Penang Offers Spaces for Musicians to Dare to Grow

By Isaac Ho

February 2024 FEATURE
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FROM TRADITIONAL Chinese Malaysiana folk music to modern jazz, Penang Island has been home to many genres of music for generations. And not dissimilar to other forms of art, music lives and dies by its practitioners and audiences.

The interesting thing about music is that it can exist as an entertainment career. We see this most prominently in Penang, in what is known colloquially as the “gig scene”—where a musical act plays popular songs (commonly referred to as the “Top 40 Hits”) over a duration of three hours. A gig musician typically shows up for the night, plays a routine show, collects their payment and goes home, usually without much variation to their performances.

When musicians are required by business venues to adhere to their requirements of song choices (and, to some extent, style of music), the delivery of music becomes homogeneous—and stale. Businesses want that though; they need the musical acts to deliver what audiences expect and which, in turn, guarantees them a steady supply of repeat (and spending) customers.

However, for music as an art form to flourish, the exploration of musicality and expression must be encouraged. There must be spaces for this to take place. Though fewer in number as business venues that employ musicians solely for their entertainment value, such places do exist around Penang Island.

One major supporter of arts and music is Hin Bus Depot. On weekends, Hin runs its weekly community market, Hin Market, with local businesses setting up shop within its compounds.

Hin invites local Penang musicians to perform at Hin Market, with varied artistes performing from a diverse list of genres: acoustic folk, jazz, rock and RnB, to name a few. According to its website, Hin wants to support and exhibit the works of artists and creatives in their career path, and this shows in the way it supports musicians.

Seasoned vocalist, Wendy Tan, says she always looks forward to performing at Hin Bus Depot as “its community of patrons have always supported my music and artistic freedom, for which I am very grateful as this is not easy to come by. I always have a good time there—if not with my band, The Wild Marigolds, then collaborating with other musicians like Spunk Unit, On Curfew, and recently, members of Instyle Pockets.”

“Hin Market has created an accepting, wholesome space for creatives everywhere to share their craft, and this is essential for the survival of Penangʼs arts and music scene,” she says.

“The events [Hin Bus] hold/manage include live bands, which give us the exposure and the chance to showcase our music and meet well-known musicians,” says Jacob Nair, a young drummer. Jacob started participating in the local Penang music scene a year ago and is the drummer for the indie band, Pickmystrings.

Fresh Faces In The Scene

Musicians who are just starting out, whether as an aspiring singer-songwriter or a nightly gig warrior, are venturing into the road less taken. Most find it hard to find venues to play at early on in their careers. The concept of an open mic is a safe space where people can showcase their talents, with music being one of the main staples. Open mic-ers are typically given a set time slot in which they will be able to perform, usually with no restrictions on the genre of music.

Michael Andrews from Penang Open Mic, a small, community-driven initiative run by several Penang musicians, elucidated that “Open mics help a lot of singers and musicians break out of their shell, allowing them to showcase their ability and talent.”

Though many businesses may opt to engage more established musicians to frontline their nightly performances, there exists a subset of venues that are more gracious with providing a stage to younger aspiring musicians who have not been given the space to find their sound or hone their craft.

The Canteen at ChinaHouse is one such venue that provides a safe space for fresh musicians in Penang. Every first Sunday of the month, the stage at The Canteen is open to anyone who would like to showcase their musical talents. From 10pm onwards, the in-house band will be available for open mic-ers to perform with, so if they would like to “jam with the band”, they can.

Jetty 35, a homegrown venue and artspace specialising in the melding of traditional and contemporary arts is also another venue that holds open mics. Run by local singer-songwriter, Evvone, Jetty 35ʼs open mics are frequented by students from around Penang Island, eager to perform outside the confines of their school walls (and bedrooms). Its schedule can be found on Evvoneʼs Instagram page, @eevonesofcial, where updates are posted.

Open mics are crucial to aid the progression of musicians’ careers. Without venues that allow for emerging talent, the development of a new generation of musicians will stagnate due to the limited platforms for them to showcase their skills and to gain exposure. If we want to see a vibrant music landscape, we need platforms like Open Mic Penang and more stages like Hin Bus Depot, The Canteen and even Jetty 35. These sites also stand as live music advocates, contributing towards a society (but letʼs start small—a community) that appreciates these talents. Additionally, venues like these act as a palette cleanser to audiences who would like some respite from all-too-familiar tunes such as Hotel California.

Isaac Ho

is a singer-songwriter from Penang. When he is not working his day job, he can be seen performing around venues across Penang. He enjoys playing the songs he writes and those he grew up listening to.