Echoes, Shadows & Footprints: A Symposium on the Upkeep of the Arts

By Adil Johan, Paul Augustin

March 2023 COVER STORY
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IT IS GENERALLY observed that there is a chasm between music, arts and culture practitioners, on the one hand, and academics on the other. The reason behind it is simply  because the two are motivated by different factors – the former by the need for earnings and the latter by institution-imposed KPIs.

When Penang House of Music (PHoM) came to the forefront to collect and preserve the music and performing arts heritage of Malaysia and surrounding Southeast Asian countries, it slowly but steadily received much attention from institutions of higher learning. As the House grew to possess a veritable collection covering anything and everything related to Malaysian music, arts and culture, students from local universities began submitting applications for internship placements, and its Resource Centre started receiving enquiries and visits from local and foreign researchers and historians for information and materials on subjects ranging from music, arts and anthropology to visual designs, photography, sociology and even heritage buildings.

Over time, the visits became more structured, and a pilot programme was soon initiated by Dr. Adil Johan and Dr. Shazlin Amir Hamzah from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in 2018. The attendees were a small group of academicians doing research into music and performing arts. During the three-day session, the academic and practitioner divide was soundly bridged, and the project ended successfully, with plans on holding another.

It was not until after the pandemic that those plans took flight. A second session was held in March 2022, and again, the results were very encouraging. This was followed by a research trip to PHoM two months later, when the idea of holding a discussion forum was mooted. In fact, the idea eventually grew into serious consideration of holding a full-fledged symposium instead.

It was to be a symposium that would not only involve academics but also selected practitioners. Now, we believe this had not been done before because practitioners tend not to see the point of attending one. After all, there is no money to be made from sitting and listening to academicians present their research.

But in this case, we were fortunate to have, within our circle, academics who are also practitioners; we also involved others who were in the field as well. We felt that this was important because practising musicians could also then share their challenges, concerns and work with academicians and researchers. Vice-versa, the platform would also serve for practitioners to learn how academicians and researchers interpret and view the industry.

When it was finally held, the symposium very ambitiously brought together performing arts professionals, government representatives and scholars who were conducting research and were involved in policy development for Malaysian performing arts and culture. The symposium was centred around three main themes:

1) National Identity, Cultural Diversity and Social Cohesion in Malaysian Music: This discussed how music is instrumental in the making of national identity and in connecting people across cultural divides.

2) Mobility, Migration and Transnational Flows in Malaysian Performing Arts and (Popular) Culture: This covered research into the complex movement of music and musicians across national and regional borders, and how rich cultural expressions result over time through everyday practices and popular media. The discussion involved the latest research on Malaysian performing arts and culture by faculty and postgraduate students from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Sunway University and UCSI University. These research panels were chaired by Symposium Organising Committee members: Dr. Patricia Ann Hardwick (UPSI), Shazlin Amir Hamzah (KITA-UKM) and Adil Johan (KITA-UKM).

3) Sustainability, Preservation and Rejuvenation of Malaysian Performing Arts Heritage: This discussed initiatives to sustain Malaysian performing arts; and issues on preservation, protection, promotion and education of Malaysian performing arts heritage, featuring Eddin Khoo, Founding Director of PUSAKA; Zubaidah Mukhtar, JKKN; Datuk Dr. Anis Yusal Yusoff, Principal Fellow of KITA; Prof. Hanafi Hussin, Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts, University Malaya; Dr. James Boyle, ASWARA; Ashwin Gobinath, Nadir Studios; and Grey Yeoh, International Consultant, Australia Council for the Arts.

 The event also featured music educator and keyboardist, James Boyle of ASWARA, who performed songs composed by his father, the late Jimmy Boyle; he was joined by Adil Johan on his saxophone. Their performance was accompanied by a presentation of Boyle’s own research on his father’s music, alongside a special screening of a research documentary on Jimmy Boyle, produced by PHoM.

We aimed for what Grey Yeoh would feedback to us later on: “Serious art, culture and social research topics were held in a very light and casual manner…” Who says artists and musicians cannot be academics too?"

Three Days at Penang Institute

This inaugural Echoes, Shadows & Footprints symposium was held at Penang Institute, its venue partner, from 30 June to 2 July 2022, with support from George Town Festival. The title denotes sounds, sights and stories – the essentials of what were covered at the symposium.

A host of academic terms were used to describe new research (e.g. cohesion, transnationalism, interculturalism, diversity, multiculturalism, hybridity, cosmopolitanism, authority-defined, everyday-defined, community-defined), and these form the necessary “analytical tools” required for understanding the cultural past, present and future of Malaysia’s performing arts.

Terms may be alien to practitioners, but to ensure communication, both sides came to understand each other. There was also a mingling between the older generation and the younger generation, and the passing of knowledge and the learning of new things.

Elucidation of these terms led to a critical interrogation of terms such as “sustainability” and “nationalism”. Sustainability, being a term imposed through the international language of heritage bodies such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), overlooks the cultural practices and practitioners that are continuously adapting their art over time and across changing spaces and locales.

There is also a tendency to assume a mono-ethnic and idealistic notion of nationalism, without interrogating the exclusionary pitfalls of patriotism. Such questions were frequently asked throughout the symposium. Whose culture is being protected? Who decides what counts as national versus foreign culture? Who are cultural policies made to protect? Which practitioners and what art forms are considered to be worth protecting?

As a result, Prof. Ulung Datuk Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), UKM, commented that the symposium had “successfully probed into the details of analytical tools and the challenges and opportunities they create in the field of music and arts and the social sciences.”

Panelists in discussion during the Echoes, Shadows & Footprints Symposium. Photo by: Buletin Mutiara.

It was evident toward the end of the symposium that cultural policies, such as the NCP (National Culture Policy) of 1971 all the way until the most recent DAKEN (Dasar Kebudayaan Negara) of 2021, were implemented to control the national narrative on what and who counts as representative of national culture, in alignment with the political interests of the government of the day (be that at the federal or state level).

Coming in the wake of the 1969 racial riots, the NCP served to integrate a diverse Malaysian population into a Malay and Islamic-centred national culture. The DAKEN, building on the former Prime Minister, Dato' Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Malaysian Family (Keluarga Malaysia) slogan attempts to make space for a wider acceptance of non-Malay and non-Muslim cultural practices.

However, there is still a prevalence of top-down, authority-defined control outlined in the policy document, with very rigid references to core values and strategic action plans. The question remains as to whether the spirit of inclusivity projected in DAKEN will be implemented by government departments. It was highlighted at the symposium that, through no fault of their own, many government officers are not experts in the portfolios under their assigned ministry.

Many top government bureaucrats and politicians in charge of performing arts agencies are not necessarily well-versed or knowledgeable in the performing arts industries and cultural sectors. When ministers are shuffled, government staff also have the challenging task of re-educating their new ministers. It was also noted that there was often a disconnect, for example, when relevant committees are formed to discuss, propose and implement policies for the world of performing arts and culture, practitioners and leading personalities for the betterment of this industry are never included. These were some of the systemic problems governing the performing arts and culture groups revealed in the symposium.

Potential Solutions

As Ahmad Muriz Che Rose, Head of the Music Talent Development unit in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), put it, the focus of the symposium was to mediate the current situation where “all need to attend to the real-time issues at large.”

It was evident from the case studies presented, as well as the real-world situations described by the practitioners present, that the performing arts and culture are more genuinely and ethically sustained by ground-up, community-centred efforts.

Collaboration between arts researchers, practitioners and communities tends to have long-lasting impact on the flourishing of cultural practices and art among small communities and performing artists. For example, historical research has identified the cosmopolitan or intercultural roots/routes of collaboration to be the cornerstone of the types of (Malayan and) Malaysian music that appeals to a diverse local and global market.

Thus, there remains a need to find ways to commercialise, in ethical ways, the performing arts so that practitioners and communities can sustain their livelihoods independently. Researchers at the symposium presented case studies on how working with small indigenous communities and traditional performing arts practitioners resulted in educational programmes and products such as books and digital applications.

According to Eddin Khoo, “One of the principal and salient issues the symposium addressed was the centrality of music in Malaysia’s cultural life and history, and that we are at a pivotal point in the exploration of both. The need now is for such scholarship to nurture imaginative and self-defining approaches and impress these upon a wider public.”

James Boyle (left) and Adil Johan (right) performing during the symposium. Photo by: Buletin Mutiara.

It was also acknowledged that the government should play a more proactive role in engaging the arts community at large, by going down to the ground, working with the communities and understanding their strengths and challenges.

One of the ways proposed was that the ministries and departments overseeing the culture and performing arts should identify and approach individual practitioners and companies that are already operating independently in developing, promoting and preserving Malaysian music, culture and arts; forge a collaboration or partnership with them by providing funds, expertise or some form of assistance, and; drop the top-down approach of allocating grants, waiting for applications and later deciding who qualifies. The suggested approach would definitely go a much longer way in putting the government in touch with the arts community, and it could possibly be the start of something more sustainable.

Moving forward, the symposium organisers are optimistic that the challenges, ideas and solutions discussed over the three days will inspire the many parties involved to consider collaboration using a community-grounded approach for the purpose of growing Malaysia’s performing arts. This is a major step forward that can bring people together to project a stronger voice, not just a chorus of grumbles.

The symposium, which is to be held annually, has drawn attention to the lessons that can be learnt from the echoes (sounds), shadows (sights) and footprints (stories) of our cultural past and present, so that we can build a more inclusive, creative and vibrant future.

PHoM looks forward to acting as a facilitator for such constructive collaboration again and offers its expertise to bring people together, cultivate creativity, and document and archive the richness of Malaysia’s culture of performing arts for posterity.


About Penang House of Music

The initial focus of PHoM was to collect and preserve the music, performing arts and cultural heritage of Malaysia and surrounding Southeast Asian countries. When it officially opened in November 2016, its Gallery and Black Box were at the centre of attention.

There was a stark realisation in its early design planning stage of the importance of a specific repository for Malaysian Music and Performing Arts; there was definitely a scarcity of proper documentation of Malaysia’s musical heritage. It was then that PHoM decided to start a resource centre and be the “unofficial custodian” for intangible Malaysian music, arts and cultural heritage.

With a growing collection covering anything and everything related to Malaysian music, arts and culture, its Resource Centre has received a lot of attention from institutions of higher learning. Students from local universities have been submitting applications for internship placements. PHoM also welcome visits by researchers (both local and foreign) and historians.

A corner at PHoM’s Resource Centre.


Adil Johan

is a researcher and educator on Southeast Asian and Malaysian popular music and culture. He also performs and records for Nadir, Azmyl Yunor & Orkes Padu and the Adil Johan Quintet.

Paul Augustin

is the director of Penang House of Music, and founder and festival director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival.