Neighbourly exchange of arts and laughs

Comedians, dancers and artists from Malaysia will perform at festival here

The sound of bamboo. -- PHOTO: WONG HORNG YIH
Wushu Madness II – The Realm Within explores the relation of dreams and reality using dance and martial arts. -- PHOTO: LEE WUSHU ARTS THEATRE

From the best of comedy in print and on stage to little-known art forms, a wide spectrum of Malaysian arts and culture will be on display at a 10-day festival.

The fifth annual CausewayEXchange festival opens on Friday, with the hope of fostering closer ties between the Singaporean and Malaysian art communities.

Some of the headline acts this year include popular cartoonist Lat, who will be part of World Lit, a series of talks and panel discussions; and stand-up comedian Harith Iskander, whose show at the festival celebrates his 22nd year in the business.

But audiences can also expect off-the-beaten-track sights and sounds.

These include a photography exhibition showing Sabah's natural wonders by a group called The Photographers Guild and a performance by a bamboo orchestra, Kinabalu Merdu Sound.

Festival director Shawn Lourdusamy says: "We want to expose Singaporeans to Malaysian arts which are not commonly seen in Singapore, such as the bamboo orchestra from Sabah, which play modern day instruments made from bamboo. We want to bring in acts which are unique to Malaysia."

In return, a Singapore contingent will be going to Penang's George Town Festival in August with a project titled The Sin-Pen Colony.

It will include a site-specific play, 2 Houses, directed by Lim Yu Beng, and appearances by visual artists Alan Oei and Samantha "Sticker Lady" Lo, as well as musicians The Sam Willows and Inch Chua.

Life! highlights three acts to catch at this year's CausewayEXchange.

Dance meets wushu

Watch the explosive power of martial arts blend with the flowing beauty of dance in Wushu Madness II - The Realm Within, by the Johor-based Lee Wushu Arts Theatre.

The company was set up by artistic director Lee Swee Seng, 33, in 1998. Between 1994 and 2001, he was an active competitor in the wushu scene, and won gold and silver medals in Malaysia's National Wushu Tournament.

He says he set up the company because "I started thinking about what wushu is, beyond just physical competition and exercise. It was then that I realised that wushu is also an art".

Here, the group will be presenting a set inspired by a metaphysical question posed by Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi, which questioned the nature of reality.

The tale goes thus: Zhuang Zi had a dream in which he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he questioned the nature of reality - was he a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man?

Lee says that the performancce was born from a similar line of questioning: "Sometimes, I have this feeling as well when I wake up from a dream. Am I living in the real world, is this real, or is there something else behind this reality? And how do you know what's real?"

The sound of bamboo

What would the bright, jazzy tones of a saxophone sound like if the instrument were constructed not from brass, but pliable shafts of bamboo?

One man knows the answer.

Philipus Jani, from Sabah, has spent 13 years perfecting a hybrid bamboo saxophone. He says: "Saxophones, which are made from metal, sometimes make too sharp a sound. With bamboo, the sound is more mellow."

The musician, who plays by ear and has never had any formal musical training, will be performing with the Kinabalu Merdu Sound, an orchestra which is based in Sabah.

The orchestra will showcase a wide variety of traditional musical instruments such as the sompoton, a wind instrument made of many bamboo pipes, and the gendang, a large drum.

He fell in love with the saxophone in 1993, after playing his friend's instrument, but was too poor to afford one of his own.

So he constructed his own from bamboo, spending years to improve it piece by piece.

It was only in 2006 that he achieved a sound which he was satisfied with, and since then, he has taken his bamboo instrument all over Malaysia and to Japan as well.

The first of the orchestra's two concerts here will be of international and jazz music, and the second of Malay music.

He puts it down to the versatility of his bamboo instrument: "With this, you can play any song you want - Chinese, Malay or English."

Spanning two decades

Like many jokes, stand-up comedian Harith Iskander's own career started in a bar.

It was 22 years ago that the bald funnyman delivered his first set in front of a paltry audience of six in a hotel lounge bar, most of whom were his friends.

"To be honest, there were no expectations at all and I thought it would just be a one-off thing," says Harith, 48, who landed the gig through a friend who was working at the hotel.

"Looking back, I should have been more nervous," he quips.

Little did he know that the casual set would be the first in a long line of toppling dominoes that would lead to him being christened the godfather of Malaysian comedy today.

His comic ability quickly spread through word of mouth and he says: "Now, I've done everything, from hosting the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 to doing a show at the zoo in front of otters. They were an appreciative audience."

He has also performed in Australia, India and Hong Kong and was in Singapore in April for the Singapore Comedy Fringe.

His show here, Harith Iskander - Godfather Of Malaysian Comedy, marks more than two decades in comedy and will trace his journey in the business. Local comedians Jinx Yeo and Fakkah Fuzz will open the show.

Harith says: "This tour is a celebration of my 22nd year as a comedian, and what better way to celebrate than to encapsulate the last 22 years in a show?"

The comedian, who also acts and directs in television and theatre, thrives on spontaneity and says that he does not prepare his set more than a few days in advance.

"My material comes quite organically, on the day or the day before, and I don't prepare that far in advance. When I'm in Singapore, I'll check with friends, see what's new, what's on peoples' minds and maybe something will happen from there."

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