Tag Archive | Music

Beats at The Beast

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Night seems to be the time when some people, like certain species of nocturnal wildlife, wake up and crawl out from within their shells. I found myself pounding down North Bridge Road as the late afternoon sunk into the pallid violet of evening. Rows of halal eateries gave way to kitschy cafés and galleries in narrow sidestreets, and then spread out to reveal a white square building surrounded by long wooden tables peopled with lively well-heeled millenials chatting over hand-made burgers and fries. I sat in the restaurant and watched as the fall of darkness intensified the amber glow of the woodwork and drew a new sort of crowd past its doors.

The Beast, sitting right across from the arty Aliwal Street, is one of the many establishments that had indirectly been fed by Singapore’s growing upper crust. It was made to resemble an all-American saloon with walls imitating wooden panelling, a bourbon bar stretching half the length of the restaurant, and wait staff in identical red flannel shirts. Before evening fell, the only other customers besides myself were an American family of three playing Uno over plates of fried chicken and a pair of British men talking in low voices. And at the end of the restaurant was a small stage with a microphone and a tiny speaker. I ordered a mac-and-cheese, sat down, and waited for night to fall.

A large man with a shaggy beard quietly stepped onto the stage. He slung his guitar across his shoulder and began to strum a few slow bars. “My name is Shaq,” he announced with a laconic drawl. “If any of you wanna play you can use my guitar. After I’m done usin’ it, of course. I’ll just keep playing songs until then, yeah.” His presence grew behind the mic. A strident voice echoed off the woodwork, playing soulful acoustic covers of pop songs ranging from Corrine Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl Put Your Records On’ to Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Everyone craned forward to listen and sway in time to the music. Shaq was quick to shrug off the waves of staccato applause that came with each song. “Please lah, I’m just playing music.” It was, as the regulars would later mention, ‘a quiet night’, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Immersed in his music, he continued playing to a tiny crowd, steeping the room in the poignant melancholy of his music.

As he played, more characters seemed to step into the restaurant, as if they had materialised from the thick of the night outside. A tall slender woman with a curly bob flounced in, followed by a man in a pastel blue dress shirt. While one of them sang along and whooped at Shaq’s playing, the other had a pen in hand and was busily sketching the musician’s face onto a brown napkin. “Oh are you alone?” she asked, sweeping me over to the high stools where they sat. They introduced themselves as Jocelyn and James – one, the organiser of the weekly open mics, and the other a friend who happened to be tagging along. “We do all sorts of crazy things!”  James exclaimed. “Jocelyn writes poetry and she will sing randomly on the street. She’s also a nurse. I like to sign up for different courses, like white-water rafting.” Looking at how free-spirited both seemed to be, the thought of their having mundane day jobs seemed almost incredulous. I felt like I was being ushered into another world: one darker, and more mysterious, than the one we roamed in during the day.

We stepped outside for Jocelyn to have a smoke. A solitary star twinkled above the roar of traffic along Victoria Street and the strobing city lights. “Jocelyn, that’s Venus, isn’t it,” James remarked, before introducing me to the other hidden constellations in the sky: Pisces and Altair were lurking, unseen. The same could be said of the deeper, more reflective sides of these bar-goers I met that night. Below is some of the conversation I had with James:

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Jocelyn and James

“I draw on napkins because I don’t bring my sketchbook with me everywhere. In my work there aren’t many opportunities to sit down and sketch. My job may sound interesting, but the pay is low. But it’s still enough to cover my bills, until I switch to my next job. On Fridays I like to go art jamming just across the street. You just go there to paint, and the proceeds go to some needy people. I forgot to get my brother a housewarming gift, so I painted him something. Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. Another, I would say, is Rene Magritte. He’s a French Surrealist artist. I don’t really follow certain artists, but look at the brushstrokes and the way they use colour. Drawing is just a hobby for me. You have to know when to keep your hobby separate from your job, otherwise it will consume you.”

“Jocelyn and I have been friends for eight years. We were in a musical together. I was her co-actor. I think it’s important to try out new things. Of course that doesn’t mean doing something like this,” and here he pointed to Jocelyn who had a plume of cigarette smoke wafting from her lips. “I get a different sort of high from rock-climbing. I’ve done six of the thirty-six things I have on my list. When I was younger I was afraid of trying new things, until one of my university lecturers used to reminds us, ‘Don’t try, don’t know. Don’t try, don’t know.’ During my university days I went on a trip to Hanoi. Then I went to Macau, and began skydiving in 2015. Jocelyn, you know I have a health condition that impedes my flexibility and physical movements. But I don’t let it stop me.”

“During N.S. I received many rejections by universities. Australian Royal University, they accepted me. Jocelyn was the valedictorian! I still remember her graduation speech: ‘The world is your oyster’. My advice I can give to you for life is: say as many ‘I love you’s as you want, hug as many people as you want, say as many ‘Thank you’s as you want. Just remember that if things don’t work out, always remember to let go.”

Sometimes, it appears that the privilege of unwinding that the night affords individuals can bring out the musicians and artists that lie dormant in them, yearning to be expressed. I looked at James’ napkin drawings and the little notebook – ‘an existentialist’s guide to the universe’ – that Jocelyn had left on the table in front of her. During the clamour of their day jobs, these would be dismissed as nothing more than curiosities. Now, however, they sat as intriguing symbols of the inner lives of their owners. But as I walked away from the restaurant into the flooding light of the streetlamps, I could feel the memories of the night slip away – for I seemed to be slipping between worlds.

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Shaq with his guitar. “This is my only regular venue. I’ve been doing this for three years, since I was in army.”

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Celebrating Surya Pongal

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Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.

Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.

Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.

More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.

Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.

Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.

The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.

Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.

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Mr Manoj kindling the fire.

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A ripened banana folded with a sugarcane leaf in a coconut shell, one of the two halves placed against the corners of the sugarcane structure representing the fruits of farm labour.

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The charred remains of the orange hard candy that had been burnt as an offering.

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Arranging the food offerings on a banana leaf.

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Raucous clapping to the Pongal music.

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Musicians on the nadaswaram flute and dholak drum.

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A girl carrying a beaker from which guests would pour milk into the steel pot.

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The milk being put to boil.

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