The festival may be back, but it's no repeat


It’s the middle of the year again, and that means George Town Festival time. The budget is bigger, the programme is more packed, and the outreach is further. We dare you not to find something that you love.

The George Town Festival is back! Mark down the dates, from June 7 to July 7, when the streets and arts centres of Penang will resonate with scintillating sights and sounds celebrating creative life!

Two new major foreign acts – Sutra ( June 29-30) and I Musici ( June 7) – headline the adrenaline rush of more than two dozen programmes with a platform built more on street-level and people-orientated celebrations, and an exhibition roster skewed towards visual arts.

Tropfest, the world’s largest international short film fest, will again get an encore under the billing Roughcut ( June 28), as will the ProMusica Gala Concert ( July 6) featuring opera singers Laurent Kubla, Ines Madeira and Julie Mossay.

Says Festival director Joe Sidek: “We want (the festival) to appeal to everyone, to make it accessible, for the whole community, and cheap (too).”

His game-plan is also to educate and expose the young to all the raft of creative expressions and energies, and enable them to re-romance their own rich cultural heritage.

Even as corporate sponsorship is lukewarm in this fourth edition, Joe Sidek, the 55-year-old cultural czar, is looking to them to sponsor student tickets priced at only RM20 each. “The festival is non-political. It’s for the people,” he reminds us gently.

In this, the federal government is strangely diffident, uncooperative and unresponsive, never mind that the festival is also to mark George Town’s selection as a UN heritage site (2010). To think of the frivolity of millions spent on the Gangnam Style sensation Psy concert and the 1Malaysia Hong Kong songfest, just as part of the Feds’ pre-election sweetener!

“How does one develop culture that way, and where’s the KPI (Key Performance Indicator)?” a visibly piqued Joe Sidek poses.

This year, the Penang state government has increased the allocation from RM2.5mil to RM3mil. Taking a slight loss in last year’s Festival, Joe Sidek has opted to focus on fewer Biggies and to go back to basics in spreading the arts and culture gravy thinner over a wider area and for bigger outreach.

While some are paying acts, there are many financed via the normal cover charges or entrance tickets (Peranakan Mansion), workshop fees or registration or invitation only.

To the uninitiated and kiasu (fear of losing), there are many free events offering plenty of visual thrills, learning experiences and interactive opportunities. The visual arts showcases are free, of course.

There are also free music and dance offerings which include zapin, Sufic rhythms (Yusof Ganief from South Africa), keroncong, Melayu Asli, Islam Tamil and Qawali Hindi, Tamil goldies, Bollywood melodies (Abhas Joshi), Teochew Rod Puppets, Menora, Bharatanatyam, wayang kulit, Hokkien Lang rhymes, poetry-recitals, stilt-walkers and mime performances.

But a free event not to be missed is the Intriguing Instruments performances ( June 29, two 45-minute shows from 6.30pm to 11pm) using jaw’s harps, flutes, shawms, mouth organs, tube zithers, xylophones, clappers, strings and percussion instruments from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. One can even have a go at the instruments during the breaks.

Obscura Festival.

As usual, the annual Eurasian Festival adds another dimension to the cultural potpourri.

The George Town Festival will virtually take to the skies with a carnival kite-flying binge at the Esplanade featuring some of the most gorgeous and inventive kites from South-East Asia which will be heralded by the deafening percussion of 400 drums ( June 8)!

There will also be the unveiling of the 15m high bamboo installation by Indonesian Joko Avianto, wedged in between City Hall and Town Hall and looking like the shape of Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House.

Sutra, the brainchild of Flemish-Moroccan choreographer-dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, combines dance, music, kung-fu, art and acrobatics with a multidisciplinary team of real monks from the Shaolin Monastery as dancers, Turner Prize-winning (1994) sculptor Antoni Gormley designing the pedestal-props and Szymon Brzoska on music.

Rome-based I Musici, the oldest chamber group in Italy at 64 years, will play interpretations of “Tomaso Albinoni” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.

Domestic Evolution, an exhibition of suspended mobile structures.

I Musici.

Still on kung-fu, the spirit of Bruce Lee is captured in the dance-drama “My Dragon Papa” ( June 21) presented by the Ox Puppet Theatre of New Era College.

Then, there is the “Bridges & Kaki Lima” street dance ( June 29, 6pm to 9pm) under the choreography of Aida Redza and Indonesia’s Jefri Andi Usman, starting at the Penang Youth Centre at Acheen Street.

Admission prices are reasonable, with rates as low as RM20 for students, RM60, RM80 and RM100, and concessions for Senior Citizens. For comparison, the cheapest ticket for an international act at Istana Budaya in KL can easily set you back RM66.

Intriguing Instruments.

On an intellectual level, the top jaw should be the Arus Melayu forum exploring the “complexities and diversities on the word and notion of ‘Melayu’,” capped with a gala night ( June 15-16); and the Urban Residency (UrRe) workshop ( June 10-17), towards improving public spaces for a Better City.

Arus Melayu, supported by the Penang Institute and Persatuan Sejarah & Warisan Pulau Pinang, will feature key speakers Salleh, Dain Said and Eddin Khoo besides “presentation of maps, ideas, perspective and theories on language and literature, logic and in film.”

This forum on the Malay diaspora will help open minds.

There will also be a film documentary, “Tukang Perahu Pulau Duyong” (Boat-Builders of Mermaid Island), by filmmaker Azharr Rudin. Another symposium-showcase is Beyond Our Backyard ( June 22-23) on South-East Asia’s performing arts, while a design workshop called Design DNA George Town will be conducted by designerresearcher Sali Sasaki ( June 15-16).

Admission to all three events is free but by registration only.

It’s no coincidence that the profusion of visual art events falls under the label Secret Garden of Earthly Delights – a spiritual obeisance to Hieronymus Bosch’s wacky Garden of Earthly Delights.

Topping the list must be the Obscura Festival of 11 exhibitions and workshops by Che Ahmad Azhar, Maggie Steber, Justin Mott and Ian Teh ( June 21-30) and Strange Paradise ( June 7-July 7) presenting 10 new works by J. Anu, one of Malaysia’s foremost contemporary artists, which will include the launch of a mock-autobiographical book in collaboration with Rahel Joseph.

Other leading contemporary artists will be featured in Art@Whiteways ( June 7-July 7), while an exhibition of Chinese brush paintings by Henan artists adds to the eclectic mix.

There will also be a display of Laotian heritage gold-thread embroidery by Tiao Nithakong Somsanuth ( June 7-16) and glass art by Taiwanese Loretta Yang and Chang Yi ( June 7-16).

Scatalogical stand-up comic Kumar heads the Singapore big battalion with a special performance on June 20. Also from across the causeway is a contemporary Hainanese opera take on Poem of Autumn Leaves ( June 21-22) while Singapore House designers will be showcasing their brands.

Other attractions from the Lion City include monologues by Siti Khalijah Zainal, story-teller Verena Tay, singers Erfannulia and Rumana, female deejays (PFF Girl DJ Bootcamp), deaf artist Justin Lee and other stand-up comics.

During the festival period, do note the Dragon Boat Festival ( June 8-9), Penangpac Fringe Festival ( June 6-8, 2pm to 7pm), the splendour of the Evening of Lights at Khoo Kongsi ( June 29) and the pungent Penang Durian Festival.

So take your pick, there’s something for somebody, anybody, everybody, to suit your taste and budget – or no budget at all!

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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