Thursday, September 2, 2010

Meet Sanuk, my techno-wizard friend

"Music is a purposeless play, an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living." ~ John Cage (in a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music)

Deejay Sanuk (Daniel Schwörer) has been playing with sound since 1993

Born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland; now residing on Koh Samui, Thailand, where he DJs at parties and produces music on the side, using state-of-the-art hardware and software.

That's a one-line description of Daniel Schwörer, my techno-wizard friend who kindly agreed to digitally enhance and remaster my 1986 solo album, 2nd Coming. On Facebook he is known as Deejay Sanuk. In Thai, sanuk is a multi-purpose expression meaning pleasure, joy, delight, euphoria, contentment, bliss...

How I found Sanuk is a story unto itself. And why he would offer to me his expert services as an audio sculptor and sound cosmetician is another mystery I would prefer to remain unsolved.

Especially when the sort of music Sanuk manufactures in his tropical paradise lab is mainly for beach parties under the full moon - while the music I generated back in the 1980s can be described as mostly anarchic, expressionist, idiosyncratic journeys through inner space - not exactly danceable unless you happen to be a post-modern choreographer who has evolved beyond the Cagey silences and random industrial sound effects favored by Merce Cunningham.

Anyway, it all started with a visit to the SPCA a few years ago. Two of my cats urgently required spaying and I was pleased to meet a vivacious animal-loving young lady named Farida who was a volunteer or part-time staff.

I discovered that Farida was also a blogger. Apart from that she enjoyed beach parties in Thailand and that's how it came to pass that the first time Farida visited Magick River, she had this Swiss DJ on a visa run in tow.

When Daniel (who hadn't morphed into Sanuk at that time) heard I was also a musician he was curious to check out some of my early output. Played him a few tracks of recently digitized material and he found it intriguing. He asked if he could have a copy of the CD so he could fool around with the sound.

Months passed. One day I found a package waiting for me at the post office. It was a CD from Daniel Schwörer, posted from KL by Farida, who had been carrying it for weeks in her backpack.

I put on the CD and sat for a whole hour mesmerized.

What Deejay Sanuk had done was literally massage the music back to life. The material had originally been recorded on 2-inch, 16-track acetate, mixed down to 2-track stereo masters on ¼-inch magnetic tape, and dubbed directly to compact cassette (so that it could be played at home).

Another Daniel - a Tang - had laboriously digitized hours of material and saved it all on DVDs as wav files. However, without equalization and processing, the sound was dull and flat. Converting analog to digital isn't a straightforward task. The vitality of analog waveforms tends to get lost when translated into raw binary code.

Without altering the music in any way, Deejay Sanuk had succeeded in restoring the brilliance and clarity of individual instruments while consolidating the dynamic balance between the highs and the lows. In other words, whatever he did and however he managed it, my audio wizard friend from Switzerland had injected new life into music recorded more than 20 years ago, making it sound as fresh as when I first created it.

Sanuk's cultural imprinting as a Swiss native stands him in good stead as a techno-wizard. He is meticulous to a fault and ended up working obsessively on my Lazarus Project, tweaking hours of digitized music files.

Finally, many weeks of sweat later, he delivered two versions of the 2nd Coming master - one upfront, the other laidback - plus a completely unretouched version, tape hiss and all, as a reference to how the original mix sounded. I listened to both versions carefully, decided on the one to release, and wrote Sanuk a thank-you note via Facebook, incorporating some feedback. This is part of his response:

i have done the best i could not to deliver you something that sounds nice but shows its shortcomings when played at high volume, even though most people will not listen to it too loud i guess. i have used very drastic equalization which you will not hear in the final mix, i added bass frequencies in the low end which i then would cut back again. then after having cut low frequencies back i compressed the piano line as the leading element of dynamic in the mix. some other instruments had very extreme peaks in the problematic frequency range (e.g 1 khz, 3-4 khz ) so after any frequency manipulation and compression i had increased noise occurrence which i had to get rid of again without taking out the brilliance. so imagine that as an iterative process trying to achieve an acceptable result. i did the final step with a special emulation of the famous SSL (Solid State Mixing Consoles) equalizer and buss compressor.....

all in all i used quite a lot of different tools and dunno how many steps of rendering different versions from which i worked further where needed. that's only possible since we have powerful computers and can stay in the digital domain where there is no loss of data. another trick is to first transform the original file into a floating 32 bit data file since the good plugs all work in the 32 bit or 64 bit domain, then in the end you dither the whole thing back down to 16 bit 44.1 cd quality.... However, thank you very much that my work finds appreciation, it's the most difficult thing i have ever done and was a real challenge since it really is a remarkable recording with all possible sound elements and dynamics in it.

All the best and thank you again for the opportunity to work on something like that.
best regards from cloudy Samui

I am none the wiser as to how Sanuk does it, since I know zip about the technical aspects of sound mixing. He did explain to me that he has special software that allows him to analyze the sound spectrum layer by layer and sculpt soundwaves with far greater precision than was possible in the analog era.

Of course, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to have met this wonderful wizard who happens to be a perfect blend of artist, scientist, aesthete, philosopher - and cultural philantrophist too, for I can't imagine getting this sort of magical results even if I could afford to fork out thousands. If you're interested in sampling some of Deejay Sanuk's head-banging dance tracks, go here. He has also produced soundtrack music for various European filmmakers.

Sanuk's amazing achievement is that he succeeded in restoring vitality, depth and presence to my 1986 recordings. I'm particularly pleased with the way he tweaked the piano so it sounds as if you're listening to a live performance. In short, I feel totally assured that the 2010 edition of 2nd Coming can hold its own anywhere in the world as a recording, in purely technical terms.

However, whether or not listeners will be receptive to the utterly unclassifiable music is something I cannot and dare not predict. Be warned: this album was recorded in the mid-1980s before music videos contributed to shortening people's attention spans.

But if you're curious enough, or kind enough, to order a copy:

Transfer RM25 into either Maybank savings account #112071252584 or Public Bank savings account #4468026936; or remit USD10/€8 into my PayPal account c/o

Don't forget to email me your postal address. The price includes postage. You will be notified when the CDs are posted.

2nd Coming is now downloadable online

Monday, August 30, 2010

'Merdeka' Means Having No Debts!

First published in the Sunday Mail, 31 August 1997, in abridged form and subsequently included as a chapter in TANAH TUJUH ~ Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos (Silverfishbooks, 2007)

“UNFORTUNATELY, many of us still owe the Chinese towkays (Big Bosses) thousands of ringgit,” a Temuan elder admitted with a sardonic grin. “Every durian season we have to give them first option on our harvest.”

But how did this vicious cycle of hutang (indebtedness) begin?

“Well, no bank will loan us a cent, so we ask the Chinese towkays for help. When our sons and daughters get married, we need money to hold feasts. Sometimes we need a motorbike or a bushcutter. Usually it's just an accumulation of basic necessities like rice, cooking oil, cigarettes - which we buy on credit. If there's no durian season, hutang lah!”

We were sitting around my mother-in-law's shanty in Kampung Pertak, drinking sweet black tea. Some were chewing betelnut while others just chewed the fat. The fortieth anniversary of Merdeka was approaching. I asked Utat Merkol, who must have been about twenty when Malaya became independent, if he remembered the changing of the guards on 31 August 1957.

He knit his already furrowed brow and slowly shook his head.

“Doesn't Merdeka have any significance at all for you?” I probed.

“Not really,” Utat replied. “In the days of Hukum Orang Putih (White Man Rule) we were treated quite well. Every month the government supplied us with rice, sugar, cooking oil and other necessities.”

His younger sister Indah piped in: “I remember that everything cost so much less!”

This triggered off animated talk about the bounty of nature in pre-Merdeka days. My sister-in-law Anggu recalled her father's stories of the days when one could just dip a basket in the stream and return with a fishy feast for the whole family.

From conversations I've had over the past few years with various Orang Asli, it's obvious that they don't have a clearly defined notion of nationhood as a political abstraction. In the old days they identified themselves along purely tribal lines. Intermarriage with other tribes or ethnic groups would occur from time to time, but the idea of being part of a larger Orang Asli community is a fairly recent one - and one that has been thrust on them by anthropologists and bureaucrats.

Broadly speaking the Orang Asli simply think of themselves as Manusia - Human Beings. They know this much: their nenek-moyang (ancestors) have inhabited certain bioregions at least since the Great Flood (perhaps 13,000 years ago). And before that? Who knows? Their tutelary gods, Mamak and Inak Bongsu, often spoke of returning to a home “beyond Pulau Buah (the Isle of Fruits or Paradise), beyond Tanah Sejuk (The Cold Land), beyond the highest heavens.”

Wherever they came from must be very, very far away from Tanah Tujuh (the Seventh Land or Seventh Planet).

Utat and his elder brother Diap (who was one of the last Keeper of the Stories) had hinted once or twice of battles between gods, between planets and stars... cosmic events beyond their comprehension. The Temuan, who used to be classified Proto-Malay by anthropologists (these days the preferred academic description is “Austronesian”), share linguistic roots with Malay, Tagalog, and other “Austronesian” tongues - including dialects spoken among certain Northern Territory aboriginal tribes in Australia. Many basic words are borrowed from Sanskrit. Manusia, for example, is from Manu - Progenitor, Archetypal Father. When we hear the word pusat, we usually think of “headquarters” or “administrative centre.” But to the Temuan, pusat means “belly button” or “navel,” which is its original sense in Sanskrit. This demonstrates that they have an earthier, gutsier, more visceral apprehension of reality. We urbanites have become too intellectual, too head-centred.

Colin Nicholas/COAC

So what could Merdeka (Independence) possibly mean to an Orang Asli?

Colonizers come and go, but the indigenous tribes have rolled with the punches, assimilating whatever they could from the invaders. They themselves might once have been “invaders,” migration patterns being what they are, due to the vagaries of climate and tectonic upheavals that created whole new mountain ranges and land mass link-ups. One generation arrives to replace the previous - and life goes on in Tanah Tujuh (the Seven-Storied Land or Seventh Planet). This physical world that we inhabit is merely one of the middle stories.

Now and again, certain individuals may experiment with new-fangled lifestyles, as in the legendary case of Si Tenggang, a Temuan boy who ran off to join a trading ship and eventually became captain of his own galleon (after marrying a Malay princess, the story goes). Alas, success went to his head and Tenggang refused to recognize and receive his aged parents in their loincloths and crude dugout canoe, when they rowed out to his ship, anchored in a bay near his home village.

Heartbroken and humiliated, Tenggang's parents cursed the day he was born. Before long, a violent storm capsized Tenggang's ship and his roomy cabins were transformed into the limestone outcrop now known as Batu Caves, For generations the Temuan regarded it as a sacred site - until the land was acquired and developed into a Hindu shrine and tourist attraction.

(Even the fable of Si Tenggang has been assimilated into mainstream Malay literature. The 1992 New Straits Times Annual, for instance, featured a story by Adibah Amin - called The Stony Penitence of Si Tenggang - in which Tenggang and his family were recast as Malays.)

As tribal entities, the Orang Asli feel magnetically bound to their familiar hunting grounds. When forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, they tend to wither spiritually and acquire negative traits like alcoholism and apathy.

My adopted kinfolk have told me hair-raising tales of massacres inflicted on their tribe over the last few centuries. Pirates from nearby islands used to hunt the Orang Asli for sport. The ones they captured alive were sold into slavery. Some ended up in Batak cooking pots! The White Man came and put a stop to all this - not so much for altruistic reasons but because the pirates were a threat to his merchant ships.

But why did the Orang Asli offer no resistance? Surely they had hunters and warriors amongst them who could be pahlawan and wira (defenders and heroes)?

“We are not an aggressive people,” Mak Minah explained. “Even though we feel anger, humiliation, and acute distress, we try to endure whatever befalls us. We believe that Tuhan (God) loves and looks after all his children.”

In true stoical tradition, the Orang Asli have generally sought peaceful co-existence rather than armed conflict. Even after wave upon wave of migrants arrived and began staking claims on their ancestral lands, the Orang Asli were more inclined to show hospitality instead of hostility. However, as in the famous story of the Arab and his camel, they now find themselves crowded out of their own domicile by pendatang (newcomers) armed with “legal” documents. Some say the meek shall inherit the earth. But when? After the earth has been turned into an industrial wasteland, a virtual Neraka (Hell)? Would an Orang Asli be shouting “Merdeka” in Neraka?

Merdeka, as a political concept, holds no emotive meaning for the Orang Asli. In their own eyes, they have always been free. Even when foreign invaders called them sakai (the equivalent of “nigger” or “slave”) and treated them no better than cattle, they remained free in spirit by retreating deeper into the mysterious jungle - and into their own myth-bound psyches.

And they shall always be free (though the left-brained among us may perceive their love of independence as “backwardness” or “obstinacy” or “unreliability” or “indiscipline” or “recalcitrance”). Whether it's Hukum Orang Putih (White Man Rule), Hukum Melayu (Malay Rule), or Hukum Hutang (Rule of Perpetual Debt) - you'll never catch an Orang Asli yelling, “Merdeka!”

Only those who lack the reality resort to shouting slogans.