Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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A Last Night in Kuala Lumpur at the Fabulous Lorong BlackBox – and Just My Luck in the KL Taxi Saga and the Internet Sweepstakes

October 4, 2016
bradspurgeon

lorong-blackboxKUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Just my luck. I was all excited about how I have a 27-minute ride on the KLIA Express train from downtown KL to the airport before boarding my flight to Osaka, Japan, and that I could use the KLIA Express train’s wifi in order to write and post this final post from Malaysia. The wifi on the train is just fabulous and never ever let me down. Until now. Suddenly, for the first time on this trip, and possibly on any trip for me to KL, the internet wifi connection is not working on the KLIA Express. I might as well have taken a taxi! Wait, no, not that! That takes me full circle back to “Just my luck!”

I’m writing this in a Word file that I will post at the airport – either KLIA or Osaka, which ever delivers wifi first – and my reference to “just my luck,” has to do with the taxi drivers of KL. As I arrived about 45 minutes late last night for my evening at Lorong BlackBox, the new food and music emporium of my friend Atraz Ismail, and I complained to him about the horrendous taxi ride I had to his place in Shah Alam, which is located about 45 minutes from downtown KL but took me around 1 hour 25 minutes to get there, he reminded me that I have a long history of terrible experiences with taxis in KL!!

Syahidil Aizat at Lorong BlackBox in Shah Alam Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

It is true. They ask if I have GPS because they don’t. They ask if I know where I’m going, because they don’t. They stop to buy GPS refills on their phones, since without it we end up in Thailand. They then fail to understand how to follow the blue line of the GPS on the road and end up taking the same 10-minute stoplight twice because they made a wrong turn…. Don’t get me started.

Another Syahidil Aizat at Lorong BlackBox in Shah Alam Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

Suffice it to say that as often as I have been let down by taxis in KL, I have been blessed with fabulous evenings at Atraz’s ventures. That started five years ago at his place called Senyap – which means silence in Malay – and it continued this weekend with his new food joint – that I mention a couple days ago – called Lorong BlackBox.

Atraz at Lorong BlackBox in Shah Alam Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

Located in the small back room of a bigger food emporium in a commercial area in Shah Alam, where you have offices, restaurants, markets, and other commercial entities, Atraz not only serves wicked local spicy dishes from his truck kitchen (and the outdoor barbecue-like wok-like kitchen – but he also continues his passion for music, especially young and upcoming talent.

He only opened this place around three weeks ago, and he plans to put on an open mic, maybe a festival or other concerts, and generally liven up the back alley in which the BlackBox is located. Last night, he invited me to do a mini gig and jam, and he played some tunes too – first time I ever heard his music! – and he had a special guest in the fabulously talented and original singer songwriter Syahidil Aizat, who is also a member of a band, the CD of which I was given and will be giving a listen to as soon as I have a CD player. But if it sounds anything like the originality and sensitivity of Syahidil, it’s sure to be a treat.

I’ll write about it in a future edition of my morning exercise listening. For the moment, suffice it to say that I learned my lesson once and for all about taxis in KL. Atraz and his friends ordered me up an Uber, and despite the driver having to stop to figure out how to use his program on his phone to set the charging in motion, we spent half as much time and a third as much money getting back to my hotel as with the taxi on the way there.

It was a revelation in more ways than one, then, last night at the Lorong BlackBox.

Now off to Nagoya, where I never take any taxis – oh, except from the circuit to the train station in Shiroko. But that’s another story.

PS, So, I managed to find an internet connection at the airport, after nearly one hour of trying – first at the airport free system, which was out of reach for the restaurant where I am eating, called the Dome, and then in the Dome system, which is too slow and did not allow WordPress to work, and then in the Starbucks next-door, which took all of my personal information as it baited me into a connection before it then said that I had to ask for a wifi code at the counter!!!!!

Merdekarya, Malaysia, Open Mic Revisted, Cool as Ever

March 29, 2015
bradspurgeon

merdekarya

merdekarya

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Even halfway through the evening at the Merdekarya open mic in KL last night I could not remember for sure if I had been there one year ago, or two years ago, so fresh was the feeling of my last visit. It was only in consulting my blog this morning that I confirmed it was actually two years ago that I experienced Merdekarya this best open mic in Kuala Lumpur the previous time. It came back to me that last year I had some last-minute interviews to do in my job or something, and had to cancel out at the last minute. Last night, as I flailed around central KL to try to get a cab to this “suburban” open mic, I almost gave up.

But in the end, I got a cab, got back to the Merdekarya, and was so thankful that I pushed myself to get that cab: Over the last two years this exceptional open mic has grown even more exceptional, with a format that includes a concert by a featured band, and an open mic, almost every night of the week.

It is located in Petaling Jaya, which is kind of far from downtown KL, but it’s well situated if you live in Petaling Jaya! In any case, this year, a nice working air conditioner and some other building works done since I last visited meant that the loft-like location of the open mic was more comfortable than two years ago. But the vibe was the same.

You may be located in what appears to a foreigner like “the middle of nowhere” but once inside the venue – which is located above an open-front street-food-like restaurant, you feel like you could be in a New York City loft. And then when you hear some of the local musicians with their often exceptional vocals, you feel like you’re in a very with-it NYC loft. I still cannot understand quite why the pop music of Malaysia has not made a bigger splash internationally. The level of musicianship, songwriting and vocals here in Kuala Lumpur is exceptional.

OK, now that Merdekarya runs an open mic every night, my choice of attending on Saturday night was not the best in terms of the performers turn-out numbers. Still, there must have been five or six of us performing in the open mic and then the 1-hour long concert by the featured band, The Cotton Field Scarecrows. Apparently Friday night is the most popular night for the open mic. You can check out in advance by signing up for a slot on the Merdekarya web site in advance, with a well-honed system that ensures you don’t have to wait long for a confirmation.

The format now is that every month there is a rotation of featured artists playing once a week on a given day, with the artists changing each month. The Scarecrows were quite exceptional, even in what I was told afterwards was a stripped down version of the band, with only a bass, lead and acoustic guitar and vocals. Normally there are keyboards and drums, too. But I actually thought the stripped down, minimalist version had a fabulous haunting quality to it that I assumed was done on purpose. It was so strange to see what amounted to Americana – even in their original songs – being played and sung by Malaysians in this loft in a suburb of KL. Check it out for yourself with the videos I took….




Discovering Another Side of Singapore’s Music Scene: Ernesto Valerio – the Dean Martin of Singapore – and his 51-Year Career in the City State

September 18, 2014
bradspurgeon

Ernesto Valerio

Ernesto Valerio

SINGAPORE – I started out feeling really disappointed when I arrived at the Actors Jam Bar only to discover that it is open now only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings for the jam sessions, and the rest of the week it is free only to organized private events. It was always a mainstay for me, no matter what night of the week. Unless my memory fails. In any case, that was the disappointment. What turned it all around was that as I was making my way back to the hotel on Mosque Street I saw a bar I had not noticed int the past, and it advertised live music. I could see the stage, it looked very professional, very cool, there was a bass guitar and a semi-acoustic, both in stands, and the music was soon to pick up again.

I had the time to go off and find a desert of ice cream to cool off my burning mouth from the street food I’d just eaten next to the Actors Jam Bar, and then I decided to make my way back up the street to have a whiskey and check out the music in this bar. I walk into the place, and I find a bass player and lead player/singer, onstage, playing beautiful jazz with a light touch, and the lead player, a man in his 60s, greets me, right in the middle of the song. Cool!

I take a seat in front of the stage, and bit by bit my attention is taken deeper into this man’s music, his deft touch on the guitar, the great rhythm between him and the bass player, and finally, most surprisingly, the sudden appearance of his voice. I am not a big fan of deep, worn, whiskey-washed voices – even less interested in such voices that sing blues in bars all over the world and on Tom Waits records. (I love Waits, but mostly the early stuff.) But here I found something I’ve never really seen before: This whiskey washed voice of the man I was to learn is named Ernesto Valerio, a Singaporean musician who has played in bars in the city-state for 51 years, may have its limitations, but his feeling and his ability to temper the voice in all sorts of different keys and needs and sounds, just won me over entirely.

From a soft, pseudo high pitch to its more natural lower zone, the voice expressed an inner love of music that is rare. And his guitar playing, the beautiful fingerpicking and lead stuff and wide spread of jazz and pop and other modes – even Chinese, I learned later – just made him the consummate guitarist. And he is also a showman. I had to speak to the guy afterwards. That’s where I found out that Ernesto has been playing in Singapore for 51 years, and that he is now 67 years old.

“I still just love it,” he said of playing music in front of audiences.

That was clear. And the audience loves it too.

But it was in returning back to the hotel that the story broadened. I just had to do a little search on Ernesto Valerio, now that I had his name. That led me to seeing that he is a well-known local performer, indeed, who has rubbed shoulders with the best of them here, and who has had a nice spread of media attention, who is often called “the Dean Martin of Singapore.” He used to play in a group in the early 60s, but soon went solo because he just didn’t like having to deal with other musicians. (His duet with the bass player is remarkably full sounding, by the way.)

The Malaysian, Paul Ponnudorai, master-studend, student-disciple connection

As I read on, I saw a connection between Ernesto and a guitarist I had met in March of 2012 in Kuala Lumpur: Paul Ponnudorai. I had met this guy Paul, briefly, at a bar venue in Kuala Lumpur where I had played. Paul, I did not know at the time, was an internationally respected guitarist who had played with people like Billy Cobham, Tuck & Patti, and Wynton Marsalis and many others. I had been introduced to Paul after I played a set at Rockafellas and I had no idea what a great guitarist this guy was, and how basic my guitar playing must have looked to him by comparison. But he was a cool, simple, unassuming man. It turned out that Paul Ponnudorai, at 51, had only a few months to live, as he died in the summer of organ failure, and that was the end of a man they called Malaysia’s greatest guitarist, and sometimes, even the world’s greatest….

Ernesto Valerio through a glass

Ernesto Valerio through a glass

The point of this, is that Paul Ponnudorai had at first been trained by this man Ernesto. Some say Ernesto then later became a disciple of Paul! But why I mention all of this on this blog, is because all these links coming together, these meetings with remarkable musicians in KL and Singapore (located on the Malaysian peninsula) have helped me draw a picture in my mind of a fabulously thriving musical scene in this part of the world that only the lack of an adequate publicity machine keeps secret from the rest of the world.

The Malaysia/Singapore musical world is closely tied, and fabulously populated by guitarists, bassists (Andy Peterson) and an a fabulous collection of beautiful vocalists. Looking forward to learning more over the next few days….

Worldwide Open Mic Journey 2014: The Multimedia Consolidation – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

March 31, 2014
bradspurgeon

Kuala Lumpur Skyline

Kuala Lumpur Skyline

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.

So here is the page devoted to tying together the pieces of the open mic adventure that I have lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malasyia since I first started here in 2009. At each subsequent Formula One race that I visit this year, I will add a new such page. Keep posted….

Goin’ With the Flow at the “Music Flow” of the Cafenine in Kuala Lumpur

March 28, 2014
bradspurgeon

Cafenine Kuala Lumpur

Cafenine Kuala Lumpur

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 Real Scene at The Warehouse in Kuala Lumpur

March 22, 2013
bradspurgeon

warehouse kl

warehouse kl

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.

Merdekarya, Malaysia: Was It a Waking Dream, or An Incredible Open Mic? The Taxi Part Provided the Answer

March 21, 2013
bradspurgeon

merdekarya

merdekarya

Around the mid-way point of the evening at the Merdekarya open mic in the Jalan Gasing part of Kuala Lumpur, I had flashes of strange feelings and images: Was I really sitting in this cool loft-like artsy café and bar space on the first floor above a food stall restaurant called Sunny Raj, and sipping a Guinness and listening to and watching some of the most beautiful-voiced and talented musicians I have seen in one spot in a long long time? Or was my mind playing games with me and saying, you are dreaming, you’ve come to some foreign outpost in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and you have signed up to play your music – but all the local talent sound like the pop stars of tomorrow on the global stage?

I knew, really, that it had all happened. I did not have to pinch myself, because I had arrived at this open mic in absolute extremes. It was a combination of persistence and luck and frustration and good common sense that had led me there. I had discovered the place on the amazing Kuala Lumpur open mic page of a guy named Shaneil Devaser, a site called openmicmalaysia.org, which is my own Thumbnail Guide’s Malaysian counterpart.

I had taken a taxi from next to the twin Petronas Towers in downtown KL, and spent the better part of an hour turning around in circles in the suburb Jalan Gasing, where the open mic takes place, in what was definitely a hallucination. The ride should have lasted 15 or 20 minutes. But the driver not only did not know where the venue was, but he knew NOTHING about the suburb, or about the names of the roads or how to ask strangers in the area where to find the place.

I kept persisting with him, and my fare doubled in the process. Finally, I decided to give up and asked if he could take me to the Hilton Hotel in the same neighborhood, where I had intended to spend the second part of the evening at the Rockafellas venue that I wrote about last year. But even there, he ended up taking me to the wrong hotel!!!

So once I found myself at this hotel in the middle of nowhere in the suburb of KL, and they told me they had never heard of Rockafellas, I decided to ask if they knew the address where the Merdekarya open mic took place. The guy hesitated at first, consulted with a colleague, then said he knew exactly where it was. I was still ready to return to my hotel in the city, but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

So I get in a second cab, and it turns out HE does not know where we are going. But he, at least, had a GPS, and within five minutes, we were at the Merdekarya. In fact, I saw that we were about 100 meters away from one of the spots where we had stopped in the first cab to ask instructions of locals – and they knew not where to find the Sunny Raj, the Merdekarya, or the address where they sat.

So I entered the building, taking the stairs up to the first floor, and I walked into this very cool and laid back venue with its makeshift wooden stage and makeshift bar and makeshift backroom reading room. But there was beer and wine and there was food to be ordered from the Sunny Raj via the venue, and there were musicians on the stage, and many musicians and spectators at the tables listening, and there were CDs for sale, a novel for sale and written by the open mic organizer, Brian Gomez, and there were only Malaysian people present.

And I felt suddenly that I might have found an open-mic goldmine through my persistence and fluke of circumstances. And later in the evening, the organizers would say, “Thanks for persisting to find the place. A lot of people don’t persist, and don’t find us.” Got it!!!

As the evening progressed, then, and I sat there listening to one amazing voice and guitarist after another – all singing and composing in English, which is a local predominant language – I began having that feeling of hallucinating. I have noticed in the past in my visits to Malaysia that there are a lot, a very vast number of excellent vocalists. Last night really got me thinking about why this might be. It was clear again that I was attending an open mic with so many wonderful qualities of vocalist that there is clearly something in the air in Malaysia that lends itself to great singing.

One of the organizers of the evening suggested to me that it was the spicy food, and I can attest to the fact that my noodles meal that was quite hot and spicy certainly did not negatively affect my own voice when it was my turn to sing. I felt good. Actually, I felt horrendously nervous at one point because I was faced with so many great musicians that I wondered how I might appear – or rather, sound – to these people.

Ultimately, I asked myself why, why oh why we do not have Malaysian pop stars across the globe. There is so much talent here. And this open mic was clearly the most interesting, hip and cool that I have ever attended in Malaysia. And it turned out that I found myself in a similar position to what others are in Paris because of my list, when I met Shaneil Devaser at the open mic and told him I had found the place thanks to his list!

I have made a huge number of videos to show off and prove that point. Check ’em out!!!



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