PETALING JAYA: Brian Gomez sipped his beer thoughtfully, then shook his head. “No. That sounds stupid, to be honest,” he said, adding: “It’s not based on ‘the dream’. It’s based on faith, yes, which is based on observational fact.”
We were talking about his belief in the relevance of the Malaysian indie music scene. It was two in the morning, and we were at Malaysian indie music house Merdekarya, where a concert celebrating Merdeka Eve had just finished an hour before.
The place was still lively, with the bar area packed with musicians and concertgoers alike, laughing and talking over drinks.
Now 41, Gomez is a veteran of the Malaysian indie music scene, having played as a singer/songwriter for the past 20 years. He owns Merdekarya together with his wife Melani Delilkan, having founded the open space in 2012 as a venue for budding Malaysian artistes to showcase their songs and material, from music to poetry and writing.
Merdekarya, he explains, aims to unbiasedly promote Malaysian art.
“We don’t call in performers only based on the crowd that they can draw,” he said. “That’s not how we work.”
Performers are paid in tips from tip jars laid out on every table, something that Gomez freely admits barely keeps the place afloat.
“This place makes a loss most days. We make even less (selling drinks) at the bar than the performers do. I work my day job (in advertising) just to keep this place afloat. And yet I keep this place going because, well…” Gomez paused mid-sentence to think. “I have faith,” he said eventually.
This “faith”, Gomez explained, was and is placed in how the Malaysian music scene, indie or not, will eventually become a sufficiently nurturing space for musicians with original music to make careers out of their passion.
The corollary of that statement, of course, was that the scene today is a horrible place for those wanting to sustain themselves as full-time – and most importantly, relevant and widely heard – musicians, given the difficulty they face earning enough money to keep afloat.
“It’s happening. Change is happening, albeit very slowly,” Gomez said.
‘Lack of pride’
Earlier that day, Gomez had taken to Facebook to respond to an article that was then being widely shared and passed along online by those in the Kuala Lumpur music scene.
The article in question had slammed the Malaysian music scene as being unprofessional. It said that too many Malaysian musicians – and by extension, much of the scene – were being held back by their lack of pride in the quality of their music.
“Too many acts around here are content with just being the ‘jaguh kampung’ of the scene,” the article’s author, hiding his identity under the pen name “unmodulated”, had written.
“They reach a certain point of fame, or infamy, in the country, but we haven’t seen anybody transition into becoming that international rockstar that we all harbour dreams of living.
“(This is) because what they’ve achieved is ‘good enough’, getting onto local commercials, opening for guailou (Caucasian) acts that come down, and playing at every festival in the country,” said the author of the letter.
In other words, the author said, Malaysian musicians were largely “jaguh kampung”, or village heroes.
However, Gomez flipped the article on its head.
“It has always unashamedly been my ambition, from Devil’s Place to Rokok Sebatang, to be a Jaguh Kampung,” he wrote in his Facebook note, speaking of the novel “Devil’s Place” that he had written and published in 2008, and of his most popular song.
“I don’t know which happened first; that this country lost faith in its artistes, or that our artistes lost faith in this country.
“But I do know that, of the two, it isn’t the country’s responsibility to keep the faith,” Gomez wrote.
Gomez argued that the Malaysian music scene would perhaps be better served by Malaysian musicians “collectively focusing their efforts on creating, performing and marketing art to Malaysians via Malaysia”, instead of focusing on creating international American-discovered art.
He noted that famous Malaysian singer Yuna was the best-known example of the latter, having performed and recorded songs with notable American artists such as Usher.
“But to be honest, no one I know can recall that song she did with Usher. But everybody knows “Dan Sebenarnya”, no?
“And yet we say ‘Our girl done us proud’ when she collaborates with famous Americans, and not when she writes a song, born of this land, that we all actually like,” Gomez wrote.
Gomez commented that the “problem” with the Malaysian music scene was “precisely that no one wants to be content with being a Jaguh Kampung.”
“Everyone wants to make it big internationally. Which is why you have a whole lot of art created, from the point of conception, with the eventual desired effect of ‘Yeah. Look out world! This is my ticket out of this dump.’
“But the dump is where you’ll start. And you’ll be angry with the dump. Because the dump will be apathetic. And you’ll rant and rave about the dump: ‘Why aren’t you listening to me, you dump!’ you’ll say/post/tweet.
“‘Because you’re not speaking to me’, the dump won’t reply, because the dump doesn’t care enough to reply and has already moved on to other things.”
Pull in people
Despite all this, Gomez said, there is still hope for the Malaysian indie music scene. Local indie musicians can flourish and become relevant to more and more Malaysians – if the avenues available can nurture them.
“The venues have to do their part. They have to pull in people to listen to the singers, not just rely on the singers to bring their audience and fans,” Gomez said.
Gomez said that the current situation was nearly untenable, given the pressure on performers to draw their own audience.
“That’s simply not sustainable, and a little ridiculous. If you’re going to be a full-time musician, what do you need to do? You need to play at least a few shows a week. And how many days in a row can you pull in all your friends, family and fans?” he added.
“You would need, let’s say, at least 10,000 fans to reliably pull in a sizeable crowd every day.”
The onus is on the venues to provide an audience for the performers, and to introduce people to their music. Of course, the life and death of the indie music scene is still dependent on Malaysian musicians, all as “un-international as they can be”, keeping on with what they love i.e. playing to Malaysians.
“We’ll keep doing it. And they’ll keep getting it. And maybe if we keep doing it, more of them will get it,” Gomez had written earlier in his note.
“Because we love the dump. It is the dump that gave us all we have to write about to begin with, anyway. And someday, just maybe, the dump will love us back. Just enough for us to continue doing what we do.
“And we’ll finally be what we were meant to be: Jaguh Kampung.”