Preserving The Musical Heritage of Penang

by Uwe Fischer |

With a visit to Penang you cannot really go wrong: there are countless exhibitions, festivals and events all year round, the food is excellent, and lovers of art and history will also find plenty attractions. One of the latest is the Penang House of Music which opened in December 2016. It is located in the KOMTAR building and is dedicated to the rich musical heritage and history of Penang and Malaysia.

The opening of the space is the result of preliminary work that started back in 2007, when Paul Augustin and James Lochhead initiated the Penang Music Heritage Project (PMHP). With the help from many supporters and collaborators the project has successfully organized two exhibitions in partnership with Penang State Museum and Think City and the publication of a best-selling book about Penang’s music history, ‘Just for the Love of It’.

“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,” says James Lochhead, adding that this diversity was also one of the key factors in winning Penang a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The “Penang House of Music” (PHoM) is a 650 square meter space located on the 4th floor of the KOMTAR building, George Town’s widely visible landmark skyscraper. It comprises 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,” James Lochhead explains. “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.

The Penang House of Music not only celebrates Penang’s wonderful musicians, but, in a broader context, Penang itself: the diversity of its communities; the influence of political events; the various administrations and how they saw and used music; and much more.

The Penang House of Music is also home to a Resource Centre, which has always been seen as key to the objectives of the PMHP as a whole. The Centre consolidates 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.

Visitors thus can expect exciting new insights on the eventful history of Penang: what happened to music under the Japanese during the War? In what way did the British colonial administration influence musical development in Penang both before and after the Second World War? What was the role of imported musicians into the Municipal Band, for example, especially from the Philippines? What was the influence of the different cinema traditions and radio?

Moreover, 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.

Last but not least, PHoM will curate two major exhibitions this year – the first one dealing with Chinese pop singer Lee Yee in July, the second one being held in November focussing on legendary composer Jimmy Boyle.

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