Monday, 8 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 5 December:
Kota Bharu: All Drumming, All Singing and the Relax Cafe

So we get the plane to Kota Bharu in the Wild North. It’s about an hour and twenty by Firefly airline.  Firefly will always be Rufus T Firefly, the Groucho Marx figure to me. Groucho's Firefly shambled but this small twin-propeller Firefly flies and bumps its way through high cloud.

The northern part of Malaysia is more strictly Muslim than KL but we are here to see things more ancient than modern Islam. Eddin hires a car from an airport rental he has long known. Our hotel is dinky and looks modern but the wifi is sporadic, the air-conditioning likely to switch from frozen to lukewarm without warning and there are many switches on the wall which impress by number without actually doing anything. The staff are friendly. All the women wear hijabs, some very stylishly. The softly, occasionally more loudly piped music is unremittingly Christmassy from Hark the Herald Angels to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  We dash through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh to Santa’s grotto where we are met by Boney M. But where is Slade? Slade is missing. Noddy Holder will be blasting from thousands of UK retail stores, blending seamlessly into George Michael or Paul McCartney or even John Lennon, but rarely if ever Boney M. It must be a cultural difference.

Kota Bharu is naturally a bit more ragged at the edges than KL but it’s decent and the older streets have the nobility that several decades of use confer. They are more or less of a size. The temperature in the hotel lobby is on the cool side but once outside the heat soon gets you, particularly in the sun which you can’t avoid for ever. One hurries from shade to shade. Shabbiness is congenial, proof of honesty of purpose. It is your friends round a table and the cat slipping between the chair legs. E and P have their favourite places to which we are introduced.

At the very first stop for late lunch, about 4pm, Eddin and Pauline see a face they recognise at another table, an older woman who bursts into tears on seeing them. They embrace for a long time then we are introduced. She is known to them as Mummi. She is the widow of the great Manora dancer, Pak Eh Chom, who died some four years ago. Mummi is seventy-one now but it is clear she would have been a great beauty in her youth. She still is beautiful. And her husband was very handsome indeed, so handsome that fathers really did lock up their daughters when he came to town. He was also a shaman. Here is a story told about him as a shaman.

Pak Eh Chom, along with other dancers and musicians, was on a tour organised by E and P,  and they were all staying in the YMCA which has communal showers. When Pak Eh Chom discovered this he was distraught and would not be consoled. One of the other dancers explained. 'He refuses to use the the showers because when in the shower he turns into a wild boar.' Shamanism means, among other things,  fully identifying with your spirit animal and turning into it on occasion, particularly when in a trance. We, after all, have our equivalents in comic book form. The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman, Superman and the rest are all downmarket commercial forms of shamanistic beings. For shower read phonebooth.

We were to see Mummi later on a visit so that she might take us to see some Thai temples. Thailand is very close to Kota Bharu and the history is, as ever, complicated. As we were talking to her in the diner, a chapter of the local equivalent of Hell’s Angels were roaring up and down the road - up, down, back, back again, and so forth - the handlebars raised, the silencers ripped away, the purpose of the whole exercise being, presumably, to demonstrate auditory control over their domain. Whoever roars loudest dominates the conversation. We never saw them again after that first day.

But we are not here for the town - we are here for the kampungs, the villages in the sticks that are an hour or two’s drive away, places in the jungle,  old rubber plantations where the last mile or so is not down a proper road but down narrow tracks that are quickly flooded. And floods are frequent since the rain seldom lets up for long. Being rookies, and forewarned, we were inwardly anxious about this but take comfort, reader, the gods were to be on our side to the extent that the natural balance of the weather was quite upset. It was the opposite of The Tempest for us. Some Miranda must have been interceding on our behalf on our way to Pasir Mas and Kampun Barggol Perdana.


We were led there in the evening by Cikgu (teacher) Alam. The rain was threatening and did in fact come streaming down but only for a few minutes as we were driving down a rough and narrow path by the river, but it was relenting, growing intermittent and slowly reducing to large generous drips before dying away altogether.

There is a yard in front of a simple house, some patches of grass, some mud and a covered area. The drums are outside when it is dry and drawn back under cover when it rains. The company is mixed, men, women, old and young. We are all outside a little concerned in case a storm decides to break.


The evening is divided into two: Rebana Ubi (drumming) for the adults and Dikir Barat (singing) for the boys. The drums themselves are marvellous, buffalo skin stretched on local wood, large, decorated, with  spokes the drummers hold onto with one hand. The spokes are like a catherine wheel, red, yellow and green, with crowns and stars on top (See pic). There are only drums and about eight drummers. They beat to a core 4/4 time with many cross rhythms.


Then the boys set to. They sit in a very tight circle with a few percussionists (no teenage girls here - all revising for exams, says Eddin. Boys? Forget revision!) One boy picks up the mic and begins to sing from a sheet of words. His voice is strong and sensitive. The other boys form a chorus, swaying this way and that, clapping, shouting, raising their arms and waving their fingers as if casting a spell. Another boy, an even better singer, takes the mic. The songs go on. They sing us a welcome song. They sing fast and slow. At the end they sing us a farewell. I recognise the tune. It is, unmistakeably, The Isle of Capri. as sung by Bob Hope, but much transformed.

We are offered some food and warm generosity. We take pictures of them. They take pictures of us. We take pictures of each other together. We set out.

On the way home, a little after midnight,  we stop at the Relax Cafe, Maggi Ketam (the Golden Crab) for a bite. A group of young men in blue and white hooped football shirts are at one table. They could be the Queens Park Rangers youth team.  Another group in red are at another. The TV is on. It is showing a thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman which is immediately followed by a spoof horror (I think it’s spoof) where a modern American male with a neat unflappable hairstyle seems to be lost in a medieval village. He undergoes severe horrifying trials without his hair once losing its shape. Demons emerge. Our hero whips out a chainsaw and sends them splurging. Another wave of nasties is dispatched with a rifle. This must be an NRA promotion. A comely maiden admires his hairstyle and weaponry. It was meant to be. The cafe’s opening hours are advertised as being open from 4.44pm to 1.11am. It is just about 1.11 now. We are on our way.

Back at hotel shorly before 2am. Pictures provided once I am home, but there are short movie clips on Facebook. Eddin is a full prince-warrior and Pauline is the glamorous queen of night - and come to think of it, of day too.

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