Kelate trip with Shh…Diam!

Last weekend (April 8-10), I was fortunate enough to tag along on Shh…Diam!‘s mini trip to Kelantan to play a show in Kota Bharu. I got an sms late on the Monday before inviting me to come along to which I replied: “I’ve never been to Kelantan before. But of course I’d like to. Because I’m Luka from API! It sounds scary. Will there be any problems with a kafir travelling around with some Muslim girls? Or is it all just hype?”

Maybe this needs some explanation. The state of Kelantan, up on the far north-east coast, has quite a reputation for being the most religiously conservative part of Malaysia and for most of the time since independence has been ruled by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which I guess is pretty self-explanatory. So, it fits nicely with jokes about me being a student at the Academy of Islamic Studies (API). Though at the same time, if recent events in KL are anything to go by, going somewhere with a much more conservative reputation than KL, travelling (i.e. sharing rooms, etc.) with Malay (and, by the Malaysian Constitution, therefore Muslim) girls is not without at least a little bit of worry. Anyway, all that aside, I wanted to try some of this east-coast, unfederated, PAS flavour and if it meant being an accessory to breaking some hukum syariah then it just adds to the sense of adventure.

While the other nine people in the crew had organised to take the train up to Kelantan, tickets had run out by the time it got to me so it was planned for me to take the bus up alone. Usually this wouldn’t be too bad, but it would mean getting to Kota Bharu at about 5am – five hours before everyone else. The thought of spending five hours alone in the early morning in a brand new city I’d never been to before, of people speaking a dialect of a language I barely have a grasp of in any dialect, was really scary. That’s another thing Kelantan has a reputation for – people speaking funny. When I got to KL Sentral to get my ticket from the rest of the crew, it turned out that two of us were too late for the train, so I got a train ticket and the other two had to get a bus. So in the end no one had to be alone and scared!

We got on a train. Stuff happened. We talked loud. We laughed loud. We got confused as to why the train would go all the way to Gemas on the border of Negeri Sembilan and Johor (the southernmost state of Malaysia) before going to Kelantan (the furthest north-east state of Malaysia). Other stuff happened. We slept. We woke up to a train food salesperson walking down the aisle letting everyone know he was selling ‘bayhun gohe’ (bihun goreng). And finally, after about 13 hours or so, we got off the train at Wakaf Bharu.

At Wakaf Bharu we took the obligatory tour photo in front of the train station sign and hung around long enough for a bunch of dudes to come up to one of us, with one of the dudes pulling out some offiicial looking badge for some sort of authority in the manner that meant he was we going to get us in some sort of trouble. The rest of us had no idea what was going on, as we couldn’t see the badge and couldn’t hear what he was saying. Does the Kelantan Syariah Criminal Code Enactment 1993 prescribe a special welcome to new visitors? Turns out it was just some crew from the Jabatan Kesihatan (Health Department) giving out fines for smoking in the open air of a train station. I don’t know what a dude crew from the Health Department were doing at a train station and of all places to get fined for smoking, in a country where its pretty much normal for people to smoke anywhere indoors, an outdoor train station was where it was at.

We then made our way into a town centre of sorts in Wakaf Bharu. Which included walking past a brown cow (to whom, in need of some direction, I asked: “How now?”) and crossing some train tracks, living out fantasies of photo shoots with Godspeed You! Black Emperor but without the photo shoot part nor the Godspeed part. It would have made for some nice post-rock cliché photos though. We did however get a photo of a sign outside a store that said: “Makanan bukan bagi orang Islam” (food not for Muslims), which was kind of an unexpected introduction to Kelantan.

After getting on the bus from Wakaf Bharu into Kota Bharu to meet the other two of the crew who’d apparently spent the last four or so hours at McDonalds waiting for us I got to think about some first impressions of this new place. The government propaganda was a lot more ‘Islamic’ than it is in KL. Whereas in KL it seems more nationalist, with slogans such as “Cintalah bahasa kebangsaan kita” (love our national language), Kelantan government propaganda had slogans such as “Membangun bersama Islam” (Develop with Islam – ?), “Kota Bharu bandar raya Islam” (Islamic city of Kota Bharu), and the slightly ambiguous “Hijau itu Indah” (green is beautiful). Ok, maybe the last one is not actually associated with Islam, but still, I think it is quite ambiguous. Also, the usage of Jawi (the variant of the Arabic script sometimes used to write Malay) was a lot more common than I’ve noticed in other parts of Malaysia. It was also used in writing English and Chinese names of shops. I thought this was pretty hilarious. Some examples were: جوليانا كوليكشن (Juliana Collection) and ناڃرال فاكيجيڠ عين سفليس (Natural Packaging and Supplies) as well as the local تيسكو (Tesco) where you could probably buy a كوكاكولا (Coca-Cola).

I also noticed the difference of just being in a smaller town. In a way Kota Bharu reminded me a little bit of being in some of the smaller towns I’ve visited in northern Thailand like Khon Kaen and Chiang Rai, but its been a while since I actually went to those places so maybe it reminds me what I think they are like rather than what they’re actually are. But even with that possible comparison, Kota Bharu still had an obviously Malay and Muslim feel to it because of the architecture and the masjids and all that stuff. I’ve never noticed them anywhere else, but in Kota Bharu and in other parts of Kelantan I noticed that at the top of their arches that they’ve for some reason erected in parts of their towns is a statue of an open Quran. Maybe its just a Kelantan thing. Anyway, it was a nice change being in a smaller town. It also generally felt a lot cleaner and less grimy than KL.

Some time around here we went to eat and so quickly learnt some basic Baso Kelate (Kelantanese dialect) as we were ordering. I ate a really bad nasi kerabu which was more like a flavourless nasi goreng cina. We then went to the venue – Hotel Rebana – where Shh…Diam! had a quick sound check and we got keys to some rooms in the hotel. I then ended up hiding in the room for a bit where I think I actually watched the all of Piranha 2, part of an episode of Nature, Inc. that was about organic farmers’ associations in the Congo and also had some random old guy walk in and then apologise and walk back out. After that I figured I should probably lock the door.

The venue actually wasn’t what I was expecting. When I heard the name “Hotel Rebana”, I immediately pictured something from my Australian context – alcohol, pool tables and general shitness a la the Lansdowne Hotel. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier that obviously this sort of ‘hotel’ is not going to exist in Kelantan. So Hotel Rebana turned out to be a hotel, in the sense that the word ‘hotel’ is usually used for places that aren’t Australian pubs, and this one was maybe a little bit nicer than your budget guest house. The room that the gig was in was downstairs at the front of the hotel. I’m not sure what they use this room for on other days and in general it was a bit of a weird place for a show to be held. But a room with a PA is a room with a PA and this room shouldn’t be any more or less weird than a shop lot in Ampang or a warehouse in Sydney’s Inner West.

So after hiding in the room until I was getting restless I went downstairs with the crew, mainly because they wanted to go eat somewhere and that sounded like a good idea. I think most of us were still a little bit scared of all the new faces staring at us and probably also because over ninety-five per cent of those new and staring faces were dudes’ staring faces. It was interesting though that of all the women at the show, most of them had some important part to play. Of maybe less than twenty women there, many were in bands, some were on merch tables or at the door, the ‘stage manager’ was a woman, as was the MC.

The first band I actually stepped inside to watch were Mad Monster’s Attack who are one of those metalcore bands mixing it up with dance/electronic beats and synths in that way that Attack! Attack! are famous for. It was kind of awesome standing at the back and watching so many people actually dancing to music. Of course there was still the macho level which generally comes with the whole metalcore thing, but its down with much more style and rhythm than your standard mosh. I like to think of it as some sort of mosh/krump crossover.

I also stuck around for the next band who were from Terengganu and did the whole metalcore thing and had one of those metalcore style names. I think Dead Eyes Glow was their name. Just close your eyes and imagine a metalcore band that you’ve seen before. Its probably close enough to what I saw on Saturday.

After metalcore band was… Shh…Diam! (ess-haytch-haytch-dot-dot-dot-dee-eye-ay-em-exclamation-mark) who were just really really fun. If you’ve ever seen them anywhere you probably know already how fun it can be dancing and bouncing around with a whole bunch of people while they play their songs. I actually got to experience it for the first time on my fourth or fifth day in Malaysia when they turned up to play acoustic for a hot and sweaty Pustaka Semesta. Anyway, that’s all common knowledge in the public domain. What I really want to write about it the amazingly high level a lot of the dancing during their set rates on the ‘homoerotic scale’. Now I’m not talking about dudes hugging each other in sweaty mosh bro-ship and the homoerotic undertones. No, no. I’m talking about dudes gyrating and grinding dangdut seksi style up close against each other! I even got pushed up against the wall at one point while dancing with some guy. At first I was totally surprised by it, but then… “eh, fuck yeah!”. I must admit, I was not expecting this in Kelantan. Maybe with all this action going on the Kelantan equilibrium had to be sorted out and so at one point during the set, Shh…Diam! actually stopped for a couple of minutes because of azan.

After Shh…Diam!, Subculture played. Krisis Halusinasi actually played with them a couple of weeks ago at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak. Before I knew who they were, I heard someone describe them as ‘old-man punk rock’. Well, they are ‘old men’ playing some form of ‘punk rock’ in that Green Day (old and new) kind of style and they cover Blink 182, Rancid and Green Day, so I guess its pretty ‘old man punk rock’ enough. While they were fun to dance and sing along too, it was quite disappointing, especially after Shh…Diam! had just exploded the place in dancing chaos, to hear them address the audience every time as abe-abe (brothers).

During Subculture’s set I went back outside where I somehow started talking to a few guys. Somehow I asked if my band could come and play a show here up in Kota Bharu and told them about my band, it was discovered that one of the guys I was talking to plays in a post-rock band up in Kelantan called Givenpath (and now, after looking them up on the net, I find out they actually played on Saturday as well but I missed them!). We talked about possibly doing a show together up in Kelantan later in the year some time, maybe June or July. I asked about shows in general up in Kelantan and was told that shows don’t happen very often, as its hard to do shows in Kelantan – which the person I was talking to attributed to PAS government. Maybe the sparseness of shows was a reason behind why there were so many people at the show. I was also told that your general ‘punk’ is more accepted here rather than other associated genres like post-rock.

I would have loved to have stayed longer to talk more about music and life under a PAS government up in the north-east but the crew were all going off to dinner and shisha and so I decided to follow. On the way we drove past the football stadium while a lot of people were leaving and we found out that Kelantan beat Felda United six-nil. I don’t usually go to soccer games but I’d go to a Kelantan game. I hear Kelantan fans are to soccer as Collingwood fans are to AFL – except with more riots.

At the restaurant I played invisible soccer with one of the kids of the owner and then got the usual interview from the rest of the family – Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in Malaysia? What do you study? What is your religion?, etc. etc. and thankfully I had a local friend of a friend there to help translate any of the Baso Kelate I couldn’t pick up on.

Sleep time!

The next morning we had to get up really early to get our bus at 9.00am or 9.30am, I can’t remember, but I do remember that the bus ended up coming at least half an hour late. We had breakfast in this dark little restaurant that kind of creeped me out when we first went in because it was quite full and everyone except maybe one customer and two workers were men. Men who stare at people like us. But that was ok because I got to eat some real nasi kerabu, none of that fake nasi kerabu that I had the day before. While waiting, Farah and I went off and explored some of the nearby bakeries. There were many kedai kek dan roti in that little area near the bus stop. Does Kelantan like cake? In one of the bakeries we somehow managed to buy a large plastic bag full of assorted cakes and buns and donuts for two ringgit (they were cooked the day before). For bus-time eating party, of course.

The bus-time back down the east coast back to KL was nice. I think everything – all the kampungs, the hills, the trees – just looks a little bit nicer when its wet and covered in grey.

And back home, while Shh…Diam! seem to have collected many more Facebook ‘friends’ I have gained one extra ‘friend’ who hasn’t said anything other than ask me if I have a Leftover Crack, Choking Victim or Star Fucking Hipsters shirt because he would like to buy it off me. Why?

(I’ll add some photos soon, maybe).

    • yoyo ns
    • April 13th, 2011

    I love Strfkr!

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