Preserving Malaysia's music history: Paul Augustin is a man on a mission


‘In terms of the archival work for Malaysian music, there is still plenty to document and discover every day. The momentum needs to continue to rescue a big part of our heritage, ' says Augustin. Photo: Marilyn Kang

Life goals have always looked different to Paul Augustin.

Playing gigs in his teens, he realised early on that a conventional life of study, work and retirement was not what he wanted on his cards.

“When you leave school, people set out to become lawyers, engineers or doctors, then build a career before retiring and then, do what they want. I started living the retirement life after I left school. I’m fortunate enough to have always done what I love and earn a living, ” says Augustin, 60, who has come into his own as a dedicated archivist in preserving the country’s music history and culture.

As someone who has always charted his own path, being named a “Gamechanger” in this year’s 17th Boh Cameronian Arts Awards (which will be held online on July 2) could not be more apt, though Augustin is still getting used to the recognition.

Growing up in Penang, the St Xavier’s Institution boy taught himself how to play the bass guitar to avoid the drama that came along with competing to be lead.

Joining a professional band called Midday Revival while still in school, Augustin played gigs at night. He studied and sat for the Malaysian Certificate of Education (later known as SPM), and spectacularly failed the exam.

However, the importance of paper qualifications were not completely lost on him and he took the exam again the following year – and passed.

Augustin worked in a chemical firm for a time after that but the call of music continued to beckon him.

“I realised that I could play music and make money from it at the same time, ” he says.

From going solo – just Augustin and a guitar – to playing in small bands, Augustin eventually joined The New Faces, a noted band with a long stint in the Aviary Bar at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton.

With a significantly reduced visitor capacity when it reopens, the Penang House of Music is expected to develop more online content to keep its programmes going. Photo: PHoMWith a significantly reduced visitor capacity when it reopens, the Penang House of Music is expected to develop more online content to keep its programmes going. Photo: PHoM

It was the 1980s and the hotel was the epicentre for music in the capital and Augustin stayed with the band playing bass until it disbanded in the early 1990s.

After almost 15 years of playing music full time, Augustin hung up his guitar and went into event management, working at the Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor.

He eventually set up his own company with long-time colleague Chin Choo Yeun, called The Capricorn Connection. Under this company, the Penang Island Jazz Festival (PIJF) was born in 2004 and delighted music lovers from near and far for 14 years before ceasing in 2018.

Penang House Of Music

The timing of PIJF’s hiatus was not accidental.

In 2016, Augustin and his team were lured back to Penang by the state government to embark upon an experimental musical project.

Stemming from his work in the Penang Musical Heritage Project initiative (spearheaded by Augustin and author-activist James Lochhead) that sought to document the diverse culture and music traditions of Penang’s local community, the Penang House of Music (PHoM) was born.

Filling 650sq m on the fourth floor of Komtar, the space was first supported by a RM3.45mil grant by Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang (PBAPP) that spanned three years.

“With both the jazz festival and PHoM going on, we had to look for funding for two things. Eventually, we needed to decide which was more important.

“The beauty of the grant that we got from PBAPP was that they let us do what we wanted with PHoM and choose our own direction. We ran with it and over time, people have learned to trust us and our idea of what we want the space to be, ” says Augustin, adding that PHoM is now supported by the state’s Tourism Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage committee, also known as PETACH.

At the Penang House of Music, young visitors are at the heart its mission to educate the new generation. This photo was taken during the pre-pandemic lockdown phase. Photo: PHoMAt the Penang House of Music, young visitors are at the heart its mission to educate the new generation. This photo was taken during the pre-pandemic lockdown phase. Photo: PHoM

All the faith and hard work has paid off in a big way with PHoM currently sitting in the number one spot on TripAdvisor’s “things to do in Penang island” list.

The venue itself is divided into three parts: the gallery, which features and pays tribute to the state’s iconic past musicians and musical history, a 100-seater black box performance space to support upcoming artistes and the resource centre, which Augustin describes as the heart of the whole operation.

“Penang has a fantastic story to tell and in the gallery, we just told that story using music as the backdrop. The resource centre is the treasure trove that we used to build the gallery.

“We have 10,000 vinyl records collected from everywhere, not only Malaysia.

“People sometimes ask us, why do we have classical records or The Beatles’ records? It’s because we were all inspired by other people,” say Augustin.

Thousands of photographs, posters, books, magazines, music programmes and other unique sources form the wealth of knowledge stored in PHoM and this collection has attracted researchers from all corners of the globe.

Digitalising all this information has also become one of PHoM’s main pursuits to ensure that it is accessible for generations to come.

“Luckily, we now live in a digitalised era but if you look back just 10 years ago, not a lot was documented.

“Especially in the case of musicians, they never document their journeys. The roads they took to making it big hold a lot of lessons for younger artistes, if only they could remember it!” Augustin exclaims.

Augustin taking over the announcer's mike in the Radio Room at the Penang House of Music. Photo: FilepicAugustin taking over the announcer's mike in the Radio Room at the Penang House of Music. Photo: Filepic

Importance of a digital archive

The digitisation process is a slow one and finances are always a challenge for musical endeavours but all in all, PHoM looked like it was really finding its footing.

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Along with all other non-essential businesses, PHoM closed its doors on March 18 to comply with the movement control order (MCO).

“At first we thought, hey, we can use this time to catch up on our documenting and digitisation but later we realised that we couldn’t even leave our homes. But things change, whether we like it or not, this Covid-19 period has given us a lot of time to reflect.

“There is always a silver lining to cloud, ” says Augustin.

The music veteran notes that musicians who normally play in clubs and bars at night are particularly affected by the situation and have had to try different avenues to get their music out there.

“They have had nowhere to play. So, they go online. But in a pub, your competition is local. Once you play on the Internet, you are competing globally.

“Now you have to build your audience but the good thing is that the (online) audience is bigger. So you have to think about how you are different. There are those who will survive and take this opportunity to make a name for themselves, ” says Augustin.

For PHoM, its doors are set to reopen on July 8 albeit with a limited capacity.

The Freddy Cole Quartet performance at 10th Penang Island Jazz Festival in December 2013. Is the PIJF making a return this year? Photo: FilepicThe Freddy Cole Quartet performance at 10th Penang Island Jazz Festival in December 2013. Is the PIJF making a return this year? Photo: Filepic

“Our gallery is not like other museums. We create an experience for visitors and they can do things like hold the instruments and be a deejay. There are 30 to 40 things inside there that you can touch.

“But under the current conditions, we need to constantly wipe things down to make sure that they are safe, ” he says.

It is a time-consuming process but there is a greater concern at hand as many of the items in PHoM are antiques that do not hold up well to constant cleaning.

“We need the things to breathe and rest; we have no choice (when it comes to that).

“So, we’ve done a trial run and decided to open three days a week and only offer two tours a day by appointment to a maximum of 10 people in each session, ” he explains.

But all is hardly lost on a “Serani boy” (to borrow his well-used description of himself) like Augustin, even in a global health crisis.

Detailed planning has been going on for PHoM to move forward, be it with podcasts, small episodes on jazz memories in Penang or the opening up of the venue’s black box to musicians to go live from somewhere other than their bedrooms.

The expansion of the resource centre with a specialised audio-visual lab is also in the works.

“We’re looking at how we can build a laboratory to save old musical items.

“Be it an old reel, a scratched-up record or an old cassette tape, we want to see how we can save at least a bit of it and digitise it, ” says Augustin.

And to top it all off, another edition of the state’s favourite jazz event - PIJF - may well be making a comeback.

“We were actually supposed to bring back the festival this year. The good thing about having a pause in any project is that you can use that (pause) to change it.

“We have some exciting ideas that no one has done before and hopefully, we can do that and bring back PIJF next year. When we cancelled it in 2018, I said a chapter had been closed. I never said the book was, ” concludes Augustin.

Penang House of Music will reopen on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from July 8. Tours are available by appointment (012-416-1550) and are tentatively scheduled at 11.30am to 2pm, and 2.30pm to 5pm.

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