Buskers with a Cause

loading Attune's founders (from left) Saw Sue- Mae, Lee Hai Lin and Dr Andrew Filmer busking at Three Little Birds Coffee in KL

It is quite surprising for musicians who have countless hours of practice under their belts, spent more on music lessons than their parents would want to recall and who have all played frequently in professional settings at one time or another, to perform for free.

In fact, the players that make up busking group Attune actually pay to play, if you count their petrol and parking fees, along with their time preparing for the at-least-once-a-month sessions at Publika Mall in KL.

The whole project started from a misunderstanding: Dr Andrew Filmer remembers that fateful day in January 2015, hanging out with fellow Attune founders Lee Hai Lin and Saw Sue-Mae – all of whom were former Penang State Orchestra and Chorus (PESSOC) members. “The three of us grew up musically together in Penang, playing in orchestras together. Around three years ago we had an informal reunion, drinking chai latte and seeing where life had led us,” he says.

Attune in the early days, busking at Publika Mall in KL.

Lee’s husband remarked that since the trio were all musicians, they could just whip out their instruments and busk outside.

“I replied that, seeing how what was once my hobby had become my profession, the only reason I would go busking was if all the money collected went to a good cause. I have to admit that when I first said that, I half meant it more along the lines of, ‘That’s why I don’t go busking these days’, but my friends read it quite literally, and we all decided to run with it,” Filmer says with a laugh.

“Within a day, Andrew got the music together, and we came up with a name for the group. Hai Lin designed our violin-playingpanda logo and created an email, Facebook and Instagram account. When a Facebook account has been created, you know that things are really going to happen,” Saw jokes.

An accomplished violinist from a young age (clocking in as the youngest member of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra of her day at age 12 and the youngest Asian Youth Orchestra player at 15), Saw dabbled in making music a profession but ultimately accepted a Petronas scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge. “I just went with the flow. I loved the cause, loved these two amazing people and was desperate for music-making opportunities back then,” the 32-year-old says.

Lee, 36, an architect turned fruit juicer and cafe owner, secured the paperwork for the group to legally busk and the venue was chosen – Publika Mall, whose West Gate ground floor corridor is now the group’s usual busking spot. Within two short weeks, they were busking together for the first time, bringing in RM681.15 for Persatuan Pengasuh Berdaftar Malaysia and UNICEF Malaysia’s Banjir Aid Project. “I think we were all quite nervous playing in the middle of a mall, but it quickly became something special that we managed to share with many other musicians as time went by,” Filmer, 39, says.

Worthy Causes

With Saw and Lee on violin and Filmer on the viola, repertoire was not the easiest to decide upon but that naturally rectified itself as other musicians signed on to busk for a cause. The group now sees steady appearances by cello players and other violinists. Viola players are still as scarce as they have ever been.

From Strauss to Handel, the group plays a lot of classical music but also includes more recognisable tunes to their sets, with movie themes, songs from musicals and Christmas carols filling their corner of the mall.

Attune playing at a soup kitchen in KL.

Attune co-founders (from left) Lee Hai Lin, Dr Andrew Filmer and Saw Sue-Mae after the group's George Town Festival performance which included former PESSOC friend Saovanee Somchit.

Attune has raised RM43,884.10 to date, from 36 busking sessions, with 100% of it going to charities. “Causes we have donated to include natural calamities like the many floods experienced by various states in Malaysia these past four years (Food Aid Foundation), the 2015 earthquake in Nepal (Yayasan Kemanusiaan Muslim Aid Malaysia) and the 2015 Sabah earthquake (Mount Kinabalu Guides Association or Pemangkina).

“Money has also gone to Teddy Mobile Clinic, which offers free medical care for the homeless, urban poor and anyone or everyone who cannot afford basic medical care, and Hear Me Malaysia that supports families with hearing-impaired children.

“Other causes include donating to refugees through UNHCR and Rakyat4Rakyat, an Orang Asli community learning centre, helping the homeless (Reach Out Malaysia), animal shelters, orangutans during the forest fires of 2015 (The Orangutan Project) and protecting Malayan tigers through MYCAT,” says Saw, adding that a close friend had even dressed up as a tiger at that busk to draw in the crowd.

Charities in Penang have also been strongly represented with the Mental Health Association Penang, Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital, Penang Thalassaemia Society and The Lighthouse among the list of beneficiaries. In fact, Attune has busked more than once in Penang and was even part of George Town Festival in 2016. “I remember the hours we spent online vetting organisations to see if they were legit. I think a big part of what Attune is about is raising awareness on what help is required out there and sharing all the great work done by all these organisations that are devoted to helping people, animals and the environment, spreading love and kindness,” Saw says.

Lee remembers a moment when the group was busking for the victims of the 2015 Nepal earthquake that reportedly claimed almost 9,000 lives: “A Nepalese security guard came up to us and put some money into the hat. It might not have been much, but we realised how much it must have meant for him to do so,” she says.

Attune co-founder Dr Andrew Filmer (second right) with other group musicians (from left) Joshua Sim, Mabel Wong and Andrea Sim (right) posing with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali.

Attune has grown from its original three (from left) Lee Hai Lin, Saw Sue-Mae and Dr Andrew Filmer (second right) to a bigger group of players as other musicians like Saovanee Somchit (centre) and Dylan Lee (right) frequently join them on busking for a cause.

Another of their performances led Attune to a special busking session at Pit Stop Community Cafe, a soup kitchen in KL. “One of the most moving moments for me was getting an email from one of the charities saying that our busking session had fed 110 homeless people. Later, we decided to do something different and instead of raising money for the homeless we went and played music for them while they had their dinner at a soup kitchen. It made me see a whole side of society we tend to pass by and made me realise how lucky many of us are, and how with that luck comes a responsibility to give back to society,” says Filmer, who is a music lecturer at Sunway University.

Lee adds that bringing music to people who had no access to it was particularly meaningful to the group. “Some of the people there had never heard the sounds of a violin, viola or cello before and it was quite a special moment that we were able to touch their lives with music,” she says.

In 2017 Attune musicians ended up playing music with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali – wife of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – at a family gathering after their son Tan Sri Mokhzani Mahathir spotted them at a busking session. “His generous donation has been split to several charitable causes – each nominated by the half dozen or so musicians who played in that event,” says Filmer.

Saw moved overseas in August 2016 but continues to make appearances with the group on her visits back. Attune busks at least once a month, usually at Publika, with the group having grown significantly since its start. “The size of the busking ensemble varies from three to eight players, with a trio or quartet/double quartet structure. Attune has grown from three musicians to a pool of about 12 to 14 musicians who have joined us along our journey,” Lee says.

Freelance journalist Andrea Filmer played the violin throughout her childhood but has never managed to catch up to big brother Andrew. She commends her parents for letting both their children choose careers in the arts.

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