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.
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.
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!!!
I arrived at my hotel in Kuala Lumpur at 11 PM last night, dead tired, wiped out, demoralized, plane-flighted out. But I remembered that in this city last year on the Wednesday night, I found a fabulous place to play, a bar called Urban Attic, which had a huge stage and was partly inside and partly outside. So last night, despite sending emails to the Urban Attic blog – which I noticed was terribly out of date – and I received no response, so I decided to head over, with my guitar, to see what the action was like. I was delighted to find that it was only 10 minutes walk from my hotel over to CapSquare, where the Urban Attic is located.
So I walked through the heat and humidity and found my way there…only to find the Urban Attic closed and lifeless. What a shame. It does not look closed down, however, unless they’ve left everything in it, the bar, the sign for Ladies’ Night on Saturday, etc. But compared to last year, this was a real downer. So I returned to the hotel with no answer as to what’s happening with the Urban Attic in general, but the knowledge that I’d done all I could to find a place to play on my first night.
I will also retrace my steps from last year to another venue, and that is the Hard Rock Cafe Kuala Lumpur. It turns out the Hard Rock is also right next to my hotel. Last year I went to the Hard Rock Cafe to listen to Eddie and the Robbers, the band of Eddie Jordan, the former F1 team owner. I blogged about Eddie and the Robbers on my NYT F1 blog site. When Eddie told me in the paddock in Australia that he was returning again, this time with a trio, and he invited me over, I decided to go a step further. I later wrote to him and asked if I could play one of my songs with his band at the Hard Rock Cafe tonight. He said yes. So in principle, that’s what I’ll be doing tonight. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to it. If the Urban Attic turned out to be a downer compared to last year, the Hard Rock Cafe experience – which was also enormous last year – could turn out to be even bigger this year!