The Penang World Music Festival

The Malaysian Tourism Board has declared 2014 as “Visit Malaysia Year.” They adopted a motto for the nation – “Truly Asia” (so take that, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and everyone else) – and started planning parties and festivals across the country for tourists to explore and enjoy. If we needed another reason to go to Penang besides the food, culture, history and atmosphere, the Tourism Board gave us one: the 2014 Penang World Music Festival. The experience, though strange and unexpected, did not disappoint.

We learned about the music festival while visiting one of Penang’s historical sights, Fort Cornwallis. Fort Cornwallis was where the British called home during the very early years of their colonial stay in what would eventually become Malaysia. Penang (also known as George Town, named after the very same King George we Americans defeated during our revolution) had a complicated relationship with the British, but the ultimate result of their limited colonialism was an English presence added to an already crowded cultural landscape of Chinese tradesmen, Indian laborers, Malaysian everythings, and tons of other cultures on a city the size of New York City’s five boroughs.

All of that mixing makes Penang a perfect spot to host an event designed to highlight the music of cultures from around the world, and we considered ourselves lucky to be able to attend. We bought our tickets at the Fort Cornwallis entrance desk and planned to stay an extra few days. The food in Penang is great anyway, so no hardship there.

We boarded a bus and headed over to the Botanical Gardens early to make sure we got a good seat. That turned out not to be a problem. Compared to other music festivals we had stumbled upon in the past (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass being the most recent), this one was quite tame. An hour and a half before the first group was scheduled to perform, about 75 people were sitting around in the grass. One hotel group, a sponsor of the event, showed up with a handful of handicapped youngsters – teenagers, mostly – and sat down in front of us while we perched on a small hill. I bought us some food for an early dinner and we watched the crowd roll in.

The lineup was interesting. The first group was a young Malaysian dance troupe, and they did some really neat things with bamboo poles. The next was a Bhangra dance group, and though their choreography was interesting enough, the music mix left a little to be desired. Next up was a Chinese ballet company, pretty flower dresses and graceful moves to classical music. The last dance group was a more contemporary Malay group from Penang, dressed in skirts resembling some that Rebecca wore in her folklorico days.

After the dancing came the music. Up first was a classic hit cover band from Penang, who did just about the worst version of Sweet Child of Mine by Guns ‘N Roses I can imagine. (My friend Allie from Dartmouth is a huge Guns fan, and I think if she had been there, her head would have exploded.) They proceeded to kill other classic hits, including Have You Ever Seen the Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival. They were followed by a gamelan orchestra from Penang High School. They had some good beats, and a flamboyant conductor (with a stellar booty shake, I might add), but their violinist could have used a little pitch practice. After them came a traditional music group from Uzbekistan, musical mecca that it is. They were very talented musicians, and their music was fascinating to analyze, but not so pleasant to listen to, in our opinions.

The highlight of the evening for us was up fourth. They were called Nading Rhapsody, and they were a group from Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Their music had a mix of traditional and contemporary sounds, and the instruments they used were unknown to us and totally awesome. I wanted to buy their album, but they had none for sale (which is CRAZY at a music festival), so I’ll have to settle for iTunes. I liked them so much that I wanted to go to Sarawak just to hear more music like that – or to buy one of the instruments they use. They were so neat!

After Nading Rhapsody came a band that we were pretty excited about, but disappointed us hugely, Carlos DjeDje and the Protectors. They were from South Africa, and Carlos DjeDje must be some kind of icon, because he seemed to have a long musical career and a decent number of followers there in Penang. But they were… weird. The reggae music was so-so. While we were there, he performed only two original songs, which were very basic, and then covered Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff songs for the adoring crowd. Throughout the entire set, he did some kind of homage to attention deficit disorder, running in place on stage, or jumping up and down, or playing his bandmates’ instruments. He let a random kid he met in Penang riff on the guitar as a special guest for about 10 minutes during one never-ending song, and during another, he asked the audience to do lots of call and response. It went:

Carlos: “Who’s the king of the jungle?”
Backup singers and audience: “Carlos!”

This guy was completely off his rocker. Him doing the running man is an image I might never be able to forget. Imagine a 70-year-old man dressed in dreds, wearing an ice-cream suit, white wing-tips, and a Panama hat doing what soccer players might call “high knees” in front of a crowd expecting him to sing or play guitar. It was puzzling, though I will admit, highly entertaining in a way I’m sure he didn’t intended it to be. Eventually we got tired of further inflating this man’s sense of self by yelling that he was king of the jungle, and we left.

We wish we had been able to stay another day and hear the other bands. The lineup for day two included a Brazilian group that we were interested in. But still, we are glad we went for a day so we could hear the band from Sarawak. It was a great opportunity to hear music we’ve never heard before, and get a little insight into a new culture. Music’s the most transporting medium for us, so this was a really neat way to spend an evening. Thanks, Malaysian Tourism Board, for a great show!

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