I saw two different musical performances during the recent Chinese New Year weekend. The first was the Ed Lee Quintet at No Black Tie, and the second was Afdlin & Ferhad at Comedy Planet.
On the surface, these were two very different musical experiences.
Ed Lee is this astounding jazz virtuoso whose prowess at the keys was matched by his equally astounding band made up of Fly on bass, Julian Chan on saxophone and the incredible John Thomas on drums.
It was progressive jazz all the way, with superb progressive individual solos, meter-splicing polyrhythmic counterpoints and innovative chordal play at a level on a par with the global jazz greats. They were definitely pushing the envelope forward.
I was open-mouthed most of the time, not just because these were young Malaysian musicians playing at the highest level I’ve seen, but also because the place was full of people who appreciated this level of jazz artistry, a category of music one would consider extremely niche.
The next night, I went to Afdlin Shauki’s Comedy Planet and saw Afdlin and Ferhad perform R&B songs with a healthy dose of comedy. They were backed by Acidiz, a band made up of stellar sessionists Dato Acis on keys, Fendi on drums, Dr Pacheye on bass and Aji on guitar. Bobo played percussion and Mizi, Ayie and Fariz provided backing vocals.
Afdlin and Ferhad’s chemistry on stage was magnetic. The crowd firmly in their grasp, they kept the audience singing along for two hours, supported by a band that grooved tightly like a well-oiled unit.
I was open-mouthed here, too, not just because the crowd were all singing along to some “obscure” R&B songs, but also because the place was packed with people who appreciated this level of R&B artistry, a category of music one would also consider extremely niche.
Two different musical performances and styles. Two different crowds. The only thing in common was that they were both non-mainstream acts.
I remember thinking before that weekend that I would be amongst a sparse but appreciative audience. I wasn’t expecting a big crowd. Progressive jazz at No Black Tie on Chinese New Year eve? Two non-current musical artistes singing R&B on Chinese New Year? Who would come?
But the packed venues, albeit small, jolted me back into a forgotten reality.
When we work, whether for a corporation or for our own businesses, we continually search for growth, as any respectable business would (an old business maxim: “If you stop growing, you start dying”).
We might have started small, focusing on a core group of consumers, but as we grow, our strategies change to become more mass-oriented, looking for more and more consumers, in order to continually increase revenues.
And just like that, we stop focusing on the smaller niche group of consumers.
The funny thing is, it is these very niches that provide inspiration for the mass market.
Products for niche markets, be it music, gardening tools, anything, are always filled with passion and ingenuity because the players aren’t there for mass-market commercialism yet. They are not yet driven by a need to always grow revenues. They are usually driven to introduce something different and new. And their early consumers would always be a small niche group.
A few of these products would get more attention, until one day, it suddenly becomes “hip” and mainstream. This circle of life has always kept the economy going since the beginning of capitalism.
These niche products are a glimpse into our future, signals of what could possibly be. Most fail but a few would change our world forever. Think Elon Musk and his planned conquest of Mars.
That’s why I think it is our responsibility to always support the outlying niches to always ensure exciting new ideas continually come into the marketplace.
The stakes are higher for music and arts. Support for non-mainstream music, be it jazz, R&B, indie, etc, will not only feed into our mainstream music, making it more exciting, BUT will also mean our arts will always be full of depth, inspired from a potent combination of musical styles one might never have imagined.
Popular mainstream music gets its cues from what’s happening in the dingy jazz clubs or small indie clubs. Some pop producer could be at an Ed Lee performance and be inspired to create something totally new and exciting for the mass market.
So do this. Go see a jazz performance, an indie gig, a play, poetry reading, or anything that just sounds different, go and see it. Pay the ticket. Support them.
You’re assuring our exciting future.
Ahmad Izham Omar works in the production of TV, film and music content and gets panicky trying to figure out his next tweet