Musicians, performers in Miri strive to weather hardship in this pandemic era
A LONGTIME music-loving friend, Linda Khoo was looking forward to celebrating her birthday during the weekend when we met up at the market.
We managed to have a muffled chat with our masks over our faces, while standing more than 1m apart from each other.
“After one year of various types of MCOs (Movement Control Orders) in Miri, I’m just getting used to not having a night life, not attending musical events, etc.
“Now I am just a stay-at-home person, following the motto of ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’.
“I wonder when this pandemic will end. Not a very rosy picture for Miri as the number of cases here has kept on increasing over the last two weeks,” she lamented.
Khoo and her husband have always been avid music-festival goers. They would drive from the oil palm estate to spend the weekends in Miri, enjoying every jazz and country music events as much as possible.
Khoo told me about her relative, whom she referred to only as ‘Peter’, who is a guitar enthusiast but instead of joining a band, he is now working as a baker’s apprentice.
“This is the impact of the pandemic on our lives. We have changed our lifestyles so much.
“This weekend, I cannot go listening to a band with my husband to celebrate my birthday – my husband is now locked down in the estate.
It would have been nice to bring along Peter. Even as a secondary school student, he was being paid RM100 per night working for friends during the weekends – enough for his living expenses in Miri, and for his parents to not have to worry about him.
“Now that he’s a baker’s apprentice, with a salary, and he likes it too.
“But it would have been even better if he played in a band and learned a trade at the same time. “His parents would be so proud of him.”
Apparently, Khoo was not the only Mirian who felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had stripped Miri of its status of being a vibrant and happening place for music festivals.
Keeping one’s spirits up
Gracie Geikie, the founder of the Miri Country Music Festival (MCMF) that made Miri a famous resort city in the music world, acknowledged that Covid-19 had imposed an adverse impact on professional musicians.
“Firstly, the pandemic has brought about untold hardships unto our Sarawak performers – there’s no doubt about that. With the majority of entertainment outlets closed during this time – with some having shut down for good due to financial problems – there’s been no work for our performers.
“Secondly, we have not been able to organise and hold large events or gatherings – adding further to the hardship.
“It would take quite a while to see things go back to normal.
“Even our own event, the MCMF, had to be cancelled in November last year,” she told thesundaypost.
However, Gracie said her team held a virtual concert to ‘maintain and keep the spirit of MCMF alive for our country music fans’.
“Being the first country music festival in Malaysia, Miri is a proud owner of the MCMF since 2014,” she said.
Still, she could relate to performers and musicians who strove to remain relevant under this era of the ‘new norms’, but found it very challenging in that many of them were not able to hold any virtual concert – the issues and constraints included not having the necessary equipment and facilities, the lack of good studios in Miri, and also the lack of financial support to help upskill or groom them in the new business of going virtual.
“Many of our performers are hobbyists, as this profession could not support them financially.
“As I see it, it’s really a transitional period for our musicians and thus, there should be some platforms or avenues to help equip and groom them.”
Gracie said despite the government having set up aid programmes meant to support this community – the Cultural Economy Development Programme (Cendana) being one of them –the assistance had hardly ‘trickled down’ to benefit the musicians and performers in Sarawak.
In this regard, she hoped to see more support and new avenues to give Sarawak musicians and performers ‘the chance to shine’.
“There are lots of untapped talents in Sarawak,” she pointed out.
On this year’s MCMF, Gracie said it would be run on Nov 26 and 27 as a hybrid music festival – combining the participation of the performer’s and festival-goers on a physical site under strict compliance with the set standard operating procedures, and virtual participation of people from around the world via online live-streaming.
“Even if things had gone back to normal with the availability of Covid-19 vaccine, the organisers must still apply and enforce all the control measures, such as safe physical-distancing, for any physical event.
“It’s a new era for the event organisers, and everyone will and must adapt to the new norms,” said Gracie.
A performer speaks
Tony Unja, a retired teacher who is also a talented musician and performer, said with the pubs and other music venues in Miri having remained closed for more than a year, local musicians and those working in areas related to music and performing arts had been facing financial problems, job insecurities and even anxieties.
“Many musicians have taken up part-time jobs. Food must be placed on the table, the children must go to school, and older parents need medical fees.”
Tony joined Raymond Suloi and a few others in forming the famous ‘Country Road Band’.
This local country music group has been entertaining Mirians since the 1980s and has travelled all throughout Sarawak to perform, often by invitation.
At one time, they were even invited to play in Canada but one member had certain passport issues and they had to turn down that lucrative offer – otherwise, Miri’s very own ‘Country Road Band’ could have become an international star.
The band had helped draw crowds to places like Mama’s Grill, Rupan Lounge, Amigo and The Jamboree – just to name a few in Miri.
“I am also concerned about the poor mental health of the professionals, the frontliners especially, and also the senior citizens during this stressful period.
“Music venues are considered non-essential establishment; thus, many of those who were employed by the local pubs, had lost their jobs.
“Musicians have been staying at home – waiting, and keep on waiting,” said Tony.
A local guitarist said musicians who formed bands locally and those who had been entertaining Mirians, had not received any financial support from the federal or state government, in view of them not being members of any association.
“The music venues in Miri used to attract fans from Brunei and even as far away as Bintulu and Kota Kinabalu. The fans would fly in from Bario and other highland resort-villages to be seen and heard, especially during special holidays and festivals.
“Offshore oil and gas men found the drinking holes and the music scene in Miri most relaxing after weeks on isolated platforms and vessels. Many of these people were on first-name basis with the musicians.
“Our Orang Ulu population is very big in Miri. If there’s a music event in Miri, they would all come from the highlands to give support. They’re like the ‘cowboys who would come to town and have a good time,” he spoke, requesting anonymity.
Another local musician Louis Ngui, who is also a music event planner, lamented about his son facing challenges due to unavailability of gigs.
“My son is a professional musician and he has been playing at the Pullman.
“It’s a hard time for musicians in Miri, young and old alike. And most probably, it’s the same situation in the whole of Malaysia,” he said.
However, there could be something positive in the offing as Ngui spoke about a musicians association in the process of being set up.
“This would definitely help many musicians. An association would place many – if not all – local musicians under one umbrella,” he added.
A friend of mine, who wished to speak anonymously, remarked: “I really think that it’s unfair that coffeeshops can be opened and host dine-in customers, or provide takeaway service but for pubs, they remain closed.
“Open-air concerts or performances can be held. If and when we have the space, we could even hold drive-in concerts, like those done in some other countries.
“Of course, strict SOP must be adhered to by all.
“Having said this, I feel rather sad that the music scene in Miri is now dying due to inactivity.”
Lesley Tan, who had always been looking forward to all the music festivals in Miri, was disappointed that there had been none so far.
She loved the MCMF 2019, which she thought was ‘splendidly organised’.
She also loved the ‘Borneo Jazz Festival’ and ‘Rocktober Fest Borneo’ – both regarded as top crowd-pulling events in Miri.
Furthermore, these kinds of events had been known to attract groups from all over the world and not only that, they had helped boost the local economy and at the same time, raised the standard of the musical and performing arts.
All these beckoned me to ask: What would be the future of the music scene in Miri?