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IT has been six years since drummer Arthur Kam left Malaysia for the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, the United States, and subsequently, the bright lights of New York. There, he became part of a live music scene which was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

His fellow musicians were all insanely talented. Trends were changing every month, and audiences appreciatively lapped up what the performers threw at them. While he knew the scene in Malaysia would probably never match up to one of the most popular cities in the world, he hoped things would’ve at least improved after six years. They hadn’t.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to maintain the pace we’re on at the moment, because people are eventually going to get tired and look for music elsewhere,” said Kam, 25, two months after his return to Malaysia. “We’re still playing the same old songs!”

After six years in the US, Kam is finally back home in Petaling Jaya, where he and his siblings run a music business.

After six years in the US, Kam is finally back home in Petaling Jaya, where he and his siblings run a music business. — Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

While the sentiment might make him sound like a snob, Kam is far from one. Despite spending most of his life being touted as a child prodigy, and being the first drummer outside the United States to win Modern Drummer magazine’s Undiscovered Drummer title in 2008, Kam remains remarkably down-to-earth.

But he simply cannot turn a blind eye to the approach Malaysian musicians have towards music anymore, not after what he experienced in the US. There, he said, young working musicians are much more aware of the hardships they have to face in their initial years on the scene.

“Young musicians would travel for hours to play a gig for free, and even then, sometimes there would be no one in the audience,” said Kam.

Because of the level of competition spurred by these young musicians’ passion and dedication to their craft, the standards are always extremely high; and audiences in turn are constantly exposed to world class performances.

Now that he’s back, after his US visa ran out, Kam hopes to slowly inspire a “shift in mentality” that will create the same musical ecosystem he was a part of in New York.


Going to America

Jazz and R&B came from America, and the best way to understand how to play a type of music is to go to where it originated from.”

Even though Berklee has produced some of the world’s greatest modern musical minds, from Quincy Jones and Sadao Watanabe to John Mayer and Steve Vai, and even a few pop stars like Meghan Trainor and – oddly enough – Psy, Kam doesn’t make a big fuss of having studied there. He said as long as you meet the college’s requirements, and have enough money, you’ll get in.

What was more important for him was to study in the US, where his favourite musical genres were born.

“Jazz and R&B came from America, and the best way to understand how to play a type of music is to go to where it originated from,” said Kam. “At the same time, I wanted to know how I would fare in the US.”

Kam preparing to perform with Jacky Cheung at a private concert in Hong Kong. — Handout

Kam preparing to perform with Jacky Cheung at a private concert in Hong Kong. — Handout

While Berklee was his training ground, New York would be his battlefield. He moved there after completing his degree in Contemporary Writing and Production, eager to put his new-found skills to practice in probably the most competitive music scene in the world.

“New York is a really tough place to be. It’s a city of hustling and hard work. There are all sorts of people there, and musically, each area is different. In the subways, for example, you see the struggles of the people, and how they relate to music,” he said.

The fact that every musician in New York works hard to stand out actually makes it harder for them to make money, even when compared to Malaysia, said Kam.

He said some venues don’t pay the musicians directly. The musicians only take a percentage of the door sales, or are even forced to pre-purchase tickets and re-sell them at a higher price. Some even pay venues to let them play, then negotiate terms to get a cut of the food and beverage revenue.

“Because of this harsh reality, everyone there takes music a lot more seriously. Truth is, you’d probably make more money busking on the streets where you can make up to US$200 (RM815) a day,” said Kam.

“It’s not Hollywood. It’s nothing like what you see in the movies.”

Others on the scene played at weddings and private events, while some even took odd jobs to pay the bills, all to fund their passion for performing live music. Kam himself took up several recording jobs (including one with Malaysian singer Irma Seleman) which were recommended to him by others on the New York scene.

The difference in Malaysia, said Kam, is that musicians often get lulled into doing music as a nine-to-five career. It’s more about having a steady job than pursuing their passion, whatever the cost.

But because fewer musicians are pushing the envelope in terms of live music, fewer people are willing to pay to watch it. Now more than ever, said Kam, Malaysian musicians need to take care of their craft. It’s up to them to make audiences fall in love with live music again.

Building a career

The shows weren’t open to public, but even then there were fans waiting outside just to get a glimpse of him walking into the building. It was that crazy!”

Kam definitely knows a thing or two about being dedicated to a craft. He has been performing since he was 7.

“Even back then, I was expected to behave like a professional, and it was really harsh at times. I would get yelled at for the slightest mistakes,” he said.

By the time he graduated from secondary school, Kam had played with pretty much every big name in the local music industry – Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, Jaclyn Victor, Zainal Abidin, M. Nasir, Faizal Tahir… the list goes on and on. And when he was in New York, he even managed to work with Cory Henry, one of the core members of Snarky Puppy, the highly-acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning instrumental ensemble.

But probably his biggest gig so far is one that hasn’t even fully materialised. Kam said he was tapped to play for Hong Kong superstar Jacky Cheung on a world tour, but sadly, his involvement was cancelled due to a change in Cheung’s management.

Cheung invited an 11-year-old Kam on stage at a concert in Malaysia to play the percussions. He had learnt about Kam’s talent through Kam’s sister, Genervie. — Handout

Cheung invited an 11-year-old Kam on stage at a concert in Malaysia to play the percussions. He had learnt about Kam’s talent through Kam’s sister, Genervie. — Handout

Kam got the gig thanks to his YouTube channel. He had been uploading some stuff just for fun. “People seemed to like the first video I put up. I thought since they enjoyed it, and it could help a bit with marketing, why not keep doing it?”

Putting videos up on YouTube has also become something of a creative outlet, allowing him to showcase more of “the creative side of what’s going on in my mind”, compared to the session work he does for other artistes.

Cheung’s music director at the time came across one of those videos – a cover of the rhythmically complex song System, by British soul/R&B duo Brotherly – and immediately offered Kam the job as Cheung’s live drummer. It would’ve been a nice reunion as years ago, during a concert in Malaysia, Cheung invited a young Kam on stage to play the percussions. Kam’s sister, keyboardist/violinist/music director Genervie, was playing for Cheung at the time.

Even though the world tour gig didn’t work out this time, Kam was still able to work with Cheung on a couple of private shows, one in Hong Kong and another in Singapore.

“The shows weren’t open to public, but even then there were fans waiting outside just to get a glimpse of him walking into the building. It was that crazy!” said Kam.

Kam posing with Cheung at a post concert after-party. — Handout

Kam posing with Cheung at a post concert after-party. — Handout

On the plus side, Kam will be on the scene in Malaysia for the foreseeable future, during which he’ll be working with Genervie. Their latest project was a song they produced for Dayang Nurfaizah.

But Kam isn’t one to dream up big, grandiose plans to turn the Malaysian music scene around. All he really wants to do is play the drums, make amazing music, and keep getting better at it.

“I’ve always believed that if you give music the standard it deserves, and always put the music first over other considerations, everything else will take care of itself.”

  • Sing Lee Chin

    This is written not to slander, but to debate and offer a different perspective towards the topics discussed by Kam.

    Well, I think he has forgotten that the Malaysian culture assumes that “music is free” and ‘most musicians are culturally viewed as beggars.”

    Also, our country is only 50 +years old, we cultural idiots and insensitive to the arts, some had never even heard the term jazz, Blues & rnb, nor are they able to appreciate a song without vocals.

    What Malaysians want the hear are the songs that they know, songs they have heard on the radio, popular covers from youtube and other popular sources.

    No one pays to see local gigs, no local radio stations wanna play songs from indie artists, no companies buy ads slots from independent radios, no community supports local radio.

    The list goes on and on, so the real question is,
    by being better at our craft, can ‘we’ the musicians of Malaysia, actually change anything?

    And how does ‘that’ translate to the change of Malaysian’s cultural perspective’s towards local music, when music is mostly free (youtube, deezer, Spotify, radio, piracy).

    • Those are some great points, man. But we guess what Arthur means – based on our interview with him (maybe he’ll clarify) – is that the musicians have to make the first move, and hope the audiences catch up.

      As for the point you brought up on YouTube, Spotify, etc., Arthur didn’t say much about that, so we won’t try to clarify anything. Hopefully he’ll see your comment and respond directly. Cheers!

    • Don Renkai

      I would Also like to add on to the discussion, (a reminder that these are extra topics and larger information to consider, as the author and Kam himself, did not consider all these census in the original interview)

      Also, I would like to add about the “economic disparity and barriers to access” , most musicians that I know of (mostly from the MELAKA, jb and kl regions ) are self taught with little or no music education, this is due to most of them hailing from the lower middle to lower class of society.

      Where am I leading to is “the barriers to entry” , as even if a “lower class income musician” is good and amazing in writing, performing and instrument, there are barriers to access created by the rich and privileged. As All accessible musical education in Malaysia is monopolized by the large private organizations such as yamaha group, abrsm, trinity and private universities (Icom, segi, ucsi).

      These organization are most credible and trusted, however they are creating barriers to entry for the underprivileged, the uneducated musicians are frown upon and are shown the door when applying for gigs, jobs, contracts, teaching positions, positions in higher education (music) and basically biased for not possessing a music cert (which is costly, and is not finance by the gov)

      Therefore, music in Malaysia basically a rich man’s playing field where the rich and educated are the only ones who are able to reach success in an early age.

      And this is just music education, I have not even went to the affordability of musical instruments and equipment yet.

      • Yeah, Arthur did mention during the interview that a formal music education makes a huge difference when you’re a working musician. It’s definitely something to be addressed.

  • Malaysian music enthusiast

    It is pathetic that some Malaysian musicians to continue to want to take the easy way out with “excuses” like challenges posed by youtube, deezer, Spotify, radio, piracy… as a reason for their stagnation.

    They must realise that such challenges are equally faced by musicians the world over..

    It will make a huge difference if some of our local musicians change their attitude and demonstrate more perseverance & resourcefulness to compete in the international arena.

    • Sing Lee Chin

      2 (this is in reply to R. Age and Malaysian music enthusiast) I do understand the author’s and Kam’s message, however as I have said previously, the Malaysian audience are culturally insensitive to music and the arts no matter how good or bad it is, the “Malaysian musicians ” are unable to change an entire nation’s cultural perspective towards local music overnight by just being good at the craft.

      But, Even if good local music was made, great local writing, great local musicians and great local recording. It would still take large corporations years to change a nation’s mass perspective (only if it is profitable) from supporting marketable music to supporting the local scene as “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” – Edward Bernays (propaganda 1928)

      Also in reply to Malaysian Music enthusiast who said “It is pathetic that some Malaysian musicians to continue to want to take the easy way out with “excuses” like challenges posed by youtube, deezer, Spotify, radio, piracy… as a reason for their stagnation.”

      I do believe that there is competition from these entities, however as said, this isnt a matter of competition but a cultural issue whereby Malaysians are culturally insensitive to music and the arts. And that Malaysians perspective that music is supposed to be ‘free’.

      But do give some suggestions to the matter, as you have said that “local musicians change their attitude and demonstrate more perseverance & resourcefulness to compete in the international arena.”

      Do suggest some steps and techniques so that it may help fellow musicians and readers alike.

      • You raised some interesting points there, especially on how large corporations could have a big say in this. Hopefully Arthur and some other musicians can help with some suggestions. We believe Shanjeev has already replied on FB 🙂

  • Sing Lee Chin

    (this is in reply to R. Age and Malaysian music enthusiast) I do understand the author’s and Kam’s message, however as I have said previously, the Malaysian audience are culturally insensitive to music and the arts no matter how good or bad it is, the “Malaysian musicians ” are unable to change an entire nation’s cultural perspective towards local music overnight by just being good at the craft.

    But, Even if good local music was made, great local writing, great local musicians and great local recording. It would still take large corporations years to change a nation’s mass perspective (only if it is profitable) from supporting marketable music to supporting the local scene as “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” – Edward Bernays (propaganda 1928)

    Also in reply to Malaysian Music enthusiast who said “It is pathetic that some Malaysian musicians to continue to want to take the easy way out with “excuses” like challenges posed by youtube, deezer, Spotify, radio, piracy… as a reason for their stagnation.”

    I do believe that there is competition from these entities, however as said, this isnt a matter of competition but a cultural issue whereby Malaysians are culturally insensitive to music and the arts. And that Malaysians perspective that music is supposed to be ‘free’.

    But do give some suggestions to the matter, as you have said that “local musicians change their attitude and demonstrate more perseverance & resourcefulness to compete in the international arena.”

    Do suggest some steps and techniques so that it may help fellow musicians and readers alike.

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