Central Market Annexe. Only problem I realized once I got there covered in sweat head to foot from running and pushing things to the limit was that there was no one present. I mean, no spectators, the kafe was empty – except for the two waiters.
Do I care? No, I got on the great looking stage, plugged into the Bose sound column – a fabulous thing – and I played three songs. I got off the stage to have another of the five beers I had ordered upon arrival, and the waiters asked me, please, for an encore! So I played a fourth song. I loved the stage, loved the sound system, and loved the idea that I would singing to an empty room in what was otherwise a very cool looking arts cafe.
Then a phone call came from the person who so kindly booked me at the last minute, and it turned out that not even she could show up! Well, I have my limits. So I asked the waiters to pack up my beers in a bag and I headed as fast as I could over to the Backyard Pub, where I had played the night before.
You see, the original idea was that I would play on the Thursday at the Backyard, but I had already been offered the gig at the Doppel… so I had told Edmund that I had better do the Doppel on Thursday, and he put me up on Wednesday at the Backyard. At the same time, however, he told me that the Thursday night band was hot as hell and I had to see them. So I whipped over there and had a great meal of mutton fried rice.
As I ate I spoke to the bass player, who I had heard warming up, and he had sounded amazing. So we spoke before the band went up. I later learned from someone else, and could confirm through listening to his music, that this bass player, Andy Peterson, is one of the best bass players in Southeast Asia and he is highly sought after all over the region. He often records with Taiwanese bands.
Anyway, I spoke with him, Edmund Anthony, and Albert Sirimal, the singer and guitarist from the same five-piece band. And then who should walk in the door – I had told her I was going to the Backyard – but the woman who had booked me at the Doppel and who could not show up there to hear me there! So we spoke for a while, and she left just before the band played.
The band was fabulous, really jazzy, and cool, and laid back and just awesome. I use that word because I think it is the first time I’ve ever used it on the blog or in any piece of my writing. So it has value, it is not a cliché in this instance.
After the band’s first set, Edmund or Albert introduced me to a guy who had shown up named Russell Curtis. Russell, it turned out, used to sing in this band. He also plays guitar. Now, however, Russell owned his own music venue, a bar called rockafellas. And we got to talking and someone told him about my worldwide meanderings in the musical warp, and Russell said it was too bad I did not go to his bar that night as there was a solo singer guitar player and I could have played there too.
He then learned I had my guitar with me and he immediately – this was near midnight – invited me to go play at rockafellas. So I accepted instantly. So he drove me to rockafellas and I listened to his musician of the night, Allan G., who has a wonderful velvety voice and plays a mean acoustic guitar (a Maton from Australia).
Allan G. then invited me up to the stage and I played three of my songs. Later, Russell got up and played and sang, and he has a great voice and amazing guitar licks, and so I asked him if he would care to play a song with me, he doing lead. He accepted, so we did my song “Memories.” And I recorded it with my new Roland R-26 recorder, because that is the missing link in this year’s adventure, the thing I hinted at earlier but did not want to define: My goal this year is to try to play with and record a local musician in every country I go to. I succeeded in Melbourne, and now I have succeeded here in Kuala Lumpur.
Rockafellas is a very neat venue, by the way, with a real cocktail lounge feel to it, a beautiful little stage, good food, a pool table and a great sound system. Pay it a visit if you’re in the PJ area of KL…..
The evening, once again, was a lesson in “don’t despair,” keep pushing. You will get what you seek. I couldn’t believe it.