Penang music finds a home to satiate the nostalgic and stimulate the novice.
I texted Paul Augustin that I would be a little late to our appointment, mainly because Komtar had closed off parking that day for some reason and I had to leave my car in neighbouring Prangin Mall instead. But it was also because the Penang House of Music, which he founded, was a little tricky to find. There was helpful signage on the way, sure, but you had to walk right into the ICT Mall, go past rows of shops hawking their mobile phones, laptops and other gadgets before finding the escalator that takes you to the place.
Not the most intuitive location for a museum dedicated to Penang’s long history of popular music.
(Left to right) Paul Augustin, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and PBA CEO Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa at the launch of the Penang House of Music.
But once you get there, you will be struck by just how different it is compared to the rest of the building it inhabits. Bright lights, a colourful décor and a collection of historical curios give the House of Music a unique identity, while classic Malay songs fill the air. “Murali [Ramakrishnan, Think City’s programme director] said, ‘When I come here, I don’t feel like I’m in Komtar,’” says Augustin. “That’s one of the best compliments we’ve had so far.”
Entering the museum, one is greeted by a clip of the Penang docks taken in the 1930s. A Jimmy Boyle song plays over the speakers, performed by his son James. There is a big LED screen showing noted Penang musicians like Bihzhu and Richard Khoo greeting visitors as they walk into the museum proper. And the first exhibit you come across is a tribute to the more traditional elements, with musical instruments and costumes linking back to Penang’s boria and dondang sayang roots, as well as Chinese opera and Indian instrumental music.
It becomes increasingly clear that Augustin and his team are unafraid to experiment. The centrepiece in the traditional section is a large screen depicting Chinese puppets as traditional Chinese opera plays in the background, and guests can control the puppets themselves using motion sensor technology – a nifty way of marrying old with new, which has been a big part of Augustin’s ambitions for the museum as a whole. “It’s modern, but we’re trying to show that [Chinese puppet theatre] is still alive,” says Augustin.
The next section is what Augustin dubs the Listening Dome – a wooden booth with a silver dome hanging above your head that plays your choice of traditional music. The dome localises the music around anyone in the booth, drowning out outside noises, allowing you to listen to ronggeng uninterrupted. “People come here and ask, ‘What is joget? What is keronchong?’” Augustin says. “You can sit here and find out.”
One corner of the museum is used to recreate an old coffee shop, replete with vintage magazines and a Rediffusion radio playing local classics. There is a radio room featuring more than a dozen vintage radios; in a time when television wasn’t yet introduced, radio was king. There is a room with a VR headset, which lets you watch Bihzhu perform a Jimmy Boyle song for you, with James on the piano. (“People keep trying to touch her.”)
The Chief Minister trying out the broadcasting booth.
The whole museum offers a glimpse of not just the music of the past, but what the scene was like back then. There’s a programming book featuring the municipal council band, gifted to Augustin by a member of the Penang diaspora in Norway. Stacks of vintage film and music magazines line the racks of one wall. A small darkened room is playing an old movie, a small recreation of an old-school cinema. (“Cinema was a big platform for propagating popular music and culture. You show one cowboy film and everyone walked out like a cowboy!”)
Another highlight is the broadcasting booth. It’s a small old-school radio deejay’s studio where you can sit down in front of the microphone and pretend to be a 1960s-era deejay, with a collection of old Malay songs to choose from. Surrounded by wooden furnishings and vintage vinyl players, the only thing breaking the illusion is the utterly modern touchpad you’ll be using to make the magic happen. A recording of your wannabe deejay efforts can even be saved, though the method of saving those recordings is admittedly a little clunky at the moment, involving uploading the recording to a website and then downloading it separately. (Augustin says they are working on simplifying the process). It’s still a clever feature that makes the House of Music stand out that much more, showing just how much thought and care Augustin and his team have put into their project.
He shows me the resource centre, a room with a couple of computers and stacks upon stacks of files and folders. They are currently digitising their materials, from vintage postcards and posters to newspaper articles and academic journals. They represent the decades’ worth of history he has accumulated. The plan is to eventually make the archives accessible online, but that’s going to take some time.
Driven by Curiosity (and Love of the Subject)
Augustin remembers the day he found out that Jimmy Boyle had died.
The VR headset.
He was an 11-year-old student at La Salle in Penang, and Boyle had been one of the teachers there. “We went down to the field,” Augustin recalls, “and the clouds were very dark. It was going to rain. Everyone lined up, and they announced that there would be a 10-minute moment of silence because Mister Jimmy Boyle had passed away.”
To this day, Augustin can’t explain why that moment stuck with him. He had heard of Boyle, but never actually heard him play, and Boyle never really taught him in school. “As time went on, I started getting recordings of him. I realised his playing was way, way ahead [of everyone else].” After that Augustin became more interested in other Penang musicians. He grew up with the usual rock music heroes like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but Penang gave him his own local heroes to look up to. He was fascinated by talented and colourful people like Joe Rozells and Ahmad Daud. How did they learn to play? What was it like playing during television’s infancy?
Born in Penang, Augustin was a musician himself before joining an events management company in KL. Years later, he formed his own events company, Capricorn Connection. He is best known today as the founder of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, which remains, 14 years later, the longest running annual jazz festival in Malaysia. It was during this festival that Augustin decided to show off a little bit of history, rather than just the music. He would regularly have photography exhibits he called the Jazz Gallery, highlighting many of Penang’s forgotten musicians, like Boyle and the Rozells.
In 2010 he was asked to set up an exhibition on 1940s and 1950s Penang music in the state museum at Lebuh Farquhar. Augustin and collaborator James Lochhead proceeded to research, collect materials and storyboard the exhibition on a tiny budget. In fact, they actually made a loss, but the show was so successful the duo was asked by Think City to do another one – and this time to include the 1960s. The success of this second exhibition led to a book, Just for the Love of It, published by Gerakbudaya.
As the exhibition led to the book, the book eventually led to the House of Music. With the support of the state government and the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBA), Augustin was soon tasked with developing a music museum in Penang. “We were under tremendous pressure to think about how to present this,” Augustin says. “Nothing like this exists in Malaysia. You have a music museum in KL that is government-run. Singapore has an archive for popular music, but they don’t have anything like this.”
Keeping it Local
Augustin doesn’t see the House of Music as a static, unchanging time capsule, but a constantly evolving place. He plans to hold exhibitions on individual musicians sometime down the line, and he’d like to have live performances as well.
How does Augustin think today’s Penang musicians stack up? “Technically, the younger generation is very good. They can play all sorts of chords, but I tell them, I see the shell, I don’t see the soul. There’s no passion, no feel. The music is very plastic. The older guys, when they play, you can feel the music. Those days, when you sang you told a story. Nowadays it’s about how high your voice can go, and they lose the essence of it.”
Having said that, he sees signs of encouragement, especially when compared to a decade ago. “There is a little bit of creativity. They’re doing their own songs, but they need outlets.” For his part, Augustin has set up the Black Box, a small space that can be used for musical performances, exhibitions or even plays.
If nothing else, what Augustin hopes people get out of the House of Music is a renewed appreciation of Malaysian music. More than that, he wants musicians to embrace the classics rather than shy away from them. “If you listen to old Malaysian music, the melodies are very strong. It’s got a certain distinct thing that you know is Malaysian. I think we are caught up in the sense that anything that is local is useless. We have to change the mindset of the people. It is beautiful music. It’s what makes us different.”
The Penang House of Music is located on Level 4, Komtar. It is open daily from 11am-8pm (last admission is 7pm). Admission prices and contact information are listed on the website at www.penanghouseofmusic.com.
Jeffrey Hardy Quah is a freelance writer and editor.