A Celebration of Penang’s rich musical heritage

Radio on display in the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Penang, Malaysia (Bert Kimura/flickr)

In a few weeks, a quite unique museum will be opening in Georgetown, Penang. “The House of Music” is located in the KOMTAR building and aims to tell the story of Penang’s musical heritage and history. James Lochhead, one of the museum’s initiators, shares some background information with MALAYSIA INSIGHTS.

Guest article by James Lochhead

Many people have commented on the incredible diversity of Penang’s people. Over the past two hundred plus years, a wide range of peoples from all over the region and world have come and settled in this small state.

Indeed, this diversity was one of the key factors in winning Penang a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, as testified in the inscription: “… (Penang bears) testimony to a living multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia, where the many religions and cultures met and coexisted. They reflect the coming together of cultural elements from the Malay Archipelago, India and China with those of Europe, to create a unique architecture, culture and townscape.” And even by 1804, the Lieutenant-Governor was commenting that: “There is not, probably, any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages are spoken”.

The celebration of this diversity has taken many forms. More recently, the Penang Music Heritage Project (PMHP), inspired and nurtured by Paul Augustin and myself with the help from many supporters and collaborators, has helped chart the way that this unique diversity of peoples arriving and settling in Penang has brought Penang an equally unique diversity of music and musicianship. Initiated in 2007, this Project has seen two exhibitions in partnership with Penang State Museum and Think City, the publication of a best-selling book ‘Just for the Love of It’, and the opening of a 10,000 square foot space named the Penang House of Music in late 2016.

The Penang House of Music will comprise a permanent exhibition space, a resource centre where people can access a range of material via a comprehensive database, and a Black Box space for performances or temporary exhibitions. It is the next step on the road of the PMHP to help document the way that each of Penang’s communities maintained its core traditions whilst at the same time experiencing an exchange, cross-fertilisation, adaptation, ‘fusion’ and experimentation over the years. The result has been a richness of composition and performance, often combining elements from different traditions, and a placing of Penang’s music and musicians very much at the forefront of musical exposition and development in Malaya and subsequently Malaysia. The PMHP is also concerned to place this development firmly in the context of socio-cultural, political and economic developments, weaving together the stories and influences that makes up Penang’s wonderfully rich musical heritage.

So the Penang House of Music, as well as celebrating Penang’s wonderful musicians, allows us to celebrate Penang: the diversity of its communities; the influence of political events; the various administrations and how they saw and used music; the different commercial trends and opportunities; and much more. It will help tell the story about the role of the ‘transmitters’ of popular music including radio, cinema, TV and the key venues in Penang, like Runnymede, the Green Parrot, Springtide, City Lights, of course the E&O, and the important and popular amusement parks like New World. It also narrates how music became increasingly commercialised, and charts the impact of local, regional and western influences on the music and on such things as fashion and dance crazes.

The exhibition will present what happened to music under the Japanese during the War, and the way the British colonial administration influenced musical development in Penang both before and after the Second World War. The role of imported musicians into the Municipal Band, for example, especially from the Philippines, is told. The ground-breaking contribution of the Penang Wireless Society in the 1930s is told. The huge influence of the different cinema traditions (catering to the different audiences) is presented. And the consequences of an increasing commercialisation of ‘pop’ music in the 1960s is also showcased, including on the increasing mobility of musicians, the effect on the younger generation and on social mores, and the many opportunities available to potential performers, albeit also challenging the survival for the more specific, non-commercial music of the communities. And visitors to the exhibition will have lots to interact with. There is an in-built cinema, a radio room where people can take turns to make a ‘live’ dedication, there are interactive displays and lots of listening posts.

The Penang House of Music will also be home to a Resource Centre, which has always been seen as key to the objectives of the PMHP as a whole. The Centre will help consolidate all material related to the documentation of Penang’s musical heritage, including oral histories, the music, photographs, press and magazine cuttings, personality profiles, books, and other data related to the contexts and development of the history of Penang’s music, including the economic, social and historical contexts. It will allow researchers and members of the public to access a comprehensive computerised database allowing both indexing and the accessibility of the public to the material. It will also hopefully encourage further research into all areas of music in relation to Penang and the bringing together of various stakeholders in extending the documentation to potentially cover/link to the documentation of other performing arts and Penang’s diverse and dynamic living heritage.

The Penang House of Music is scheduled to be fully up and running by the end of this year. Some of you will know Paul Augustin from his role as ‘the man behind the Penang Island Jazz Festival’, now in its twelfth year. But this is not a one- or two- person project. Paul and James and others involved in progressing the Penang Musical Heritage Project consistently stress that one of the joys of the project has been the support and input it has garnered from people all over Penang, Malaysia and indeed the world! The Project has developed close partnerships with musicians, musicologists, local and national archivists, federal and local government Ministries and Departments, and with heritage, historical and arts/culture organisations. This would continue and strengthen, through the process of setting up the Penang House of Music.

So if you are in Penang, get to the 4th Floor of KOMTAR, the tall building dominating the centre of the city. Get to the Penang House of Music. And revel in Penang’s history and heritage, of which music has played a major and fascinating part.

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