Music Lessons
Jennifer Choo 
Some of the memorabilia at the Penang House of Music

Much has been written about Penang’s rich architectural and cultural heritage, even more of its mythologised street food but what about its musical legacy? The island’s melting pot of ethnicities and progressive community have the makings of an ideal environment to spawn a vibrant music scene.

In fact, the Sixties right up to the Eighties are considered Penang’s golden age of music. Apart from Malaysia’s favourite crooner Tan Sri P Ramlee, who was a Penang boy, there were other influential musicians like Jimmy Boyle, a talented local Eurasian singer-songwriter who penned several iconic songs including the evergreen Putera Puteri.

The importance of these musical luminaries and how they contributed to Penang’s cultural landscape would have easily slipped unbeknownst into the ether if not for a group of passionate Penangites. Led by Paul Augustin, the founder and festival director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, a series of events led to the idea and the setting up of Penang House of Music (PHOM).

“It began as a passion for researching and developing personality profiles for the Penang Island Jazz Festival because of two main things. First, in the early years of Penang Island Jazz Festival, there used to be a Jimmy Boyle Young Talent Jazz Competition and from there, we found out that none of the young musicians knew or had even heard of Jimmy. So we realised that would also mean that they would not know of older Penang musicians like Ahmad Merican, Joe Rozells, Ooi Eow Jin, Ahmad Daud and The Rajamoney Brothers,” says Augustin.

“Second, during my performing days, I followed and listened to a lot of international performers but I also had local musical heroes that I looked up to,” he continues. “This led to the Penang Musical Project for a collaboration with the Penang State Museum in 2010 on an exhibition on Penang’s musical heritage, particularly from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. We followed that with another exhibition in 2013, this time with Think City also on board.”

“By then, we had collated quite a substantial amount of photographs, press clippings, and audio information. We were asked to write a book on Penang’s popular music, which was published and launched in April 2015.”

The book was well-received with the first edition selling out in two months. It showed there was a strong interest for this sort of information. Realising the importance of preserving the musical legacy, Augustin started looking for a place to set up a resource centre.

He knew that for this project to be realised, substantial funding was required. “The person who threw us a lifeline was Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa, the CEO of Penang Berkalan Air. He asked us to put a proposal together for him to table to the board and they came back with an allocation of RM3 mil over a period of three years,” Augustin recalls.

A small but dedicated team was assembled and space was found at Komtar. The Penang House was conceptualised to “tell an old story in a modern way” while still retaining the touch of the old days. After nine months of work, PHOM opened its doors.

The gallery comprises three main sections. There is firstly The Gallery, which houses a community music exhibition, the 1940s, 50s and 60s musical history, a coffee bar, a radio and broadcasting room, an instrument section where visitors can have a little jam session of their own, as well as a cinema and a VR room.

A performance at The Gallery

There is also The Black Box, a small multi-purpose hall for performances, talks and workshops. Last but not least is the Resource Centre, which Augustin terms as the nerve centre of PHOM. It is a constant work in progress of compiling and digitising a library database of 16 different types of material ranging from artefacts to press clipping.

Indeed, PHOM offers a wide breadth of experiences including displays of some of the older cultural forms of performing arts and music such as bangsawan, boria, ronggeng and dondang sayang. An interactive display of PoTeHi (glove puppet theatre powered by sensors) as well as a painted mural with an augmented reality element are also some of the more interesting highligths.

Since opening last year, PHOM has hosted more than 50 events and has been listed in a CNN Travel article on Things to Do and Eat in Malaysia. It has also been used as a resource centre by music researchers, one of whom was a professor from Taiwan who was working on a paper on the Hokkien music of Singapore, Melaka and Penang.

But the dark cloud of keeping PHOM running once the initial capital runs its course next year continues to loom over Augustin’s head. “People often take music for granted; they do not know or realise how important music is to us,” says Augustin. “Music is in everything that we do. It’s in our heartbeat. We sing when we’re happy and we sing when we’re sad. Music has the ability to take us back to a specific place in time – a memory. Music dictates fashion, hairstyles, and even language. A world without music would be boring.”

“Music is also a motivating and unifying force. Many musicians in the Fifties and Sixties contributed to the entertainment industry not only Penang but all of Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Singapore. Hence, it’s important to have a place like PHOM to tell these stories and create a sense of pride. It can serve as an inspiration for future generations of musicians,” Augustin concludes.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 263.