5 things you don’t know about… busking in Malaysia
“I don’t make appointments, I just show up,” says Wady Hamdan, president of the Malaysian Busker’s Club and exactly the right person for the job. Wady admits that when it comes to dealing with politicians and civil servants, sometimes the only way to get things done is to make a nuisance of yourself.
From barging into offices to camping out overnight outside the PM’s house, Wady leaps over bureaucratic hurdles to get his musicians their space. Here he reveals some little-known-facts about the local busking scene.
1. It’s not illegal
Earlier this year – busker Abdul Rahman Zainol made headlines. The jazz saxophonist, affectionately known as ‘Cikgu Man’, who in his day performed for celebrities and royalty, had been taken in by local authorities. He was fined and had his instrument confiscated by authorities. The public was outraged, arguing that musician should be allowed to perform on the streets.
In fact, he is.
“Kuala Lumpur is the only place [in Malaysia] where you need a busking permit,” explains Wady. These are issued by DBKL and are necessary for street performances only. MYBC has negotiated space with private spaces, especially in shopping centres, for buskers to perform.
Even so, in other states you are asked to observe socio-political niceties and ‘ask permission’ from the city council before busking – “under the supervision of MYBC”, adds Wady.
As for the Cigku Man incident, Wady explains that the saxophonist was not arrested. “He was not detained by police but by the welfare department because they thought he was a beggar. (Had he actually been a beggar, one would think that a welfare department could do more than confiscate the instrument of his livelihood, but that’s another story). Wady says that with the help of MYBC members, the saxophone has been returned its owner and the issue put to rest.
2. It’s organized
If I was surprised by the mere existence of the Malaysian Busker’s Club (MYBC), I was flabbergasted by the numbers. At the time of the interview MYBC had over 12,000 members and added 10-12 new members every day. Wady holds up his incessantly beeping phone. “I’m constantly getting calls from people who want to join us.”
Whether or not members live up to a bohemian stereotype, Wady doesn’t. He is an astute businessman with clear plans to develop and sustain Malaysia’s buskers. He raises funds, secures busking corners, runs busking clinics and solves problems.
“People thought that buskers were the same as drug addicts,” says Wady. To silence critics, he had all members take a drug test, a dubious but bold move that settled the argument once and for all.
3. It provides a living wage
“Full-time buskers can earn at least RM700-800 a day.” They get even more at prime busking corners.
Who gets these corners?
Again, the answer comes from a carefully-considered business perspective. “All members of the MYBC are graded,” says Wady. When it comes to private arrangements, the MYBC commits to providing good performers, so only “A” grade buskers are considered. “B” grade buskers can work their way up with practice and by attending MYBC trial spots.
Busking also provides opportunities beyond our borders. Wady also tells me of a local busker who has travelled the world “with empty pockets”, living off of busking. “He went to India, Switzerland, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand” and countless countries en route.
4. It’s for anyone
“It doesn’t matter if you are a good musician,” says Wady. “First buskers must be entertainers.”
In fact you don’t have to be a musician at all. Members of MYBC include mimes, fire-eaters, dancers, magicians and stompers.
Among the musicians there is also great variety. Some have expensive, top-of-the-line equipment, others get creative with homemade instruments and found objects. “We have blind buskers, acapella buskers, instrumental buskers, traditional music buskers, DJ buskers… have you heard of the Bintulu Buskers? Most of them are police and the vocalist is a magistrate.”
5. It takes a village
To ensure the survival and growth of busking in Malaysia, Wady’s business brain thinks far into the future. The club’s next big step is a the Malaysian Buskers’ Village in Langkawi.
“It’s still in the planning process,” says Wady as a way of explaining why he can’t reveal more. “And yet in typical fashion he has already thought a lot of things through.
The village will provide accommodation and studio space for buskers. It will run clinics to teach buskers the skills they need to be grade A performers, able to make a living from their music.