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Festivals of Penang

Penang is a lot of things to a lot of people and its growing popularity is partly due to a vibrant arts and culture scene. Here's a primer to the various festivals to catch all year long on the island

Music and arts

Photo: Tommy Della Frana
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George Town Festival

The best time for a road trip to Penang is mid-year because this is when George Town Festival hits town. Originally a two-day festival with tight funding and space, the festival has blossomed into an annual tradition that celebrates Penang’s passion for music, culture and performing arts. George Town Festival turns five this year and festival director Joe Sidek is a man of many pursuits. On the side, he manages his family-owned textile auxiliary company and last year has kept him busy when he sealed the deal for Tropfest Southeast Asia. Yet, George Town Festival ranks high on his To Do list and the festival has leaped to greater bounds with each passing year.

Through the years, the festival has seen a series of successes and surprises such as ‘Mirrors George Town’, an ambitious street art project by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, which ultimately became a social media hit. Last year, 101 Lost Kittens also added its own spin to the street art trend with quirky art installations that aim to raise animal awareness.

On the musical side of things, I Musici, the world’s oldest chamber music group, made an appearance at Dewan Sri Pinang and played heart-felt compositions to a crowd of orchestral music lovers. Sutra, a show of its own, features choreographed martial arts routines performed by Shaolin monks on wooden boxes backed by live compositions by Polish composer Szymon Brzóska. There’s also nothing quite like a Singapore cultural invasion in the form of CausewayEXchange, exhibiting the best of the country’s humour, wit and satire – they even flew in their famous stand-up comedian and drag queen, Kumar, to the festival. George Town Festival has set the bar high in the years prior and we hear this year will be nothing short of cultural brilliance.

When: August 1–31, 2015
Where: Various venues in George Town
Fee: Varies considerably according to event but many are free
Website: www.georgetownfestival.com

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George Town Literary Festival

George Town Literary Festival is a festival for writers, poets and thinkers who champion the value of literary exchange. For the book lovers and aspiring writers, the festival is a space to get personal with their favourite wordsmiths. Many literary figures have sat in the hot seat, such as Man Asian Literary Prize winner Tan Twan Eng, Man Booker Prize nominee Tash Aw as well as American-based travel writer Eric Hansen. The festival was first established in 2012, and its curator Bernice Chauly was born in George Town and is known in the local writing, poetry, acting and filmmaking scenes, so it’s quite fitting to have Chauly pave the way for international and local literary acts to take the stage at this festival.

The previous years have seen various international luminaries sharing their views on the world of writing such as Michael Kleeberg, Christine Otten, Annelis Verbeke, Rodaan Al Galidi, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Aruni Kashyap and Madeleine Thien. Closer to home, Malaysian cartoonist Datuk Lat, poet and human rights lawyer Cecil Rajendra, Orang Asli writer Mahat Akiya and playwright Huzir Sulaiman also shared the stage alongside Singaporean-based novelist Shamini Flint.

More than the standard book readings and meet-and-greets, the festival lifts literary figures from the pages of their books and sets them under the spotlight amid interesting discussions. Audiences will hear their inspirations, ponder over the challenges of censorship in Malaysia, question the relevance of history and humour in writing – in other words, things get personal at this festival.

Aspiring writers can also pick up a thing or two from the ‘In Conversation’ series that has featured Canadian author Madeline Thien, Datuk Lat and ‘Five Star Billionaire’ author Tash Aw. Other interesting and exciting inclusions include film screenings, book launches and poetry readings to tease the literary senses of many.

When: November 28–30
Where: Various venues in George Town
Fee: Varies considerably according to event but many are free
Website: www.georgetownlitfest.com

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In-Between Arts Festival

It’s quite appropriate that it’s called In-Between Arts Festival, wedged as it is between George Town Literary Festival and Penang Island Jazz Festival. Packed with music and art performances, the festival was conceptualised by Go International Group, led by its managing director Jasmine Low. Although it’s sandwiched between two bigger festivals, the challenge isn’t in standing out but rather in drawing people in. ‘Our main challenge is to entice the local crowd to come out on a weekday,’ Low says. ‘We realised it’s best to engage our audiences between 7.30pm and 10pm.’

The secret to In-Between is by keeping things fresh and interesting for the Penangites who are accustomed to plenty of arts festivals happening all year round in Penang. In-Between’s first year in the festival circuit began with a theme called ‘Arts in our Living Quarters’ which is geared towards contemporary arts.

There was a melding of live music by local crooners Bihzhu, Rozz Ritzman and Dzamira Dzafri, a fashion installation by designer Jo Teh, poetry and photography workshops as well as a dance performance by physical arts theatre company Viva Circus. In its second year, Low and her team tapped into the essence of Penang – its food and culture. This birthed a trio of ‘Secret Suppers’ that served Nyonya, Indian and Malay cuisines paired with a playlet, a traditional Indian dance and live music, respectively. If you’re looking forward to this year’s secret theme, remember to keep the last weekdays of November free in your calendar.

When: December 1–3
Where: Various venues in George Town
Fee: Varies considerably according to event but many are free
Website: www.facebook.com/ibafpenang

Photo: Michael Lee
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Penang Island Jazz Festival

One of the two biggest music festivals in the country, the other being Rainforest Music Festival in Sarawak, Penang Island Jazz Festival features performances by jazz acts from around the world, music workshops and a jazz-themed gallery. Despite the sheer scale of the festival and its 10-year longevity, jazz is an ageing genre, widely overlooked by the younger masses in favour of mainstream pop. To rekindle the love for jazz, persistence and the education are imperative and that’s where music workshops and jazz gallery come in to the picture – along with a few established jazz acts themselves taking the lead. Casey Abrams, last year’s opening act and an American Idol finalist, led a free workshop about ‘how music makes you feel’ while international jazz virtuoso Alison Burns and Martin Taylor also fronted an engaging workshop on ‘finding your voice’.

Started in 2004, the music festival is an oldie but a goodie and last year marked its 10th anniversary. The festival is the longestrunning independent jazz festival in the country. Part of its success, we suspect, is the breezy venue in which it’s held. So, if you love your music with sea breeze brushing your cheeks, this festival that rocks Batu Ferringhi every year is for you. This established jazz hub has seen many jazz acts vying for a spot on stage. If you’re more in tune to sounds beyond the Asian region, you don’t want to miss the festival’s Jazz by the Beach stage, which once hosted the Freddy Cole Quartet, Jazz Kamikaze, Hedvid Mollestad Trio, Okan Ersan Quartet, Tommy Emmanuel, Na Yoon-Sun and more. Equally brilliant are the local acts in the festival’s Fringe Stages where we once heard Bihzhu, Liyana Fizi, Viv Adram & The Northern Jazz Unit, Ray Rozells and Amrita Soon belting out a tune or two.

When: December 4–7
Where: Batu Ferringhi
Fee: Approximately RM70-RM80 per person
Website: www.penangjazz.com

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Penang World Music Festival

The Penang World Music Festival kicks off in the first quarter of the year. So music lovers, treat this as a starter to Penang’s eventful calendar. This festival is well known for its close-to-nature setting at the century-old Penang Botanic Gardens where rhythms like folk, Balkan, gypsy, reggae, tribal and ethno jazz come to play. Get to this two-day event early since daytime is reserved for art and music workshops. Then, settle down on your favourite spot in the field to catch singers and bands onstage before sundown. As with most World music festivals, prepare to be transported to different parts of the globe through lively harmonies from West Africa, France, Poland, South Africa, Brazil, India and Bulgaria.

This year’s highlights include Penangites and World Grammy nominee N’Faly Kouyate of West Africa (known for his suave moves on the kora and the balafon) as well as the smooth guitar skills of Davila Trio of France. International bands like Carlos Dje Dje & The Protectors will also provide bobbing reggae beats imported from South Africa as well as India’s Dollu Kunita who will perform double sets of Kacchi Godhi ‘Horse Dancers’, a popular dance movement from Rajastan coupled by folk songs catchy enough to make you dance along.

If you like what you hear, show your love where the performers’ CDs are on sale. Since you’re likely to stay, remember to bring extra cash for food and beverages, souvenirs and handicrafts too.

When: April 11-12, 2015
Where: Esplanade
Fee: TBA
Website: www.penangworldmusic.gov.my

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IndiePG

Although constantly overlooked by mainstream pop and rock, there is more to independent music now than ever before, thanks to IndiePG. Less of a festival and more of a music gig, the two-day IndiePG promises to do greater things and their pursuit of creating a local platform for indie musicians and songwriters is inspiring. Opportunities for indie talents are growing but still scarce in Penang. So here’s where a group of musicians and sound engineers like Kelvyn Yeang, Raggy Singh and Ang Eng Bok came into the picture together with the help of their friends Samwise Wee, Lawrence Seng and Wanida Razali, to start this festival. After sealing a partnership with penangpac, the path for Penang’s independent music festival was paved.

Last year’s edition saw a wave of local singers and bands, with the likes of Volatile, Froya, Ministry of Bunk, Jumero, Kien Lim, Heart Meets Hurricane, Endleaves, Daniel Chan, Hard Candy and many more taking the stage. And collectively they introduced fresh, infectious sounds of psychedelic rock, alternative rock, folk and electronic, much to the delight of underground music fans.

2014 saw the introduction of the ‘discovery stage’ where newcomers and aspiring musicians took the stage and performed in front of a live audience as well as more music-related workshops. Ticket prices are totally inexpensive and it’s held at Straits Quay, where penangpac is located. If you have original tracks and want to have them heard, check out their page.

When: 2015 edition TBA
Where: penangpac
Fee: Approximately RM25 per person. Workshops are free
Website: www.facebook.com/indiepg

Traditional

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Thaipusam

During the annual celebration of Thaipusam, devotees in Penang undertake a pilgrimage to the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple whilst engaging in various acts of devotion. This may include a mortification of the flesh – piercing their skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers or hooks. Upon arriving at the temple, devotees fulfill their vows and offer prayer and penance to the Lord Muruga.

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Cheng Beng

Cheng Beng, also known as All Souls’ Day or Tombs Sweeping festival, is a time of remembrance and respect for those who have passed on. The Chinese community can be seen cleaning the graves of their ancestors and burning paper offerings – which can come in the form of clothes, watches, shoes and more – to the spirits.

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Chinese New Year

Always a boisterous affair, Chinese New Year in Penang takes on a festive mood with its many, many parties and parades. The auspicious colour red is abundant and there are many elements to this period of time that symbolise luck, happiness and prosperity. Families come together under one roof to mingle, gamble and eat – and boy, do they eat.

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Hungry Ghost Festival

Celebrated by the Chinese all over the world, the Hungry Ghost Festival is second only to Chinese New Year in its importance as it marks the only time of year that ghosts are released to roam the Earth freely. In George Town, makeshift altars and stages are assembled to feed these spirits and entertain them with stage operas and musical performances.

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Mid-autumn Lantern Festival

The art of lantern-making takes centre stage at the Mid-autumn Lantern Festival. Over the years, the design of the lanterns has been modified to go with the changing times but you can still see the eye-catching animal lanterns and loads more besides.

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Wesak Day

Wesak Day encompasses the birth, nirvana and passing of the Gautama Buddha. As a sign of benevolence, Penang Buddhists mark this celebration by meditating in temples and joining candlelit processions. Charitable acts are performed throughout the day including providing free meals, donating to the poor and bestowing offerings of incense.

Photo: Adrian Cheah
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Deepavali

During the Festival of Lights (or Deepavali), rows upon rows of lights can be seen from the houses of those that celebrate this holiday – these lights signify the triumph of good over evil. Intricate floral designs (motifs decorated with coloured rice) are placed at the entrance of these homes to welcome the deity Lakshimi.

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