Thrilled by the Western Twang

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Jude (third from right) and Jerry Singho (on the violin) of Os Pombos having a swell time wrapping up the night with fellow country musicians.

Miri’s festival makes it the region’s centre for country music.

The date is February 27. Stepping into the gazebo of ParkCity Everly Hotel Miri feels like walking through the swinging doors of a Western saloon. Men and women clad in cowboy hats and boots mingle, with a spot of line dancing taking place to the twang of country music. Outside are tents selling hot dogs and other local delicacies.

Up on stage, renowned international and local country musicians and bands take turns to play their songs. Performing right now is Jonathan Tse, the Sabahan singer, songwriter and music producer. “I say ‘Howdy,’ you say ‘Yee-haw,’ OK?” he says, to enthusiastic response of the crowd, and rips into a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. His audience then sings along to Dolly Parton’s “I will always love you”, and I am surprised at how raw and heartfelt it sounds.

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“You gotta live as country to play country,” says Vincent Jude Singho, the vocalist and rhythm guitar player of KL’s Os Pombos, a legend in the local country music scene. Singho, who is of Portuguese descent, says he grew up in a community where country music was often heard at home. “It has a psychological effect,” he says about the influence. “Most people didn’t realise it was country music.”

Perhaps a common trait among the musicians at the Miri Country Music Festival (MCMF) 2016 is that most of the musicians, if not all, Thrilled by the Western Twang grew up listening to the genre. Be it thanks to their parents’ musical tastes or an inane inquisitiveness about the complexity of country music, it is remarkable to see these musicians coming from all walks of life sharing the same mark. Leonard De Cotta of Singapore’s Leonard and the Country Riders, for example, was “raised on a staple of country music from the age of eight.”

Lian Ballang of Miri’s very own The Mountain Wind Band observes that country music is more accommodating to Sarawakians; traditional music instruments such as the sape already have that country twang anyway. “Country music is our music,” says the Kelabit, whose band mates are his family members. “The only time we meet is when we’re playing music!” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been singing country music since young. It’s a part of our traditional music,” he claims.

With Lian’s explanation, it’s easier to see why Borneans take country music seriously. But there’s another factor as well: “Miri is country,” says Gracie Geikie, advisor to the MCMF team. “It’s oil country. Oil miners came from the US and Canada, bringing their music, fashion and culture.” Up on Canada Hill in the outskirts of Miri town is the 106-year-old preserved oil well, the Grand Old Lady, “manned” by four statues wearing cowboy hats. Miri’s country influence is over a century old.

The same cannot be said of the peninsula’s enthusiasm for country music. “We struggled to promote country music in West Malaysia for a long time,” says Singho. In Singapore and Indonesia, locals were not always receptive to country music either. “There aren’t many country music outlets to play at in Singapore,” admits De Cotta.

According to Tantowi Yahya, dubbed “the most popular country singer in Indonesia”, it is hard to interest the new generation, and while modern country music espoused by the likes of Eric Church and Carrie Underwood is widely received in the US, the same cannot be said for Indonesia because of the mix of pop and country. Tantowi, who has performed in “almost all the provinces in Indonesia” in an effort to make country music accepted, experienced overwhelming success for his first album, Country Breeze, which sold 300,000 copies. “The style of singing is similar to Malay-style singing, such as the dangdut,” he says. True enough, he sings a country version of Bengawan Solo during his Julia “Bubba” Tan is Deputy Editor of Penang Monthly. She is on page one of her zombie apocalypse novel, but knows she’ll get there someday... set to the delight of the crowd, which reached maximum capacity during his performance. Tantowi has a big following in Malaysia as well.

From across the divide, Jo-el and LeAnne Ulmer, the husband-and-wife duo from Nashville, are trying to keep traditional country music alive. When auditioning for a Nashville-based reality country music competition, the duo was told that they were “too country” – hence their band name, 2Country4Nashville. “How can you be ‘too country’ in Nashville?” laughs LeAnne.

Apart from the sound, country music is also about personality: “Real country music was all about the singer,” says Jo-el, who lives and breathes country music – evident in the way he dresses, from his pompadour hairstyle and colourful boots to his deep Cash-like baritone.

So, for West Malaysians who want a good dose of raw country music, the logical thing to do is to head over to MCMF. And that’s exactly what Joseph Louis and 12 of his friends did. Louis is from Penang, and it is his first time at the festival. The country and western music fan came prepared, complete with cowboy hat and sunglasses. The crowd doesn’t just consist of Malaysians: “We have international guests from countries such as Singapore and Australia,” says Geikie, proud of the fact that MCMF is the only such festival in the region. “During our first year, we sold 1,700 tickets. This year, we sold 2,000.”

Joseph Louis (second from left) came all the way from Penang with his family and friends for the festival.

And next year, MCMF will be bigger than ever. “We’re going to make it a two-day festival,” reveals Geikie. “We’re ready for it – we’ve laid the foundation, the market is receptive,” she says. The date is set: February 25, 2017. Throw on your hat and strap up your boots – it will be honky-tonk time.


Julia “Bubba” Tan is Deputy Editor of Penang Monthly. She is on page one of her zombie apocalypse novel, but knows she’ll get there someday...



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