Navel Gazer

Published: Saturday August 30, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday September 2, 2014 MYT 4:46:06 PM

Rock on, Merdekarya

Slowly but surely, Merdekarya is establishing itself as an exciting indie venue for live performances.

Slowly but surely, Merdekarya is establishing itself as an exciting indie venue for live performances.

Independent performance venues face an uphill battle. On this day, our columnist writes about one that was inspired by Hari Merdeka.

THE first time I entered Merdekarya, I thought: Am I about to be assaulted by some overgrown teenager rocker wannabe?

Improbably located above a curry house, it was unlike any performance venue I’d visited. The “stage” was made up of wooden pallets and cable spindles – rescued from some junkyard, no doubt; “stools” made from egg trays stacked up together (cute); and the book cases at the back, more wooden pallets. Very organic. But I wasn’t there for the furniture.

“This had better be worth my RM4 brewed coffee,” I hissed at Frank, who’d dragged me there to see a local singer who had “a way with words”.

Ten minutes later, I was eating my words.

Did that thundering voice – that was as hard to ignore as a two-tonne truck roaring down the highway – really originate from the skinny guy in a T-shirt and bermudas?

Was Brian Gomez – who could seamlessly morph from one persona to another through rapid-fire changes in funny facial expressions – a singer or a comedian ?

What kind of an animal (unless your name is Steve Tyler) was Brian, to have a stage presence that seemed to shut out every other thing in the room?

Powerful stage presence: Brian Gomez is a writer, singer, songwriter, and the founder of indie performance venue Merdekarya. - Photos from Merdekarya
Powerful stage presence: Brian Gomez is a writer, singer, songwriter, and the founder of indie performance venue Merdekarya. — Photos from Merdekarya

Drawn from his debut album Gun Inside My Brain, his English songs were terrific but it was his Malay compositions with their thoughtful lyrics that I could relate most deeply to. When he sang in Rokok Sebatang, “Ini tanah tumpah darahku, aku takkan ke mana,” (This is my homeland, I ain’t going anywhere), a lump welled up in my throat. These weren’t just really good songs; they were anthems that articulated the frustrations and ideals of a whole generation.

For the next few months, Frank and I went there almost weekly. Sometimes, we were the only people in the audience. In my heart, I often wondered how the performer of the night felt, singing their hearts out to a near-empty venue. If they were affected, they didn’t show it. Brian and Mel, his partner, tried to vary the line-up. I met singer-songwriters, poets, bands and even writers who used the place for stand-up comedy gigs, book launches and poetry slams. There are so many glitzier, more spacious venues that pack even bigger crowds, yet their loyal bunch of talented friends kept showing up, even when the crowds were thin.

I tried to go as often as I could, but life happens. When I go today, it’s nearly four months since my last visit. As I walk past Sun Raj, my stomach flutters nervously. Are they doing OK?

I freeze in my steps when I arrive at the usually-empty porch. What’s a flea market doing here?

“Oh, it’s in conjunction with a mini-festival organised by Christian Palencia,” a perky college girl manning one of the stalls informs me. “Kimono jackets for you?”

Shaking my head, I climb the stairs wonderingly. Parting the new velvet curtains, I let out a small scream when I come face-to-face with a life-sized scarecrow. As I recover from my shock, my eyes scan the entertainment hall quickly. There are cushy sofas that weren’t there before.

“What’s all this?” I ask Mel at the drinks counter.

“They’re all donated,” she says, flashing her customary smile.

“You must have a lot of good friends,” I tease.

“She is very popular!” one of her assistants pipes up from behind her.

Mel smiles bashfully, before going, “We’ve got some hot cooked food now. All homemade.” Enthusiasm is shining through her eyes. I wonder how she sounds as perky as an intern, after all this time. From the laminated menu, I pick the lamb burger.

As I sit quietly in a corner, drinking my juice, the place begins to fill up. In the old days, the people who turned up looked like friends who had come to give moral support to your pet project. Not today’s demographic. These are unmistakably people who have come because they are attracted by the strength of the line-up. By the time the show is ready to start, it’s standing room only. Merdekarya is no longer our secret place anymore, I think with a twinge of wistfulness. But just as quickly, it’s replaced by pride that they’re able to stand on their own.

The crowd goes silent as two girls ascend the stage, one with fried blonde hair and another red-lipped chick. Any doubt that they have the substance to match the looks fly out the window when they start singing in honey-dipped vocals. I cheer as loudly as the other teenagers and millenials around me, not caring that I’m nearly twice their age.

The next act couldn’t be more different. A girl in a demure dress gets up on a stool and tells us that “the next song is about me being alone, and I notice a lot of you came in pairs, so I don’t know if you relate”. Her searing performance, coupled with her self-deprecating humour, brings the house down. So much so that a guy runs up to present her a bouquet. Then the audience groans in collective sympathy when Sara reveals that he’s her brother.

I’ve never heard of Wanted Symphony before this, but from the ripple of excitement, I have a good feeling about them. The boys go through a few covers that are passably good, but it’s when they start playing one of their original songs, that I sit up. There is no way this isn’t an international hit, I think with disbelief. There is no way that these guys are not headlining some music festival yet. There is no way that the audience members are not dying to throw their underwear at the smoking hot lead singer ...

At that moment, it becomes crystal clear why Mel and Brian keep plugging on despite the odds. If you’d told me that Malaysia had that kind of talent, I would have laughed, yet here was living, blazing proof.

I had my first glimpse one year ago, when Brian blew my socks off with his performance, even though there was just Frank and I, when nobody believed in them but they themselves. Today, I’ve seen what happens when you believe in your dreams.

Happy Independence Day, Merdekarya. May you continue to rock on and prosper.

Alexandra Wong ( loves stories of odds-defying Malaysians, as much as she does putting her tongue in cheek.

Tags / Keywords: Merdeka, Independence, Merdekarya, performing arts

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