images by Veronica Ng
What do Malaysians do at a music festival in Penang? Why they gorge themselves on freshly barbequed satay and crispy succulent fried chicken and down it with cool coconut juice, of course. Who can blame them? This is after all Penang, home of delicious street fare.
Speaking of Penang, The Penang World Music Festival stormed back after a 3 year break bigger and better than ever before with a diverse genre of musical mélange of international and local musicians amidst the lush beauty of nature at Quarry Park, Penang Botanic Gardens.
The lineup featured musicians from 12 groups from all over the world including Turkey, Iran, Portugal, Philippines, West Africa and of course homegrown Malaysian talent.
On the first day of the festival on March 30th, Turkish band the Alp Bora Quartet played the music of Anatolia. Their music was indeed serene, a great warm up for what was in store for us.
The 2nd group Oratnitza featured a mixed genre of Bulgarian, dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass and Aboriginal music. The heart of their music is the hypnotic drone of not one but two didgeridoo (played by the same guy, mind you) interwoven with the orthodox chanting of classical Bulgarian Mother and Daughter female singers. Oratnitza is currently rocking the Bulgarian youth.
Next act up was world-jazz fusion group Rimba, an 8 piece band from Sabah that cranked up the crowd with a mix of modern instruments intertwined with traditional ones. Their traditional Sumazau dance finally broke the ice and got us flapping like giant birds too.
Picking up the cue and upping the ante, Philippine ethnic rock band Kalayo was fronted by an energetic woman who owned the stage with her frenetic style and proved to be the highlight of day 1. Kalayo was definitely a hit with the crowd.
Dagaya from Japan proved to be the most stunning audiovisual experience of the night as their members were dressed in traditional gear while thumping beats on their Taiko Drums.
Their exact precision, expert timing and experience enabled each band member to perform a lengthy drum solo, accompanied by the soulful melody of the Japanese Shakuhachi (flute). The frenzied finale consisted of an outstanding synchronized drumming interwoven with skillful plucking of the Shamisen (stringed Japanese instrument).
Mu from Portugal featured the element of dance prominently in their performance, with vocalist and dancer Helena Madeira fronting. We travelled to several different cultures across traditional/fusion sounds as the band members played various truly unusual instruments from all over the world including India, Switzerland, Egypt, Brazil, Morocco and Australia.
For the grand finale of day one we were lucky enough to see MU’s skillful players on both the Bulbul Tarang, (stringed North Indian instrument) and the seldom-heard folk instrument Hurdy Gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument played by turning a rosined wheel with a crank and depressing keys connected to tangents on the strings.
A fitting end indeed, and an excellent appetizer to whet our anticipation for the next day. My only grouse was the inexplicable absence of a music journalist’s staple food during festivals - beer. Yup, no beer on sale.
Things were looking up on day two as the packed audience appeared to be ready to party as soon as Nasout from Iran took to the stage. Could this have any connection with the fact that the organizers thankfully rectified the absence of beer? Your guess is as good as mine.
Nasout is led by a big, quiet bespectacled hat wearing gentleman with a chest-length grizzly beard. Talk about appearances being deceptive, He displayed incredible talent on the metal ringed Daf, one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia, creating both a drumming and tambourine effect.
As a Persian instrument in 20th century, it is considered a Sufi instrument to be played during the Zikr ceremony. With the haunting Tulum, an inflatable Turkish bagpipe, Nasout proved a great start.
KimiDjabaté from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa came minus 3 members of his band due to an immigration problem. As is the nature of musicians, the show went on as musicians from Kalayo, Rimba and Mu graciously helped Kimi with his performance. Minus his shirt, Kimi played his Xylophone and thumped on drums churning out beautifully groovy music to sway to.
By now familiar to Malaysians, Andean Band Inka Marka were togged out in their trademark colorful robes and straw hats, their music imbued with the spirit of their forefathers and tinged with the sweeping chimes of the pan flute.
Malaysia’s very own multiple award winning 8 piece band Akasha soon had the crowd eating out of their hands with their upbeat fusion of classical Indian, Malay, Chinese and just about everything else imaginable, all played at a seemingly psychotic pace led by Sitar Maestro Kumar Karthigesu.
Guitarist and composer Jamie Wilson cheekily quipped, “We’re the only band listed in the Guinness book of records where each band member is sitting. We have no visual appeal”.
Sitting they may be, but that didn’t stop these superbly talented boys from scatting, careening and slaloming from Jazz to Country to Irish to Malay to Indian and Latin, switching from orthodox to classical to blues and rock, moving seamlessly as one explosive soundbite powered by Greg Henderson’s thumping acoustic bass.
Imagine (yes, pun intended) the sitar transitioning into Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ whipping the crowd into a frenzy, only to have Akasha flirt with us by switching to a table powered rendition of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’. Without a doubt, Akasha were the stars of the night, ending with chants of ‘we want more’ and a queue at their merchandise and CD stall.
Predictably, the night then took a dip when Brazilian act Dendê and Band sadly lacked the musical chops to connect with the crowd, despite Dende making a valiant effort to mingle with the audience and urging them to sing and dance along with him.
Indonesian 8 piece band Saharadja fared slightly better with their blend of ethnic Balinese and operatic rock. They also played a diverse range of instruments including the trumpet, electric violin, didgeridoo, sitar, djembe, sarod, darabuka, Irish tin whistle, congas, fretless bass, drums and a large assortment of percussion instruments, and Australian violinist Helga Sedli proved to be not only a great performer but also easy on the eyes, we still failed to regain our musical high.
The festival’s finale was a jam session of all 12 bands, with musicians and their traditional instruments, in their traditional clothes, jamming in a joyful celebration of life, of music and of new friendships formed.
Frigglive has attended countless music festivals over the years, and it must be said that the much awaited return of the Penang World Music Festival 2013 was a huge success. This should come as no surprise as it was managed by event management consultant UCSI Communications Sdn Bhd, a company helmed by Gracie Geikie where Artistic Director Amir Yussuf and her dedicated team are renowned for their meticulous attention to detail.
Thank you Dave, great article! Hope you both enjoyed yourselves and had plenty of Penang Laksa! Cheers and see you next year! Gracie
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