Bad Wolves that encourage the artist in you. *gasps in horror*
No matter where you live in Malaysia, if there is one homegrown cultural event you’ve heard about, it has to be George Town Festival (GTF). Having recently concluded its seventh iteration, the annual fete is quickly becoming more renowned than ever, gaining recognition as one of the biggest platforms for art and culture in the region.
Its success has also paved way for various derivate projects that still come under the same GTF umbrella, including BFF, short for Butterworth Fringe Festival.
Started in 2015, BFF aims to shed some long overdue light on the unique idiosyncrasies and urbanities of George Town’s lesser-validated sister across the sea – Butterworth.
The official site describes the programme as an “annual, two-day vibrant, free, and public street event celebrating the arts, culture, and heritage of this fine town.”
But the truth is, BFF is beyond that.
Instrumental behind the success of the street festival is community development platform Bad Wolves, and one of its co-founders Danny Mahes. Better known by his pseudonym Ksatriya, Danny created Bad Wolves with like-minded people as a conduit for Penangites to further enhance their skills to express themselves in any form or fashion. Since its formation in 2015, the mentorship programme has been organising workshops, classrooms and masterclasses for aspiring artists in various disciplines.
Now, with a little help from the local chapter of Think City, Danny – or better known by his pseudonym Ksatriya – is doing much more for the place where he was born and bred, in a true ‘bff’ fashion.
We sat down with Danny Mahes aka Ksatriya to find out more about the social activist, his passion for the community and his various projects including Say It Like You Mean It (SILYMI) and Butterworth Also Can (Buttercan).
It is easy to see the amount of love that you have for Butterworth and Penang in general. Where do you derive this affection from?
I grew up in Kampung Benggali right here in Butterworth. It was a small village. When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody. Half the kids in the village grew up in my house, which was my grandmother’s house. Just the same I would happily walk into my neighbour’s house, and they were a Chinese family that only spoke Cantonese. So we usually just communicate by sign language. But I spent a lot of time in their house – they will feed me, and we will feed their kids. The sense of community was very strong.
Now, if we were to visit the same place, there’s nothing of the past – the village has completely been torn apart by development, condos, flats, roads and everything else. The community doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays, you live in one tall building, but you don’t know your neighbours, you don’t hang out with each other, and the reason for that has nothing to do with the buildings, and it’s not to do with progress. The reason is the way we build communities. We don’t build places for people to meet, we don’t build places for them to hang out together, and we have children spend all their time in school and tuition so they don’t play. When they don’t hang out with other kids, they don’t form friendships. But when your kids are friends, you as parents will also have to be friends for the sake of it, no matter you like each other or otherwise.
This breaking down of societies is a big issue on a global scale, right?
Yes, this is something cities all over the world have started to notice. When you build cities for car and for buildings, and not for people, unity breaks down. Unity breaks down, while crime, racism, and fascism goes up. Because people cannot connect.
So, a lot of cities are regressing. Melbourne, London, San Francisco, and other cities are investing a lot of time, energy, skill, and money to fix this. However, in Malaysia, it hasn’t really picked up as much. But, sooner or later, we will have to realise that ‘Ohh, okay, maybe we shouldn’t be doing things that has been making things difficult for everybody and start thinking about how do we live as people. Instead of just as units of economic value. So, we’ll see. Hopefully, sooner than later.
Before Bad Wolves, BFF and Buttercan, you started Say It Like You Mean It.
The idea was simple, once a month, open mics at China House in George Town. The first year we did it, it was quite an open concept, anybody could come and could perform anything. We did it for eight months, from January to August. The first year we did it, I decided I’ve heard “Wonderwall” too many times. Sometimes even several times in a night. So the second year we did it, we said ‘only original stuff.’
That was when it became tricky. We met a lot of talented people. Beautiful, amazing voices, either rocking the guitar or playing beautiful music. But they all sang covers. So starting that year, we realised we needed something more comprehensive. Because when we talked to people they would say ‘I’d love to write my own songs. But I don’t know how.’ They can play beautifully, but they don’t know how to start writing their own stuff.
So we started mentoring the participants – no matter whether they wanted to play music or do spoken word, we would sit down with them one on one and just work together. It’s a very informal programme but we started seeing a lot of results.
After a year of doing it, we confidently had six featured artists perform all original work during the shows. So we started doing that once a month for eight months, meaning eight shows a year for a few years.
As a storyteller, what do you opine of this culture of playing mainly covers over creating original material?
As an artist and as a creative producer now, I understand – or I can see very clearly that our story-telling circle has broken by colonialism, by war, and also by the way we develop. We developed materially, scientifically but we have not developed culturally. We’re still stuck with the narratives the British gave us. We still see ourselves, in a way that, in the modern world, the West sees us. We don’t define our own identity. And that makes us vulnerable. Because when you don’t know who you are, you tend to let other people define who you are.
Sometimes that’s good. But it can often be dangerous. Because that’s when a lot of toxic ideologies can come in. In fact, every dictator, every person with a terrible agenda has always taken advantage of that. Malaysia for example, we call ourselves a multicultural country but the truth is Southeast Asia has been multi-cultural for thousands of years. The world has been globalised by trade for thousands of years. But because, we cannot, find it in us to define ourselves that way, we haven’t been able to tell ourselves that, and suddenly we have started taking in other people’s definitions. And that’s not good. It’s not good for our society and it’s not good for the individual.
Are you proud of your achievements, especially with the immense success of Butterworth Fringe Festival?
I was at BFF on a Saturday night and it was fun. We had kuaci and beer. Which go really well together come to think of it. The crowd there is quite different as well. The way I see it, there’s something for everybody. Usually people who come for Saturday (the first night), come on Sunday (the second night) as well.
And that reminded me of an article I read some time back that said something like ‘culture isn’t happening in galleries anymore, it’s happening in communities,’ and I thought to myself ‘yes, that’s really true’ because communities now do have more say about what culture is and what are the people listening to than galleries. And it’s great. The more the programmes and events the better because I think that’s the future.
Find out more about Danny and Say It Like You Mean It here.