Sitting watching the sun set over the Sulu Sea from a roof top bar in a Sandakan hotel, all seems perfect. The view, as the sun sinks gently into the sea dotted with native fishing boats heading back to land, the jungle-clad hills of small islands silhouetted against a darkening skyline, is like something out of a Conrad novel. The smells are evocative too, the smoke from the dozens of barbecues set up outside makeshift restaurants along the harbour front mixing with that unique smell of south east Asia – a combination of blocked drains, seaweed, durian and two-stroke exhaust fumes which, for all its noxious qualities is surprisingly comforting. And then there are the sounds. Luckily Sandakan is spared the aggressive cawing of crows, and behind the high pitched, insistent tweeting of a myriad tiny birds, there is the distant thud of motor boat engines and the splashing of a gentle sea against the shore. In the distance some shrill whistling comes from the small naval base – some sunset ritual still surviving despite Malaysia’s best attempts to shake off all evidence of its colonial past – and somewhere from the middle of town the Muezzin strikes up his highly evocative, and intensely beautiful, call to prayer quickly followed by his colleague/competitor from the mosque on the other side of town.
And then the cacophonous caterwauling of an open-air karaoke party bursts in to shatter this tranquil scene. It is an endemically Malaysian sound, a feeble male voice magnified beyond all reason by a cheap microphone and over-large speakers, straining itself through some inherently miserable Malay song, any hint of melodic content obscured as the voice strains to scream out the words of love and sadness. But for all its tired familiarity, it still manages to destroy the veneer of sunset calm which had briefly settled over the town. I am once again prompted to ask myself why in Asia – although it is by no means unique to this part of the world – there is this deep-seated selfishness which breeds the belief that one person’s enjoyment can be imposed so forcibly on others who, it is assumed, will automatically share the enjoyment. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Asians are particularly partial to crowding together in close proximity; and that one person’s enjoyment is genuinely shared by everyone else in the crowd.An Australian couple also enjoying the sights turn to me unprompted as Karaoke Man lets rip and say what I think; “Well, that’s shattered our peaceful evening!”. We get to talking and, having learnt that he is a marriage guidance counsellor and she his third wife (which begs the question, what value the advice of one who has so obviously failed twice in the very thing on which he is supposed to be advising?), I confess that I am a musician and, moreover, in Sandakan to do a spot of music examining. “Ah!” exclaims the trader in failed marriages, “So you won’t like that at all”, indicating with a nod of his head, the source of the ghastly din below. “Too right”, I reply (luckily holding back the word “cobber” just in time), “For me karaoke is the scourge of civilization” (no point being subtle with these Aussies). At which point Mrs Third Wife pipes up, “I dunno. He’s plainly having fun down there. What’s wrong with that? And what’s the point of music if people can’t enjoy themselves with it?”.
Where to start?Luckily, Mr Counsellor has developed diplomatic skills and pre-empts what he rightfully imagines would be a pithy riposte; “My wife won a singing competition at our local pub”. “Yeah”, she adds, “You probably know it. It’s well known for its music”, and goes on to mention a place called, improbably, The Bore Hole somewhere near Adelaide. A short husband and wife dispute follows (surprisingly, Mr Three Wives has not learnt when to keep schtum in the face of wifely determination) which centres on the likelihood or otherwise of my knowing Kevin at The Bore Hole, which is only curtailed by the arrival of the barman who reminds us that the sands of time are running out on Happy Hour and we need to get our orders in quick. Further discussion on music is thus prevented by the need for cheap alcoholic excess, and by the time I finish my second Sauvignon Blanc, not only has the sun gone completely, but the mosquitoes have arrived and we all need to repair inside the bar where a combination of arctic-style air-conditioning, TV soccer and the mind-numbing musical wallpaper those poor deluded souls at Sheraton Hotels believe creates atmosphere, drives me to my room, but not before Mr Marriage Guidance is seen, out of the corner of my eye, making unsubtle advances to a heavily over-made-up, heavily under-dressed bar girl who looks to be in the running for wife number four.
So, why do I feel that someone wailing piteously and pitifully in the guise of singing is not only offensive but also an inherently bad thing? The former is, of course, a purely personal matter and I would not expect others to share my distaste for it. But the latter is a more serious and far-reaching issue which has repercussions on music-making in general. The trouble lies in the fact that while the man who forced his singing on us was oblivious to everything around him – not least the musical accompaniment on the DVD – those who heard him in even closer proximity would not only have been unperturbed by the awful din he was creating, but would, in every probability, have been enjoying it and registering their enjoyment to all around. Such enjoyment is contagious and few in that crowd would have dared to suggest that the singer was not really very good at all. Very soon, it would have been accepted fact that he was “good”. Who knows, he might even have won a competition at The Bore Hole; that’s if Kevin has any Malay songs in his armoury.You need only walk into any Malaysian household where there are children and ask the children to sing. Those who are not too shy will immediately hold up their hand in a fist right in front of their mouths, pretending to hold a microphone to their lips, and then they will shout and scream for all they are worth. For them, this is what singing is – they see it at the karaoke and on karaoke-inspired TV shows, and have no other exposure to “live” music. Singing teachers will, of course, recoil in horror. But the pernicious influence extends far beyond singing.
While everyone feels they are entitled to access and perform music (and, indeed, they are), very few appreciate the difference between good and bad. Very few, moreover, appreciate that there is a difference between good and bad in music, accepting only the difference between liking and disliking. Thanks to a former Prime Minister, there is a Malaysian motto which, loosely translated, says that “Malaysians Can Do Anything”. Unfortunately, said Prime Minister forgot the crucial part of his sound-bite; he missed out the final word, “Well”. So a generation of Malaysians believes that doing is all that is necessary, and the idea of having to work harder to do something better is an alien concept. Thus it is that Karaoke Man is Good, because he can do; there is no need to take any further steps and do well.This attitude of celebrating the mediocre as the ultimate has percolated through to a lot of music-making, and one often comes across teachers wondering why their candidates may have failed their music exams. The fact that the student has spent a year struggling with the notes of three pieces should, in their eyes, be enough to pass. And if, by some chance, they do pass, that is enough; the concept that there is a difference between passing and passing well (getting a distinction) is immaterial. So long as people feel that the mediocre is the goal, any concept of quality in music-making is lost.
Perhaps my marriage guidance counsellor might sympathise with the concept; it’s not the quality of a thing that matters, it’s simply its existence. Get a wife is all that matters, and if you fail with her, simply go out and get another; Get up in front of the karaoke machine and sing, and if it doesn’t work, simply choose another. The idea that you might have to work at marriage and work at music does not come into the equation.