Travelling gets you in the end! It just creeps up on you……
Before leaving, if someone had said the word ‘Traveler’ to me, it would conjure up an image of a young 20-something in yoga pants, dreadlocks, a maybe new-found, philosophical, and laid-back attitude to life, a big backpack, possibly a guitar slung over your shoulder, and maybe a freshly inked bamboo tattoo you have just received from a Buddhist monk in a Thai temple……
‘That wasn’t going to be me’, I thought…..I’m older (definitely), wiser (hmmm…debatable), I’d been working in a corporate environment for the past 10 years…..I was quite comfortable with what I was doing….I just wanted to see a bit of this big and beautiful world expecting to come back pretty much the same as when I’d started, maybe with some amazing memories, a more worn out backpack, and a few fond stories to tell.
And yet here I am! It’s 3:30am and I’m outside, trying to sleep on the pavement just outside Guilin airport which has closed for the night. My backpack is being used as a cushion for my back, I’ve got bangles around my wrist, yoga pants around my waist, and I’m using the African drum I’ve just bought as a pillow in order to get some sleep for a few hours before my flight out of China!
How the f&*k did that just happen? I didn’t even realize until it got to this point! :-)
I’m on my way to Malaysia again, and after a pretty sleepless night, a small flight, and a slightly longer bus journey I arrive in Georgetown, Penang Island.
Jing Yi needed a bit more time to sort a visa into Malaysia from China (I feel so lucky having a UK passport!) so I’m travelling solo for a week to check the place out first.
First of all, Penang is beautiful. There’s a reason it’s such a popular tourist hotspot, good weather, cheap and amazing food, nice beaches, a complete mesh of cultures and people, and its famous street art littered throughout Georgetown.
Apart from generally mooching around the island, my main routine consisted of drum practice. Wake up, grab a coffee, take the drum down to a quiet spot in a the park or by the dockside and try to learn some rhythms.
A week in, and a sore hand later, Jing Yi joins me with a goody-bag of street performance gear, and my daily practice routine gets poi added into the mix.
I always had the impression that busking life would be pretty straight forward……stop in a spot, get a guitar out, throw down a hat……simple right? Well, here is what I learned from Jing Yi in my month in Malaysia:
1. Finding the right spot
One of the most important points, and far more tricky than I imagined, is to find the right spot. There needs to be enough footfall around in order to attract a crowd, and having a good mixture of locals and tourists is a plus. The problem is that when you find one of these areas, you are not the first. The spot we found looked perfect; a park area by the seafront, which also had local restaurants, artists selling painting, massage tables etc. which kind of puts you in a weird position…you are the newbies who have introduced a bit of competition….. Which brings me to point 2….
2. Make friends
Once you have found a good spot, you don’t want to upset the people, buskers and small businesses who had already found it beforehand. Which can be a bit tricky as every ringgit that goes into your busker’s hat was a ringgit which potentially could have gone to the artist drawing portraits or the massage table set up next to you. Combine with the fact that neither of us had working visas or permits to busk in a public area…one unhappy local and a call to the police could be a very swift end to the busking time in Penang. To get around this, we spent a few days practicing at various times of the day….without fire, and without a hat. Just to see the level of attention we got….it turned out to be really useful. The regulars in the park were really friendly and curious and would come to chat to us about what we were up to, and after a bunch of chats we got the impression that we’d be fine here as long as we weren’t there all night…busk for a few hours and then move on.
We also scouted around the main bar area as a 2nd spot to move to. While walking down a guy comes running after us, “Hey man! Is that a djembe?”
“Can I try it?”
I look around, we’re in the middle of a street, “Yeah sure” as I hand him my bag and he proceeds to get the drum out and blasts out a rhythm while standing in the middle of the road. Turns out this guy was a professional percussionist in a former life and had moved out here to set himself up as a bar owner. Looks like we’ve found our regular bar :-) The guys were so helpful, they had no issues with Jing Yi setting fire to poi outside and even reserved a space for us a few nights by blocking a spot with their car :-)
On one of the practice days in the park, Jing Ji was practicing some belly dance while I was trying to put a drum rhythm together for it. At the same time we were talking to one of the portrait artists who was set up next to us. After we finished our friend says, “Can I tell you something?”
“I don’t want to offend, and for me personally I find it an art form and very beautiful. But here you may have noticed that you are not getting a lot of attention while you practice”
We look around and he’s right…even when just practicing poi without the fire, Jing Yi will normally get a few onlookers who stop. Right now, no-one was looking in our direction.
“Belly-dance will probably not go down well here”, he continues, “it’s considered to provocative for a lot of locals”
I felt a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t even thought of that before now….Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and the dress code here for locals is fairly conservative. We made the decision that there would be no belly dancing in Malaysia and instead Jing Yi would stick to poi.
And so, with the spots picked out the new routine began: Wake, coffee, practice, explore, busking. Well……it was predominantly Jing Yi doing the busking :-) I was pretty conscious of how new I was to all this and didn’t want to do anything which would take the performance down a notch or 2 (especially as it is Jing Yi’s main source of income). I would dip in and out with the drum with the other bits filled in by a speaker. It was really fun experience and I definitely think I progressed a bit in both poi and djembe over the month. I even felt like a got a busking promotion when Jing Yi told me it was time to do a bit of practice with fire for the first time :-)
And to round off the post some pics from the final week spent in Kuala Lumpur for a change in busking scenery.
And after 10 and a half months I’ll be heading back to the UK for the first time in over 10 months! A few weeks over Xmas and New year to catch up with family and friends before heading back out again :-)
Thank you Jing Yi, you’ve been a great teacher and even better company for the past few weeks. Hope to see you again further on down the road at some point :-)