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Penang House Of Music: Shining Light On Penang's Jazz/Indigenous Music Heritage

Ian Patterson By

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We’re trying to create awareness. There’s no point in hoarding the music and culture of the past if those in the present aren’t aware of it. —Paul Augustin, Director of Penang House Of Music
In the heart of downtown Georgetown, Penang, on the top floor of KOMTAR, a typically bustling Malaysian shopping mall, an oasis of calm can be found in Penang House of Music. Calm, but stimulating too, for PHOM is a museum-cum archive celebrating Penang's rich and varied musical heritage, including the island's long-standing, ever-evolving relationship with jazz.

"Something like PHOM has never existed before now in Malaysia, or in this part of the world," says Paul Augustin, co-founder of promotions company Capricorn Connection and Director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, whose idea the centre was in the first place. "It's the culmination of the Penang Music Heritage Project project we started in 2007."

That initiative began when Augustin and James Lochhead—another long-term advocate of jazz and culture in Penang—curated an exhibition on Penang's musical heritage in Penang State Museum in 2010 and an expanded exhibition in 2013. The two realized, however, that they had only begun to scratch the surface of Penang's musical past. Accordingly, they dedicated considerable time in further research, which resulted in the splendid book Just For The Love Of It: Popular Music in Penang, 1930s-1960s, a must for anyone interested in understanding the Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian cultural roots of Penang.

PHOM is the final piece in the puzzle. "Everything we had wanted to do with the Penang Music Heritage project now focuses on this centre," says Augustin. PHOM is a gallery, a resource/archive centre and a live music venue. What's immediately apparent strolling around PHOM from the instruments on display, the photos and bric-a-brac on the walls, is the diversity of Penang's musical heritage.

Instruments of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Persian, South-East Asian and European origin attest to the incredibly cosmopolitan, multi-cultural nature of Penang from its earliest days as a hub of international commerce.

Jazz too, has had a colourful history in Penang, first gaining popularity as dance music in the mid-1920s with the arrival of gramophones and vinyl. "The theatre was also very, very important," Augustin stresses. "The movies showed the music, the styles, the bands and stars that were coming up."

In spite of the region's unforgiving tropical heat, PHOM has, in just a year since opening its doors, accumulated a sizeable vinyl collection, which includes some of the earliest jazz records to arrive from abroad to Malaysia as well as the earliest jazz recordings by Malaysian artists. "We've found a lot of early jazz," says Augustin with unconcealed delight, "and just recently I found a vinyl recording of Charlie Mariano with the Radio Television Malaysia Kombo. That was in 1967. He was seconded to come coach the RTM orchestra, replacing Herb Pomeroy, who'd been there a couple of months," he explains with enthusiasm.

"We've got ten thousand vinyls and counting," says Augustin. "People are walking in and giving us their old vinyl collections. Some of the stuff comes to us in really good condition from people who took the trouble to keep it nicely. A few thousand we've had to clean up."

The aim is to digitalize all the vinyl so that the music is preserved long after the wax has succumbed to the heat and humidity. "It's taking a long time," admits Augustin "because we can only do it in real time and we've only got one machine that can do it."

Of course, jazz is only one small part of the resource centre, and the ever-growing vinyl collection also reflects the popularity of social dance and ritual music like ronggeng, boria and bangsawan—traditions which gradually dissipated as culture and fashions evolved. Chinese opera, Hollywood and Indian film music, municipal bands and the ever-evolving sound of pop and rock music are likewise well represented in the PHOM's multi-media collection.

One gem that has surfaced during the ongoing building of the resource centre has been a Voice Of America recording of Jimmy Boyle, a brilliant pianist and composer of over three hundred and fifty tunes who was active in jazz and indigenous Malay music from the 1930s to the 1970s. Boyle was admired by Jack Teagarden and Charles Lloyd, both of whom played in Penang in the late 1960s. Another jazz luminary to visit Penang was Albert Mangelsdorff in 1964, on an Asian tour that was documented in Downbeat.

PHOM has amassed numerous newspaper/magazine articles and photogrpahs relating to these and many more concerts by foreign visitors over the years. "We scan all the newspapers and magazines and archive them," explains Augustin. "So far we've documented about ten years of newspaper clippings, mostly about Penang. The resource centre is the heartbeat of the PHM."

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