By Jeffrey Hardy Quah and Shakila Rajendra
It wasn’t so long ago that Penang played host to some of the best international acts that the music world had to offer. This was at the Penang World Music Festival (PWMF), a weekend event that was set to rival the more renowned Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak. But after two festivals in 2007 and 2008, it quietly went away, and that was the last anyone heard of it.
Until now. The PWMF is back, bringing with it an international line-up of world-class musicians. Organised by Penang’s State Tourism Development and Culture Office, this year’s PWMF will feature an eclectic mix of genres ranging from jazz and blues to salsa and reggae, performed by musicians that come from as far away as Mongolia, Russia, Africa, Australia, Philippines, Columbia, South Korea and Indonesia.
In this comeback effort, the organisers are pulling out all the stops to make the festival stand on par with its Sarawakian counterpart. Eighteen bands will be performing at the festival, including Maite Hontele (Colombia), Kalja Riddim Klan (Vanuatu), Gus Teja World Music (Bali), Beoga (Ireland), Tori Ensemble (South Korea), Wild Marmalade (Australia) and Loyko (Russia). They will be joined by Malaysian bands that include Aseana Percussion Unit, Didit Dinai, Penang Dhol Blasters, Kumpulan Minang Moh and Geng Wak Long.
“I was approached by the event management company, UCSI Communications, which was appointed by the state government to organise the event late last year,” said PWMF artistic director Brian Kwan. “I had heard rumours that the festival was going to be revived and at that meeting, the rumours were confirmed.”
UCSI has plenty of experience organising these sorts of events, perhaps most notably the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak. “We have the contacts for the performers,” said project director Tan Chung Shiong, “and we have a very good team here.”How does one go about selecting who will perform at an event like this? “Brian will make his recommendations,” Tan elaborated. “Then we listen to their music and look at their background and biodata. We put together a list of musicians for the Yang Berhormats (YBs) to see what they like. Brian would then hire the groups and put them together, and organise workshops.”
“It was a challenging process because there are long-term goals and plans to take into account,” Kwan added. “I wanted to prepare the festival and the audience for future editions, so the 2012 line-up has a balance of traditional and fusion world music styles. Hopefully, this will open the ears and minds of the audience to different music genres.”
The list of performers at the festival is a long one. Are there any in particular Kwan thinks the audience should watch out for? “I would say look out for:
“Altan Urag, a Mongolian throat singing folk rock band. They are a young group of musicians trying to reintroduce their culture and music to young Mongolians by fusing their traditional music with folk rock;
“Maite Hontele, a salsa band from Colombia. They also perform a range of music styles from South America other than salsa, such as son, danzón, charanga, chachacha, and bolero;
“Loyko, a gypsy trio from Russia who will take you on a passionate aural journey of Eastern European gypsy music; and
“the South Korean group Tori Ensemble. Their music is a new presentation of South Korean traditional music that takes improvisation and interpretation to a different level.
“But I’m excited about the entire line-up,” Kwan added. “I’ve been listening to some of these bands for a few years now, and some I’ve recently discovered. It’s just an amazing experience to be able to bring them together to perform at a festival.”
As mentioned earlier, the festival is organised by the state tourism department. Is it reasonable, then, to say that the PWMF is targeted mainly at tourists rather than locals? “Yes,” Kwan conceded, “I think that is a fair comment but I do hope the locals will also come to the festival and enjoy themselves. The music might be foreign to them, but a festival is more than just music. I hope the locals can see this festival as an avenue to learn about other cultures and a place where family and friends can come together and enjoy something new. Other than just listening to music, there are workshops where they can learn about the origins of the music, and some workshops will allow them to participate.”
Regardless of the target audience, expectations for the PWMF are running high. Tan expects to see big crowds throughout the festival, estimating that up to as many as 5,000 people a day will be in attendance. “We have very good ticket sales so far,” he reported.
Kwan sees the festival as a way for Penang to connect with its World Heritage status. “I’d also like to see Penang embrace its Unesco title with more gusto, and I think this festival will bring more exposure to its heritage and beauty.”
Though Kwan’s contract only runs through 2012, he’s planning the PWMF for the long term. “I have been in discussions with musicians from Penang and Kuala Lumpur regarding potential collaborations with the festival. There are some plans in the pipeline but we’ll see how things go.
“I hope the festival will not just be a tourism exercise but also one where locals can enjoy and experience something new. More importantly, I hope the festival can help shake up the local music scene and encourage the younger generation to be mindful of their culture. I hope the festival will be able to assist the local music scene by providing an avenue for them to participate in an international event.”
The Penang World Music Festival takes place from March 30 to April 1 at the Quarry Recreational Park in the Penang Botanic Gardens. Preview shows will be held at Hard Rock Hotel on March 28 and at Straits Quay on March 29. Workshops will also be held throughout the festival. Further information can be found at www.penangworldmusic.com.
Tickets are available online at www.ticketxpress.com.my, priced at RM90 per day for adults and RM45 per day for children between five and 12 years old. Three-day tickets are also available at RM220 for adults and RM120 for children.