Street performers weren’t always welcome in Malaysia, but now the government is part of an effort that’s literally providing them a stage on which to perform.
Most days, buskers perform in the main train station under Kuala Lumpur’s famous Petronas Twin Towers, the pair of skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline.
“We’re all traveling around. And if we find a spot anywhere, in any country, then we do busking,” says Ali Hakim. He’s part of a pair of singers we found at the station. They play his native Malay music and covers of more familiar tunes.
“This is what we love. We love to travel. We love to play music, so we combine together, and we go,” he says.
In Malaysia, buskers are no longer playing in the shadows. They even get sound equipment and a stage in a place buskers used to skirt the police for panhandling.
“The busker in the early generations, they looked like beggars, involved with drugs, and they were very independent,” says Wady Hamdan.
He helped bring the street artists together when he started the Malaysia Buskers Club three years ago. Since then, the club has united the community, helped clean up their image and it’s brought on benefits for the city, including a constant stream of live entertainers at tourist hot spots.
“Of course all the tourists that come in to Malaysia, they just want to feel the lifestyle. And we can show that Malaysians are free to sing anywhere on the street,” Wady says.
The busker club doesn’t take a cut of the money tossed into guitar cases. And even at popular locales, like the train station, there have been enough open slots to accommodate all the performers.
The Malaysian Tourism Ministry helps support the busker group, spending money on sets, promotion and drug tests to make sure member buskers stay clean.
“They already arrange everything. So we can just play,” Ali says.
The effort to legitimize busking has legitimized his work. He and his partner now make enough money from busking that they get to make music for a living.
“We didn’t do any other job than this,” he says.
Chan Kok Leong contributed to this story, from Kuala Lumpur.