Amy Dawson tours the new music scene taking off in Kuala Lumpur
Afigurine of the Queen Mother, giant conch shells, a dreadful charcoal portrait of Michael Jackson, traditional Malay pan pipes, Adele hits on the ukulele, and lots and lots of vinyl. Audrey Hepburn may have found spiritual solace gazing into the glittering windows of Tiffany’s new York but i’ve found my personal shopping nirvana at Joe’s MAC – a music and bric-a-brac shop located in the basement of the unassuming Amcorp Mall, in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya.
Eclectic, emblematic of a passion for music but disorganised and slightly hard to find, the store in many ways reflects the fledgling but oh-so-hot independent music scene in KL.
Music has long been a major part of life in the city and you can hear anything from jazz to ‘Mandopop’ as you make your way around – but with acts such as ‘hijabster’ Yuna being picked up by Pharrell, there’s been a real sense of a scene taking off.
Inevitably for a country that remains religiously and culturally conservative, following an initial rush of excitement things have been pulling back. After six deaths at 2014’s KL Future Music festival were initially blamed on drugs, the event was cancelled and others have followed suit. But there’s still a sense that KL is on the cusp of something, and it’s worth going to check it out before everyone else. You’re best off trying to make friends with a local music buff, which I find for myself in the form of rock act Kyoto Protocol.
In a city bulging with slick, commercial bars, where the only live music you’ll tend to hear is an office-worker-friendly covers band, a promising number of more low-key
venues showcasing genuine new music have sprung up over the past half decade.
Unlike in London, where you can waltz through Camden and see a gig in almost any pub you like, you have to know where you’re going here. I head to new pub Merderkarya, managed by novelist and musician Brian Gomez. It’s down a back alley in a residential suburb and my slightly concerned taxi driver has never heard of the place – so I give him a thumbs up as I get out of the car, despite having no idea what I’m about to find.
The ‘house rules’ are written on the stairs: ‘There is space for all opinions here. If God and the devil signed up for our open-mic, they’d be given ten minutes each.’I push back a black curtain to find a quietly buzzing room, where a cool young crowd are listening to local artist Nik Jidan. In a back room decorated with awesome illustrations, I chat over vodka Ribena with Kyoto Protocol’s keys player Gael Oliveres and bassist Shakeil Bashir.
‘It’s a cool scene,’ says Bashir,‘but there are a lot of obstacles. Gigs are still very much a Thursday to Sunday thing.
‘Some people don’t give a rat’s a**e, others won’t set foot in a place that sells alcohol. But so many more of these kind of joints have sprung up in the past five years. Even coffee shops have started doing open mics.’ In addition to Joe’s, cult record stores including Hard Graft Records and Teenage Head Records have opened in the Klang Valley suburbs, spearheading a vinyl revival.
The indie music scene in KL is definitely bubbling under but not yet on the boil – so get there soon and brag that you were there from the start.