Listening First: A Personal Recounting of Cuba Dengar Dulu

By Shaun Phuah

              I step out of my Grab car and onto the loose gravel of the area surrounding KongsiKL, a venue buried deep between construction buildings and workers covered in dust, half obscured by metal shutters as they slam metal against metal.
                I make my way by following the fairy lights that begin around an obscure corner and find myself surrounded by various people, some of them with shaved heads, others in traditional garb, and plenty of people in the colourful and baggy clothes and bucket hats that make up KL fashion sense.
            The event itself is Cuba Dengar Dulu and I can see the different art kiosks and mini-exhibits sprawled throughout what looks like a massive repurposed warehouse. My friend and one of the co-organizers of the event, Vic, waves me over and begins giving me a tour of the event space.
              There’s a tall mirror almost in the middle of the warehouse and Vic tells me we can write down what we wish to see more of in Malaysian conversations. Surrounding the mirror are a number of plants and old vintage typewriters and trinkets. My eyes are drawn to a staghorn fern that sits on a plastic chair, unmoving in the still air.
               Vic points at a long table piled high with trays of rice, chicken, hummus, kebabs spiced yellow, and a bright red sauce made of tomatoes and fragrant herbs that fill the air.
               “That’s Picha Eats,” Vic says, “they’re a catering group and they work with refugees.”
          She points over at a table in the middle of the warehouse, full of handwoven baskets and other handmade trinkets and she says, “buying stuff from here goes back to the Orang Asli community.”
              “And if you look over here, this is a photobooth where the artist uses traditional photography where—” Vic turns her head to the front of the warehouse before looking back at me. People who were seated are now standing up and heading to the entrance of Kongsi KL “actually Shaun, I’ve gotta sign some people in. I think a performance is happening now, you should follow the crowd.”
          I nod and follow the growing mass of people up to the front steps of the warehouse where I recognize my friend, Rodney. I tap his back and he laughs, “you’re late, the lady’s already throwing rice.”
                 I look past Rodney and on a square section with green plants lining its perimeter, is Alla, a woman wearing an earth-toned batik of green, black, and brown, and a long tudung which covers her hair and the tops of her ears while letting the rest of it flow down her back in a lush fountain of black cloth.
                   She carries a woven bag full of wheat above her head and showers herself with grain before she grabs whole bundles of wheat from her bag and threshes them on the ground, allowing the grain to loosen and cover the ground in bronze. She has a serene look over her face and I can’t help but think back on the dinners I’ve had with my family and friends over a bowl of rice.
                   This memory is soon taken over by the harsh sensation of rice flung against my body as Alla begins to toss the grain into the audience itself. I watch as both Rodney and Vic flinch at the sudden feeling of hard rice husks hitting our bodies, and I watch as Alla continues to throw rice into the audience for what seems like a long time. People are at first shocked by the feeling of unprocessed wheat on skin but soon get used to the feeling, the audience becoming part of the act itself. Even Vic has looked up from her sheets of paper to look at Alla’s performance.
                I can’t help but feel a sense of punk pride at this willingness to toss things directly at the audience. There is a level of irreverence here, a lack of caring what the audience might think or feel about having things thrown directly at them. From this discomfort comes a tension between the performance piece and the audience itself. Instead of looking idly at a performance happening in front of us, Alla’s performance demands our engagement through physical confrontation. The medium of this confrontation being the rice itself—forces us to think about one of the most fundamental Southeast Asian foods and where it comes from. Here is the original process of threshing wheat aestheticized through dance and then flung directly at us.
                 When Alla finishes her performance and leaves, her presence is still felt by the grain that has been leftover, many bits of grain even hitchhiking on the audience’s clothing. On the faces of my fellow audience members, I see a general look of bemused confusion.
                  Vic comes up to both Rodney and I and says, “damn, I did not expect her to start throwing rice at people.”
                 “I am pretty hungry now,” I say.
                People begin to disperse and I make my way over to the giant spread of food at the Picha Eats table and pile a plate up high with soft yellow rice, kebabs, a drumstick and a heaping spoon of tangy red sauce that gets absorbed by the rice.
                   My friend Doop sits down next to me with a plate filled with as much food as mine.
               “Oh nice,” I say, “you made it.”
                 Already another performance is taking place and it is two people engaged in silat as someone else speaks poetry into a loud megaphone.
                The megaphone distorts the speaker’s voice within a grainy mesh of sound and though I cannot hear the poetry he is speaking, the strength of his voice and the pace at which he is speaking his words adds to a sense of tension as the two people on stage perform their martial art and move in fluid and rigid motions, displaying attacks and defenses that turn quickly into an intricate, choreographed dance. As I watch, I come to think of how Alla’s performance, as removed from the idea of martial arts as it is, is still in conversation with this silat turned dance. It speaks to food’s intrinsic connection to the body. That only through the gift of grain, can the physicality of silat displayed here be accomplished.
              Almost as quickly as it started the silat performance has ended and the performers take their bows.
                 Someone in a paddy hat and a soft batik full of bright yellows, greens, and reds sits on a chair and speaks into the mic near where we’re seated. His voice is loud in the speakers, but it reverberates so much in the large space of KongsiKL that I can’t make out individual words.
                    “What’s he saying?” I ask.
                    Doop shrugs, “no idea.”
                     Another dance is happening, this time at the very back of the KongsiKL warehouse and people are sitting down on plastic chairs pulled up in a loose semi-circle to watch.
                  I end up with my head buried in my food and lose myself in the tastes of sour, savoury sauce, tender chicken, the minty and spicy scents that come from biting on the occasional leafy herb, and buttery rice, and by the time I look up from my plate a new performer is now center stage.
                   A man in a black shirt, Kien Faye, with long dreadlocks that flow over his arms and down his back, begins convulsing and I recognize it quickly as a trance.
                    The space of KongsiKL becomes tense and quiet, with the main sound coming from Kien Faye’s laboured breathing, and I can see his entire body shaking as he moves his arms in a deep trance. His breathing quickens as he moves his arms around him in dynamic motion and I can see the veins appearing in his forehead from the strain of the trance he’s in. His eyes roll up into his head and I can’t help but think about where he’s getting all this energy from. He’s gotten so into the trance now that it looks like he’s completely within his own space, separate from everyone else. There is something approaching uncanny about the performance and the level of intensity that it brings, like watching some kind of calculated possession.
              By the end of Kien Faye’s performance, his convulsions have lessened and his breathing has started to relax all the way until he stands up and does a slight bow, signaling the end of the performance. The audience claps, and I get the sense that after being so caught up in the trance of Kien Faye that now we aren’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing. I know something very tense has happened watching someone go through what looks like an extreme, powerful experience—or at least the representation of one, but its meaning is something I find myself thinking on long after the performance is over, through each convulsive spasm of a person’s body in trance.
                       “I’m kinda hungry, I’m gonna get something to eat,” Doop says.
                     “Oh yeah, me too,” I say.
                     We pile our plates with more of the same delicious food and sit back down at our table just in time to watch someone with a shaven head, Chloe, lift a ceramic bowl up into the air and take a fistful of cooked rice and shove huge amounts of it into their mouth.
                    I figure that this is a pretty good sign and do the same with my own plate of food albeit with fork and spoon.
                      Doop nudges me in the side, “damn, sometimes that’s what I wanna do, just eat a big handful of rice.”
                       “Oh yeah,” I nod.
                      “It’s cooked right?”
                        “Definitely,” I nod.
                    Watching Chloe on stage eating the rice, I’m almost overwhelmed by the sight of that much rice being eaten all at once at this fervent pace, and though Chloe’s face is as neutral as can be in the process of filling one’s mouth with all that plain white rice, just watching them I can already taste the thick smell of starch in the sinuses and coating the back of the throat. It makes me full just watching them.
                    I decide I need something to drink and make my way to the table of food and pour myself a cup of orange juice. I turn and see that another dancer, Hannah, is twirling on stage and there are unprocessed grains strewn across the hard floor.
                  The dance goes until both Hannah and Chloe take their bow and again, the man I now know as Firdaus in his paddy hat and bright batik speaks into his microphone. His head is bowed and his voice is loud and echoes off the high ceiling and the distant walls, turning everything he says into a giant column of sound and I can only make out a few individual words.
                    “Can you understand?” I ask, looking at Doop.
                        “Nope,” she says.
                  When Firdaus puts the mic down and takes the stage. He moves in slow, methodical movements as high-pitched music plays. Like all the previous dancers, there is something hypnotic about the dance as a whole. Firdaus’ face is intermittently obscured by his large paddy hat and again I am brought back to rice and through the hat I think about the people who harvest rice under the hot sun. Firdaus moves in subtle bobs and sways which translate up to the paddy hat. I can’t help but think about paddy farmers, the effort that comes from a bent body in the noon heat, working for hours in a breeding ground for mosquitos.
                    Rodney points at my cheek and says, “mosquito.”
                  I slap at my face and look at my palm to see the black and white specked smudge of a mosquito body.
                 “Thanks,” I say.
                     I take my encounter with the mosquito as part of the experience of the dance itself; a miniscule taste of the paddy field partly only possible because of the setting of KongsiKL which happens to both be hot, humid and mosquito-permeable.
                   Though paddy and rice are synonymous with the joys of Southeast Asian and Asian food and of being Asian, it cannot be separated from the fact that it only reaches our tables and enters our cultural space through the massive amounts of hard work and unpredictable environmental factors the workers who tend the paddy fields have to endure. All the paddy, grain, and rice centric performances point to this, and I look at my almost empty plate, the bits of rice leftover and saturated in red sauce, glistening with oil and feel grateful.
                   The next performance begins and a band takes the stage. A quick soundcheck goes through and soon an electric guitar produces high-pitched notes that float through the air. Two dancers, Ethel and Carrie, appear on stage, their bodies full of motion as they dance to the music of the band.
                   I can feel the bass drum of the percussion and the consistent notes of the guitar turn almost into a sort of droning music that displaces me and makes the dance feel ethereal—as though this is all occurring in a vacuum elsewhere.
                      Even as the two dancers move to the sound of the band’s music, so to does the music seem to dance with Ethel and Carrie, the pace of the drums and the other musicians matching the pace of the dancers when they move more erratically, or slow down into a more fluid, methodical rhythm.
                   Out of thin air Carrie produces a traditional bamboo colander. She swings it around herself in her dance, the roundness of the colander making it look like a bamboo moon orbiting the two people centre-stage.
                    Ethel soon makes her way to the colander and the two of them now hold it between themselves with their arms outstretched. They begin to swing the bamboo between them, and their movements become more intricate, twirling while still keeping the tool in place. The music follows their quickening speeds, picking up its rhythm, the high-pitched notes of the guitar playing over and over again until its trance-like quality has me fully focused on the bamboo circle the two dancers are holding.
                  Other dancers now, from the previous performances get back onto the stage, and the band goes into full force, their music matching the jovial chaos before us, the stage full of smiling faces and bodies in full motion until it all comes to a stop and everyone takes their bows.
                 Someone is on the microphone again and their voice bounces off the walls in a constant echo as one of the dancers points to the very front entrance of the KongsiKL warehouse and people begin standing up from their seats and heading over to where the dancer is motioning to.
               I can see a large clay pot by the entrance, bubbling up with dry-ice fog, and out in the KongsiKL yard, among the fairy lights, is Rithaudin, standing atop scaffolding. He is shirtless and covered in what looks like a white powder all over his body. Beads hang from hoops on his forearms, and his face is a mess of beads, bells, and white face paint, streaked with black colouring. On the sides of his face are two multicoloured masks, thick with as much decoration as his own face. Both the masks have sections which extend above their faces making it so it looks like Rithaudin has a massively tall head.
                 Cradled in his left arm is a decoration of golden wheat.
               There is so much visual noise on Rithaudin’s head and face that it takes time for me to realize that his actual face has been decorated and is not another mask. It becomes impossible to tell what emotions are on his face and so the movements of the body become the main act.
               He dances his way methodically down the steps of the scaffolding as music plays from behind us. As Rithaudin reaches the people at the front of the warehouse, he dips his finger in a small pot of water and wipes a single line down the middle of the foreheads of the audience, leaving an ashy grey trail behind.
               I can almost feel the intrigue and apprehension of the audience around me as Rithaudin continues to rub watery ash against the foreheads of the audience and it makes me aware of the hot sun and the humid heat causing my clothes to stick to my skin.
              I turn to Doop and say, “you know, I don’t really want that stuff on my forehead,” and we head back into the warehouse.

              Weeks after the event and I still think about Rithaudin’s performance. I can’t help but wonder why I had such a reaction to the smudging of the forehead. I am generally a big fan of discomfort in art. An example being my love of horror and I enjoy the feeling of being entirely unseated by the art I’m engaging with. But the smudging at the end of Rithaudin’s performance was still something I chose to opt out of.
                Rithaudin brought a level of physicality to the performance I did not expect and which I respect the artist for. There is a level of powerful callousness here, in some ways similar to Alla’s piece where the audience is suddenly made a part of the performance itself. Both these artists have not only created a sense of space through their entrancing dances but they pull the audience itself into this space through direct touch.
               I believe Malaysians tend to have a bit of an arm’s length attitude to art, where we tend to shy away from participation. Here, Rithaudin’s performance demands participation. From the more basic level of looking up at him at the height of his scaffold to the direct demand of asking for an audience’s forehead to be smudged.
                  Of course, it is not as though Rithaudin forces the audience to do anything. I chose to leave, after all. But I think Rithaudin’s piece challenges the audience in a way that the medium of dance allows but is often left unexplored.
               I was pleasantly surprised by all the dance performances. Though they chose to honour traditional roots and stay firmly within that space of the traditional ideas of the paddy, the workers of the field, and the very necessities of food and what they mean culturally, they managed at the very same time to be at the very contemporary edge of dance.