The Sultanate of Heavy Rock in Malaysia
Story and photos by Marco Ferrarese

Befriending the organizer of a well-hidden underground rock club in Penang, a curious traveler understands that sometimes globalization can be a good thing.

Malaysia punk rock

When I arrive at the address I have scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper, I don't see anything but a rusted up metallic gate slung over the entrance of a hardware shop. The long-haired guy who wrote it down for me at the only alternative record store in town said there would be live music here tonight.

"You should look for Cole," he suggested. "He runs an underground club and can tell you more about the local scene."

I'm really looking forward to meeting this guy, but it really looks like punk rock can't be found in this anonymous building. There's only a slanting Chinese hanging altar on the wall before me. Half-burnt joss-sticks that look like giant gray fingers crumble away in the night's breeze.

Malaysian punk

I'm resigned to go back when I notice a semi-open metal door in the building's uttermost right-hand corner. Behind it, a staircase leads me upstairs. Once I reach the second floor's landing, everything becomes clear. They don't need any unwanted attention here. A shaggy looking guy guards the entrance behind a plastic table with half his face magnified through the glass of a vase filled with crumpled multicolored bills.

"Do you know Cole?" I ask as my throat becomes dry with a strange sense of anticipation.

The guy scratches his beard, scans me from head to toe to ascertain if I'm good or bad news, and then places his open right palm before me until I drop the equivalent of three dollars as my entry token.

"He's inside, probably in the small room next to the stage," the guardian pushes the wooden door behind his back to grant me passage into a dimly lit room. As I step in, the reek of stale cigarette smoke and dusty air conditioning immediately attacks my nostrils.

Welcome to the Jungle

On a stage illuminated by spotlights, a band of young guitar gangsters uses a barely essential PA to raise hell and spray the walls with their three-chord bullets as if their guitars were sonic machine guns. Dozens of kids run furiously in a circular mosh-pit and slam-dance against each other in front of the musicians. A few get trampled under army boots and sneaker-clad feet, but it's alright. They get up and run again, as if nothing had happened.

I gulp down when I see some of them jump onto the edge of the flimsy stage and from there fly spread eagled over the excited crowd. Just a moment before these airborne lunatics hit the ground headfirst, a forest of limbs shakes them up to safely guide their hazardous flights until their feet hit the ground. All the while on the stage, tonight's guitar mobsters continue to preach their chainsaw punk gospel as they spin the hardcore kids in a mosh, like a lawnmower would do with freshly cut grass.

Since white people are quite an uncommon sight here, it's Cole who bumps into me first. He's a skinny, tattooed Malaysian Chinese who takes care of Penang's local music scene as if he were its cardiologist. In fact, whether behind the mixing board, the bar, or on stage fixing up the backline, he keeps the musical heart of this Malaysian island red and beefy and always pumping blood. He plays guitar in a Chinese post-rock band called Hui Se Di Dai (The Grey Zone), one of the longest running combos in Penang, and comes from the one-horse town of Brinchang in the strawberry-producing, unrockable fields of the Cameron Highlands, just a couple hours drive to the south.

Penang rock club

"It was hard to find this place," I say and ask him why there aren't clearer indications to attract more people. Cole laughs. "All those who are welcome already know how to find us," he answers.

Shouting at the Devil

Punk rock, death metal, and hardcore music in Malaysia—a multiethnic, multireligious, but predominantly Islamic country—challenge the rules. Malaysia is certainly not war-torn Iraq where, as showed in documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, playing a rock show is an occasion to remember in history. But choosing metal and punk is still an act of rebellion.

Hard rock got big in the 1980s, when a local version of American glam rock called rock kapak (rock axe) gave the yet not-so-Islamicized Malays an avenue to show some macho rock testosterone and drive crowds of thousands crazy. Punk rock came next, imported from England and New York City. Throughout the 1990s, local punk bands released their albums on local subsidiaries of western major record labels, and their loud music was broadcasted on national airwaves. The rules of the game changed in 2001 and then 2006, when a series of crackdowns on black metal music flashed on international headlines. The conservative trenches of the rising political group Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) realized that the Devil's music of the West had a strong foothold in the country. To them, it was not just about satanic black metal. The whole cauldron of underground rock genres represented a threat to their agenda of youth's Islamization.

The PAS fought the underground fire with censorship. Record shops were raided, fanzine editors and show organizers questioned and arrested, and the genre officially banned in the states of Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, and Penang. According to ex Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, all Malaysian rock musicians were 'Satanists' who desecrated the holy Quran, smoked cannabis, and drank animal blood.

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