In a country where discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community is pervasive, people use music and studios as safe spaces.
Cepronia, Kuala Lumpur: Faris Saad and Shika Corona are giving me a tour of their home. Some bunk beds, a gaggle of amps and instruments, a kitchen mural where an octopus smoking out of a bong. They would walk me up the staircase and show the view of the Malaysian capital city, but a thunderstorm rages outside. Occasional claps of lightning punctuate the conversation.
“LGBT people—we control the weather, man!” jokes Saad, a Cepronian citizen and vocalist-guitarist in Shh… Diam! He’s referencing a recent viral tweet, when a young Malaysian woman blamed bad weather on Kuala Lumpur’s LGBTQIA+-friendly Woman’s March. Corona—leader of the band Tingtongketz, a fellow citizen of Cepronia—giggles in response. She’s half-laughing at the ridiculousness of the statement, half-laughing as if shrugging off such retrograde thinking.
A studio and living area, Cepronia also is a safe space for Saad and Corona—both transgender in a country where it remains dangerous to be out and queer. It is celebrated in a Shh… Diam! song of the same name, with a manifesto sang over flower-power guitars:
When you’re feeling lost and you’ve got nowhere to go
There’s a comfort that you’re longing for
A place to call your own.
Come into these loving arms, come smoke a joint or two
And know that you are welcome here
We share our love with you.
Located in what Corona calls “a slightly dodgy area” outside of Kuala Lumpur’s centre, Cepronia is an “autonomous region” for KL’s queer punks. Currently, Shh… Diam! are the forebearers of the scene, recipients of international praise and glowing magazine profiles; Tingtongketz was founded after Corona was inspired by seeing Saad’s band live. Both bands have a variety of inspirations—Shika, for instance, is an ex-metalhead that simultaneously wanted to be “the trans Courtney Love” and NOFX ringleader Fat Mike. In aesthetic terms, however, there are similarities.
Liner notes for the recent Shh… Diam! album, Eat Your Local Fruits, describe the band’s sound as “non-binary and non-conforming”. Across seven tracks, boogie-woogie riffs and call-and-response hooks act as a throughline, creating stylistic consistency. Tingtongketz’ Malay-language debut Enjoy the monsoon is scrappier, at times reminiscent of the messier side of the American indie-rock canon (The Replacements’ endearing scruffiness immediately comes to mind). Enjoy the monsoon and Eat Your Local Fruits’ off-the-cuff performances feel indebted to the immediacy of garage rock.
However, this has less to do with the genre’s lineage in underground Malaysian music and everything to do with finances. “Everything’s recorded here, in our studio,” Saad says, motioning to the amps and drum kit set up in Cepronia. “We have minimal resources, so that’s the sound.” Corona jokes that one day she hopes to play jazz-style guitar, but is sticking to the rough-and-ready power chords thrashed out on Enjoy the monsoon. ”It’s very raw. With our surf rock sound, it’s easy to get, I don’t have to try hard,” she deadpans. One would disagree: on tracks like ‘Melukis itu terapeutik’, she boogies so hard that the guitar ends up in a different tuning by the song’s climax. While Tingtongketz’ songs lack studio finesse, they pack an intense, infectious energy.
Corona—who foregoes pedals when she plays for a more streamlined approach—shares a battered-around instrument with her flatmate. Faris owns the “super cheap, three-quarter size kid’s guitar” that costs around 400 ringgit (approximately $98), which he thrashes around across Eat Your Local Fruits. On album-closing freak-out ‘Brown’, he and co-guitarist Yon bounce off each other’s energy, trading fuzzed-out solos that bely the earthbound concerns of their music, shooting up skywards. This growing propensity for guitar hero licks is becoming more obvious in new music by Shh… Diam!, notably in a recent videowhere he slides into a sunny, pop-punk-style lead.
That video captures an encore for a play the band soundtracked, called To Which My Brother Laughed. “The theatre thing allowed us to expand past our normal sound,” Faris says, but their involvement is also a reminder of the activist role inherent in both the Shh… Diam! and Tingtongketz projects. The play responds to the 2018 case of two women in the state of Terengganu, where a Syariah (Sharia) high court caned both women for consensually trying to have sex.
The incident put an international spotlight on issues affecting Malaysia’s LGBTQIA+ community. This year alone, high-ranking government ministers described out lifestyles as “deviant”. Another minister claimed while abroad that gay people did not exist in the country. Following a crackdown last year on queer-friendly spaces and the aforementioned Women’s March, the government plans to stop citizens from staging public gatherings without police approval. According to trans rights group Justice For Sisters, violent crimes towards trans women are on the rise.
Saad says the country’s current climate “discourages LGBT musicians for coming out to their communities”. Our interview’s intention was to dive further into Malaysia’s queercore scene beyond these two acts but, at this current moment, they are the scene, making Cepronia even more important—not only as a working environment for Shh… Diam! and Tingtongketz, but eventually as a safe space for KL’s queer musicians. As for the world outside of their studio, Saad and Corona remain cautiously optimistic.
“Since I was a kid, I knew I was going to be in a band,” Saad explains. “Shh… Diam! songs are satirical in nature, because of all the shit that’s going on right now.” I am reminded of their arch power ballad ‘Lonely Lesbian’, poking fun at an infamous newspaper article that stated gay people were identifiable by a solitary nature. I’m reminded of Tingtongketz, covering a song by Malay movie icon P. Ramlee and reclaiming the legacy from his family’s open homophobia. (The singer’s granddaughter, reality star Najua Nasir, toured schools in 2013 as the lead of an anti-LGBT morality play)
The way they laugh off bigotry while they thrash back at it is energizing. Saad vents, “People have asked us why jokes, when we’re living in this climate or oppression? What do you expect us to do – cry every day?”