MERDEKARYA, The Gaslight Café, Minut Init, The Bee, RAW Art Space, ATASbyBijanFX, and many more. Indie hotspots like these have gained their own cultural significance within Kuala Lumpur and have become iconic places to perform, whether you’re a seasoned artist or are just starting out. Places like these are important. It’s important to have a place to experiment with your individual sense of music when the mainstream market is saturated with whatever sells best these days – candy pop, love songs or a beat you can dance to.
It’s important to have a place that feels holy, where a performance becomes more than playing music or reciting lines onstage. It’s a communion, between the audience and whoever decided to be brave that night, and bare a part of their soul with a group of strangers. Importance doesn’t quite cut it though. Places like these are sacred.
In a society that cultivates pessimism as an approach to anything new and unusual, these are places that welcome the strangeness. Experimentation jumps off the paper and on to the stage, where craft meets crowd and you learn for yourself what kind of artist you are.
These are the places that become more than just a venue, but actual homes – for the art and the artist. Places that house the underground scene and all it stands for. They may not be pretty places and they may not be popular places but it’s our place. Somewhere even the most unusual artist can find their crowd. I interviewed some of these artists to gain their insight on what poetry cafes and art spaces mean to a growing generation of beat poets and musicians in Malaysia.
This is the story of those places.
Growing as An Artist
“I was 15 or 16 when I performed for the first time outside of church, in Merdekarya, as a 3-piece folk band. I was intimidated by the rest of the talents, people like me kept seeing this as some type of competition.” – Keith Noel (musician Leon Sapphire)
“My first open-mic performance was at The Bee when I was 16. I had never played in front of a live audience before and this was my first time doing a solo song. I did the solo to Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe and I still remember noticing a man watching me the whole time as I slinked my hands down the frets while I attempted Hendrix; he stood up to clap after I was done and I never really saw him again.” – Dan Pathma (solo performer, guitarist for Lotus King)
“My first spoken word performance was Shades of Art, one of the bigger art showcases in Kuching. It was an original piece and fortunately for a young artist like me, Kuching appreciated spoken word…There’s a huge community in Kuching, we constantly support each other even though we all do different kinds of art.” – Allison Jong (spoken word poet)
“My first open-mic was at Merdekarya. I didn’t know many people who had gone and done it and I was really nervous about it, and I was stressing about the rules there and how my performance was going to go. But I went to this place and it was this indie underground scene I’d never been to before…I knew I could play things that weren’t being played on the radio.” – Kahrthik Selvarajah (solo performer)
In a similar fashion to cultural landmarks like New York’s CBGB Café, considered the birthplace of punk rock music where legends like Ramones, Talking Heads and Patti Smith debuted and performed regularly, and The Gaslight Café in Greenwich or Café Wha, home to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and beat poet legends like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac – Malaysia’s underground scene is brimming with something special. These were the kind of places you would want to have your first performance.
We have a creative industry that’s full of potential but struggles with finding their own identity. Often times our art can get lost in the sea of commercial success, where performers start looking and sounding a lot like each other. For a long time, the arts scene was saturated with rock music, a place to dance where the punks could thrash and scream. But still, there wasn’t room for other types of experimentation, or even finding the right crowd to sit down and hear you out.
Enter: the rise of indie art spaces and enclaves. The number of unique spaces for performances that range from theatrical pieces to spoken word to noise experimentation grew and with it, came the different crowds that had been waiting to call a place like this home.
Indie souls that are interested in venturing into newer types of music or want to try their hand at pushing the boundaries of sound can find their crowd in a place like Merdekarya, considered more music-centric. Alternatively, if you have a band that wants to try the pop route or jazzy beats, the right crowd for you would be The Bee that feature more dance-y performances. For people who dream of a bigger artistic vision or want to do poetry in a more intimate setting, The Gaslight Café welcomes you with snapping fingers.
While these are just a few of Malaysia’s cultural indie icons, there are already so many different crowds for you to test the waters in and eventually claim as your own. Besides finding your territory, these places are crucial for aspiring artist to find the people they learn from and make music with, gaining honest criticism from like-minded peers who hopefully, share your vision.
With that being said, each time a landmark like this shuts down, it’s a sad affair. The closing down of Minut Init should be remembered with what it meant to its performers – “a great place for people to grow as artists. Where music and art has always been looked at as a lifestyle most people shouldn’t risk, places like these help people understand the importance of having a place to vent or start refining your art as an actual profession.” – Keith
A Private Sanctuary
But what do these places mean to everyone else, the people who aren’t ready to go up on stage? At least for those kinds of people, people like me, it’s a sanctuary for the strange. The strangers who know they want to live in this world and come here to escape their own. I asked some artists why places like these matter, beyond a stage to perform on.
“If there aren’t any communities in Kuching that are willing to support local poets and artists, none of us would have become who we are today. Support often turns into platforms for the rest of us.” – Allison
“These places are a safe haven for people to express themselves, be honest and most of all, allow them to leave their reality even for a while.” – Dan
“If you can rely on your own ability to filter out honest criticism from the jerks, you’ll learn that it’s a cycle of support where people bounce their ideas off you and you off them. I’ve never hear anyone say anything bad about the people performing in Merdekarya, the crowd seems to have only love and support.” – Kahrthik
The genuine ‘anak seni’ of Malaysia are growing against all odds – against censorship laws, the closing down of beloved cafes and the temptation to resist commercial success by maintain your own identity. Even crowds who don’t perform at these indie locales can, at the very least, be inspired by the experimentation and unique individuals who pave the way for other people to start being brave and putting themselves out there.
And fighting that good fight starts right here, in the places you will remember as the very first time you stepped out of your comfort zone and experimented with your artistic side. What’s hopeful about spending your night at The Gaslight Café or Minut Init is being reminded that once upon a time, in another part of the world, these were the same kind of places legends like Johnny Ramone and Patti Smith could be found, exchanging ideas or brawling in a bar fight. What makes it magical is claiming this space to become something even bigger and create an artistic vision that would turn the scene on its head. And there’s no place to dream like that than a place like this.