Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

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

March 21, 2013



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, 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!!!

Brad, Mark Renesh, Alex and the Gang at the Backyard Pub & Grill, Kuala Lumpur

April 12, 2011

I could not have dreamed before coming to Kuala Lumpur last week that I would have had such a musically and personally rich experience in just six days in Malaysia. Retrospectively, the signs were perhaps there: I had lined up in advance a gig and a half-hour slot at an open mic, starting on the first day of arrival. The rest was a matter of serendipity, synchronicity, and pushing the limits.

It turned out that the day I chose to play Laila’s Cafe open mic was also the first day in a year that a friend of one of its organizers decided to drop by to check it out. This was Edmund Anthony, the man who runs the music program at the famous Backyard Pub & Grill in KL. So we met, he liked my singing, and he invited me to check out the Backyard on Friday. That in turn led to an invitation to me to play a solo act there last night, as he has solo performers early in the week, building up to full-fledged bands later on.

So it was that I ended up playing not only Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (the latter thanks to the Melbourne open mic organizer, Emily Brown’s research on where else I could play in KL, but I also got to play this nice little gig at the KL landmark Backyard Pub & Grill. This was also thanks to the kindness of Mark Renesh, who is the regular Monday night musician at the Backyard. He not only let me play from 9:30 onwards for about 45 minutes, but he later invited me up to play a couple of songs with him – “Stand By Me” and “Unchained Melody.”

Mark Renesh is a very cool dude with a voice that you think you are hallucinating with when you hear it and see him singing and you wonder where the hell it’s coming from. It’s his, all right. But Mark, who has always worked solo, has developed the one-man solo gig into an art of technological proportions I have yet to see beaten. That is, I’ve recently started using a vocal harmonizing device occasionally at my brunch, and Stephen “Danger” Prescott uses one at the Galway open mic in Paris. Other musicians, like Thomas Brun at the Highlander’s open mic, have a lot of looping and fuzz type of gadgets too. But Mark has a lot of stuff he pre-records, including rhythm devices, vocal harmonies, and I think other guitars. The whole is like a one man band, and very impressive.

Moreover, Mark has a fabulous voice that very frequently does an exact rendition of the cover songs he sings. Very unusual.

Another thing that made the even fabulous was that I actually had three of my best friends among Formula One journalists come along to dine with me and listen to my concert. Well, I say “dine,” but it took a couple of them quite a while to find the Backyard, as they ended up driving around KL about three times before finding it. And I was extremely honored to have come around to listen to me as well, one of my favorite former Formula One racing drivers, the local Malaysian boy, Alex Yoong, who is currently head of driver development at Team Lotus. Having the Malaysian come and hear me play on his home turf was sensational. Alex is also doing television racing commentary here, and still doing a little bit of racing – like GT3 last year. Just realized I first wrote about Alex Yoong way, way back in 1999.

In any case, the evening was fabulous, it was a privilege to play at this KL landmark music joint, and I enjoyed my set thoroughly – playing my usual mix of my own songs and cover songs.

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