Making words perform art

loading From left: Robin Ruizendaal, Tan Sooi Beng, Latif Kamaluddin, Paul Augustin and Marco Ferrarese.

At the George Town Literary Festival 2015, meet this group of people who create imagery and music with words.

On November 27-29, the George Town Literary Festival will once again be back in town to colour Penang with the monochromatic black-and-white grandeur of the printed word. As usual, an array of diverse events, panels and workshops will explore all shades of ink, from fiction to poetry, memoir to cartoon and spoken word.

One particular event, however, promises to offer a different kind of highlight – and not because this infamous banned writer will be participating. On Saturday, November 28, a group of four writers representing experiences as diverse as the extremes of the compass rose will get together at Mrs Potts, Black Kettle Upstairs on Jalan Pantai from 10am. Their common trait? Besides writers, they are all performing artists.

The man behind this event is Gareth Richards, Gerakbudaya Bookshop’s founder. “While so much attention has been paid to what passes for heritage,” he explains, “for some time I have been aware that in Penang there is a very lively and, frankly, much more interesting performing arts scene. Much of this isn’t given due recognition.”

Richards wants to help fill the gap by creating a high-profile discussion among performers who also write. “I hope that the dialogue will get them to reflect on how they describe what they do; to identify the relationship between society and the dramatic and artistic representations which it produces; and to explore how words infuse the world of performance – lyrics, scripts, incantations, storyboards and much more,” he adds.

This is certainly no easy task. But by having recruited luminary-extraordinaire, renegade poet and former USM professor Latif Kamaluddin as a moderator, Richards knows well that this group of motley intellectuals is hell-bent for leather. The challenge will be to justify how the dynamism of performance can be transferred into the monochromatic staticity of the written page. To start with, is it even possible? Isn’t it hard to express with words the multi-dimensionality of what takes years to learn, practise and perfect with hard work and dedication?

“I think that writing can be visual,” says Robin Ruizendaal, current director of the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum and artistic director of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company, who’s flying in from Taipei to attend. “We can create imagery with words and, as such, writing is not monochromatic. I believe that the reader is also, like a director, able to create a visual world in his or her own mind.” Author of Asian Theatre Puppets (Thames & Hudson, 2009) and editor of the upcoming Potehi: Glove Puppet Theatre in Southeast Asia and Taiwan (Taiyuan, 2015), Ruizendaal has written and directed more than 20 modern and traditional Taiwanese theatre productions performed in over 30 countries around the world, including Malaysia. When asked if such a traditional art can still have relevance in the digitalised and globalised world of today, Ruizendaal says that he wants people “to be aware of the magic of live theatre, the feeling of community, sharing a common experience that neither movies nor the internet can provide.” He also agrees that every performing art has a specific value that comes off as the real heritage of any society. “My case is puppetry, one of the most ancient forms of theatre. Puppet theatre is about bringing dead material to life, presenting the gods on stage, and it has fascinated people in every culture around the world… it was the Wikipedia of local culture for many Asian societies,” he concludes.

Ruizendaal will not be alone in supporting the importance of the performing arts of the past. Tan Sooi Beng, professor of ethnomusicology at USM, will speak of folk and traditional Malaysian music. A specialist in bangsawan, the Malay street opera, she’s author of an extensive list of academic essays and several books; the latest is a co-authored volume-cum-CD set titled Longing for the Past: The 78 RPM Era in Southeast Asia, released in the US by Dust to Digital in 2013. Tan is also a composer and musical director.

“Through writing, I disseminate information about the ways culture and the performing arts are related to developments in the history, politics, economics and more of a nation,” she comments. “I’m interested in understanding how and if performing arts is recreated by the state to suit their own purposes. How can we bring change in society through the arts? My writing is based on research with communities. Their voices are presented through oral interviews. I also analyse old recordings from the gramophone era to hear how sounds were like in the past. Unlike today, people used to mix languages, musical styles and content in the borderless world of way back when.”

Tan is a firm believer that words can capture performance beautifully. “Film and photography might not be able to catch the fine details of research data or analysis, and they also do not provide the space for longer, in-depth discussion,” she says. Moderator Latif agrees that “modern digital technology does not pose a real threat to writing. These two abilities can exist side by side as ‘comrades in arms’ of the artistic moment. Nevertheless, each one has its artistic content and particularistic impetus.”

Next to these academically trained writers, there will also be two other performing musicians. The first is Penangite Paul Augustin, organiser of the famous Penang Island Jazz Festival and a former professional musician for 15 years. Augustin recently co-authored with James Lochhead the bestselling Just for the Love of It: Popular Music in Penang, 1930s-1960s (SIRD, 2015), a book that filled a gap by presenting the multi-faceted and multi-ethnic musical history of Penang. “To us, the real challenge was making our book non-monochromatic, as the purpose was to celebrate musicians as much as their musicianship and to put the story of Penang’s popular music squarely in the dynamic context of the historical, socio-political, economic, technological and cultural environment. So it is much more than performance per se,” he says. “We decided to purposefully craft the book’s layout to evoke the style of popular magazines of the time, including contemporary adverts and photos. We also included a free CD covering the range of styles of popular music of those days, maintaining the raw original sound mixes, always trying to transmit the authenticity of the period.”

When asked what the appeal of such a book is to contemporary readers, Augustin is quick to answer that “collaborating with so many people, we all agreed on the positivity of bringing our musical heritage into the public domain. We wanted to let people – young, old, whoever – have access to music, documentation, contexts. This way, they may draw inspiration from what has been and what continues to be, if they want.”

The second musician – and fourth panellist – is me. And since I am not very much used to boosting my own wrongdoings, I will simply add that my perspective will focus on experiencing transnational metal punk music scenes first-hand as narrated in my second book, Banana Punk Rawk Trails: A Euro-Fool’s Metal Punk Journeys in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia (SIRD, 2015). I believe that in this world of globalised, standardised sub-cultural experiences, someone has to dot the i’s and cross the t’s to bring justice to peaceful forms of leisure that, regardless of having lost their “rebellious” strokes decades ago, are still being curbed by the rapidly developing but religious book-thumping and spider web-collecting conservative societies of Asia.

“The worlds of music, puppetry, dance and theatre may look diverse, but they’re actually connected through the immediate, sensual, provocative relationships between performers and the audience they create,” says Richards. “Writing can complement that immediacy, being more reflective, more analytical, more evocative. It’s these two different worlds that I hope the panel can capture.”

Those who attend will definitely be in for a wild intellectual ride.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @ monkeyrockworld.

Related Articles

Dec 2010

Transforming bus stops to transform city living

Suzy Sulaiman urges a rethink of the way we use our bus stops in order to empower citizens and town planners.

Mar 2017

Gen Y Homeownership 101

When it comes to the property market, the Sandwich Generation faces a dilemma.

Jul 2013

A steadfast patron of the George Town Festival

How Dell Malaysia helped the George Town Festival grow into the spectacle it is today.

Jun 2016

Where Students Return to be Teachers

At SMJK Sacred Heart, dedicated teachers inspire future generations of the school.