Thursday, December 6, 2007
The Sentul Soul-Brother
Sentul is one of those rambling, run-down districts of Kuala Lumpur that sprang up like riverbank moss along the railway line and just kept growing - even when the trains stopped running. Named after a fruit tree (Sandoricum indicum), the area teems with life and has a tenacious vitality of its own, tinged with a nostalgic sense of lawlessness. Sentul, after all, was Sherwood Forest to a Robin-style hood named Jimmy Nelson (a dark Eurasian, some say) whose criminal heyday was the 1940s. All the cops had a healthy respect for him, I'm told.
If KL were New York then Sentul would be Harlem - yeh, dis is da place where all da Soul-Brothers hang out. It's one of the few places left in the city, at any rate, where one might expect to see dancing in the streets. Only last Thaipusam, in fact, I witnessed an eruption of spontaneous dancing as the spectacular neon-lit juggernaut of Murugan was escorted to its ceremonial sanctum in the Mariamman temple. It was invigorating to see such exuberance and festivity. That's what SOUL is all about, when it comes down to it.
And if the young men of Sentul find it easier to identify with Bob Marley and Eddie Murphy and Prince rather than Samy Vellu, the reasons are quite obvious. For the Sentul Soul-Brother that whole estate-mandur routine holds little appeal. Being treated like a nigger is a definite drag - but being mistaken for a baaaaad-ass nigger is cool.
Some might think it's not such a good thing that these modern youth should forget their roots. Well, if you were a Brahmin, Ksattriya or Vaeshya (Scholar-Priest, Warrior, or Farmer-Merchant caste) there may be valid reasons to hang on to your cultural roots - but if you were descended from a debt-slave tradition of estate and railway labourers you'd understandably prefer Prince Rogers Nelson as an icon. Or even Alex Peters (the celebrated pub musician). I'm not sure if Alex himself hails from Sentul but I know he has a massive following there. A few years ago there was even a Sentul-based group of Soul-Brothers (and Sisters) who called themselves the Gravediggers. When they weren't following Alex Peters around as his unofficial entourage the Gravediggers would perform frenetic dance feats at parties or on the pavements. I wonder where they are now. A few, I'm sure, have become DJs. Disc Jockeys seem to have a fun deal - plenty of booze and broads, a dash of glamour. And you get paid to rap.
Others, perhaps, have got into disco party catering - you know, throw in some edibles with the decibels. And a whole bunch of Soul-Brothers are probably saving up to buy themselves some musical instruments - dreaming of the day they can quit their jobs at A&W and do a slot on Muzik Muzik. Why not? The Alley Cats have made it - and they aren't even from Sentul.
Thaipusam - annual Hindu celebration of Lord Murugan's birthday which attracts at least half a million devotees (and tourists) to Batu Caves; Murugan is also known as Subramaniam.
Samy Vellu - the most durable politician in Malaysia, cabinet minister since 1979, who worked his way to the top from very humble rubber estate origins; often called 'Semi Value' or The Highwayman because of all the toll roads he introduced.
mandur - Malay term for estate overseer, probably derived from 'commander.'
Muzik Muzik - popular TV programme of the late 1980s showcasing up-and-coming Malaysian musical talents.