|A personal account by the editor of The Devil On 45 Zine
Author: ‘Ed On 45’
What do you think of first when you hear the term ‘black metal’? Probably something along the lines of; high pitched vocals, blast beats, Scandinavia, forests, heavily distorted guitars, church burnings, corpse paint, well more than likely you didn’t list the country of Malaysia. However it is a music subculture which has existed there for over ten years with a large and discreet underground scene that has been functioning under the close scrutiny of the authorities, both civil and religious, for many years. At times it has been considered such a threat that gigs were raided, people targeted, threatened, blacklisted and imprisoned. Youths were given medication to curb their dealings with the ‘black metal occult’ and many shops, recording studios, labels and bands were forced out of existence or even further underground. There are many complex and confounding ‘reasons’ for this of which I hope to shed some light upon in this article, but first some background.
My own interest in the extreme music of Malaysia started a long time before I’d even stepped foot in this amazing country. I had been in contact with various punks and metallers there since the late 1990s and when I finally managed to get there in 2005 the enthusiasm and passion of the kids involved in both the ‘do-it-yourself” punk and metal/grind scenes blew me away. I had already heard some rumblings about the black metal ban in Malaysia before I went there, however it was difficult to find out much information about what exactly had happened. I spoke to friends of mine who ran distro’s and record labels and they informed me of the constant difficulties they have had with the state over the past few years. Most of the people I met who ran labels did this by keeping a po box in the mildly less oppressive Singapore just to the south, which meant that some of the labels owners had to travel distances of up to seven hours just to collect their post! When they had travelled to Singapore to collect their records/post that was only half of the trouble involved, as Malaysian customs check people quite heavily at the border back into Malaysia. The reason most of the label owners I met kept their P. O. boxes in Singapore was mainly due to the restrictions on running an independent label in Malaysia. Every parcel that is sent into Malaysia is checked by government officials and anything ‘too-western’ or ‘un-Islamic’ is immediately confiscated.
Even worse than simply having your produce confiscated was the blacklisting of various different bands, labels, and addresses, so that packages to these people were simply not making it through customs. This of course caused multiple difficulties for those who run labels and many went to extreme pains to explain to me how they have been called rip off merchants and fakes by people all over the world, people who may have sent them money or records and never heard a word back, very frustrating as you can imagine but the label owners are literally powerless. One friend of mine Jimbo who runs Broken Noise Distribution explained how he had to use a variety of different addresses, different names and even signed his signature in different ways to try and get past the already watchful eye of the state. Shaman the drummer of Tasyim from the Pahang region told me of his difficulties, “I got problems with the authorities (police/govt/customs) since 1993. Most of my letters, parcels, packages etc has been banned/confiscated by them and lots of other labels begin to send hate mails towards me because of their shit (i.e. money and parcels going missing). No I can only receive a small letter package but sometimes even 1 cd is taken. Most of it because of Satanism, explicit lyrics, anti-religions etc. In 2000 the police came to my home and asked me a lot of things. They wanted me to write a statement that I’m not making any movement, anti-system organisation or such. Gratefully my house didn’t get raided or I might’ve lost a lot of stuff. They also asked me to stop my underground activity and keep silent for a while or I might go to jail because of it…what the fuck? Because I also have my printing business here I must obey their order but in 2006 I begin again and I just don’t care what they say about me anymore. Just hope they won’t bother my real income or I might get a very big problem… you know what I mean“…
I found the punk and metal kids in Malaysia to be a huge inspiration, putting out records, zines (independent press is also very restricted here) doing bands and labels and putting on their own DIY shows. A lot of young Malay kids told me of their families distain for the ‘punk life’ they were living and how they had felt they brought shame upon their family even though all they really wanted was to be able to express themselves within a music style that suits them. Malaysian youths have always prided themselves on the fact that Malaysia was one of the first countries in south east Asia where heavy metal and rock music in general really took off. However over the past few years most bands have come under increased pressure from the government to desist their ’un-Islamic, western’ ideas.
To first understand the reasons and ‘worries’ that caused this ban we must first look at Malaysian society as a whole. Malaysia has a Muslim majority of 60 percent, and is considered a ‘Malay dominated plural society’. It does not have many of the restrictions that more severe Islamic states may have due to the significant population of Christians, Hindus and those of other religious denominations living alongside. Alcohol is readily available and there is less pressure on women to wear the burkha as demanded by many other states. However the death penalty is still in place and there is a large police presence. They regularly set up checkpoints where they urine test people and if found to test positive for cannabis your choice is three months of prison or six months in rehab. The Military draft is also used in Malaysia and I met so many people who had come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to avoid it, for example one break-core DJ told me how he had taken speed for three days before his interview and thus was completely wired when he got to the admissions office, making sexual advances to the Sergeant in charge also helped! The scene these kids had organised and continued to rally around despite pressure from countless sources such as family and the state amazed me, so I guess the question is how did it get to the point where ‘black metal’ music was banned and people were accused of being involved in satanic cults and imprisoned? I interviewed quite a few bands byemail, some understandably didn’t or couldn’t speak for fear of unwanted attention, however some were willing to speak out and to these people and bands I am eternally grateful. I did notice that quite a few bands who used websites such as myspace to spread their music would list their whereabouts as (town) Malaysia, (country) United States or for example Malaysia, Sweden so that this would hopefully lower their chances of detection.
The advent of the 1990s and the huge leaps in technology that came with it offer us a substantive clue for the ban. The more cd’s, dvds and the internet became readily available to the Malay youth the more the state and other Islamic lobbyists rallied against them. The Islamic lobbyists put pressure on the government to ban the music they saw as haram (forbidden under Islamic law) and the ‘Printing Presses and Publications Act’ and also the ‘Police Act’ gave the authorities the ability to censor and ban both local and foreign touring artists who they deemed would ‘promote negative aspects of Western culture’ . Music that was ‘too westernised’ or songs with words that ‘stimulate one to violence’ were banned under these acts and particular genres such as heavy metal were banned by the national broadcaster ’Radio Television Malaysia‘. This was nothing new as open-air concerts had been banned in 1986 as rockers were accused of ‘acting wildly’ and ‘not reflecting the code of ethics’ of the people.
Under the radar of the state’s watchful eye were burgeoning metal and punk scenes both continuing to thrive, scenes based heavily on the Do-It-Yourself ethos where bands put on their own gigs, released their own tapes (tapes are still the most popular and cheapest forms of music media in Malaysia) and put out their own underground magazines or fanzines. These scenes rejected the form of rock music that had come before them known as ‘rock kapak’ (Malay slang for low class rock). They rejected the rock singers of the 1980’s (such as Wings and Ellie and the Boys) who had contracts with multinational companies and sang commercial rock; instead they embraced styles such as grind, punk, grunge, death and black metal. Carburetor Dung were one of the most prominent of these early underground acts and are still held in quite high esteem by the youth of Malaysia. Even though these bands could not get any national airplay private radio stations such as HitzFM and WOWFM featured some better known local heavy metal bands (Prana, Lyme) and hip-hop acts (Poetic Ammo, Too Phat). The rise of these scenes must have been of great concern to the authorities and as the new millennium arrived so did increased pressure from the state and also what many Malays viewed as a propaganda war by the media, even as early as 1999 punk music was attacked in the media for encouraging youths to dye and spike their hair and spit on each other at gigs.
Before we get into the details of what exactly happened post 2000 it must be explained that the crackdown on black metal happened during a time of considerable political turmoil and an economic downturn. Anwar Ibrahim, the Deputy Prime Minister had been stripped of all posts, arrested and imprisoned for 15 years for alleged sodomy and corruption which he has always vehemently denied. His wife Wan Azizah who ran an opposition party called Keadilan claimed she was also set up. More and more demonstrations started to take place in the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur and hundreds of youths were arrested.
The first blow was struck in July 2001 when the Malaysian Star newspaper reported that Black Metal fans from the areas of Kedah, Penang and Selangor were accused of practicing satanic rituals such as drinking goats blood, tearing up and sleeping on (!) the Koran and wearing satanic t shirts. Following on from this 100 Muslim youths (14-15 year olds) were caught by the police at various shopping centres and were brought to the station for body checks (to check for evidence of satanic tattoos), urine tests and questioning shops selling metal paraphernalia were also raided. State religious affairs committee chairman Fadzil Hanafi said that more rigorous checks would be taking place in religious and boarding schools whose students were apparently ‘targets’ of the cult, “those conducting body checks will watch out for tattoos or other symbols linked to the occult group”. Fadzil said at least 50 students from 12 schools were identified as members of the group and warned of further spot checks in public areas and the cropping of long haired students. Mantheravathee the lead guitarist of Hayagriva who hail from the Ipoh region (200km north of Kuala Lumpur) stated “The conservative media — local tabloid i.e. Harian Metro — really made this issue a controversy just to sell their newspaper everyday! You imagine the front page with a big font title MALAYSIAN SATANISM BLACK METAL ATTACK! It woke up the old people who sit at the parliament. The media also cannot define exactly what black metal is, for them what is not familiar is black metal. That included metallers, thrashers, punker, skinheads and all rare underground stuff”
Fadzil Hanafi took it one step further a couple of months later when he announced that an unnamed herbal medicine would be given to 150 students across 15 schools to teenagers accused of being part of the cult in the Kedah region. Hanafi told Reuters “This herb is to stimulate the brain so that the students can concentrate on their studies”. Hanafi would not release the name of the drug or even the private company who had developed the drug to ‘treat drug addicts’, Hanafi claimed the drug had been “found to be effective in stimulating their thinking”, students were also ordered to attend religious sermons. Hanafi said that the state had arrested 700 mostly teenagers since the clampdown. In the nearby Perlis state, authorities had apparently ‘identified’ 20 students who were on ‘the verge of joining the cult’ Investigations were also taking place in another 20 schools. Inspector general of Police Tan Sri Norian Mai said of the whole affair “We alerted the district security committee and religious department some two months ago after we got wind of the group’s activities in Kedah…Since then, we kept a close watch on their movement, even before the issue was highlighted”.
At the same time as if fuel needed to be added to the already escalating fire Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad re-iterated his dislike for both rap and heavy metal for corrupting the morals of the Malay people and called for a special cabinet session during August to discuss the involvement of youths in such undesirable activities such as ‘Black Metal‘. Laws were put in place by the authorities to curb the spread of what they called the ’Black Metal’ cult, any acts or bands wishing to enter Malaysia would have to submit videotapes of their performances before being allowed to play in the country. Anything considered to be ‘Black Metal’ was banned from public performance, censored from the radio and many heavy metal websites were closed. However after a short while of laying low a few more mainstream heavy metal gigs remerged and on the 27th of January 2002 a few thousand rockers attended a festival featuring local acts such as Koffin Kanser, Blind Tribe and Beneath The Remains.
For a couple of years the bands went further and further underground and the furore against black metal died down. It resurfaced in 2005 with renewed vigour as Mantheravathee says, “History repeated itself! Some of my friends even had to spend their nights behind bars just because they went to a fucking gig? Even the big labels here have gone through some dark times..Metal shops were raided”. In October of that year Kamaruddin Kassim, a senior officer of the Islamic Affairs Department claimed that there was a satanic heavy metal cult, led by a foreigner, operating in the northern districts of Sungei Petani and Baling. Kassim claimed the cult took part in bizarre rituals such as drinking the blood of a slaughtered goat hung from a cross and the burning of holy texts such as the Koran. He also stated that members of the group “would also get high” through incantations and then urinate upon or tear up holy scriptures.
Officials alleged members of the cults were divided into two groups ‘Black Metal’ and ‘Red Rover’, and that these members all dressed in black and wearing eyeliner loitered around shopping malls to recruit teenagers. Psyco, the drummer of WitchcroW whose songs focus on themes such as witchcraft, Wicca and paganism explained to me, “the media tells so many crappy fake story about the scene. It’s too crazy. They even make up a story like we from the metal scene has a big group and have a leader that is doing satanic rituals, drinking goats blood, sacrificing a virgin to the group, being a drug dealer, burning the religious book, etc. Isn’t that a childish story? If the activities are real, does it need to be done in groups with a heading/leader? What are the thinking of us? A new political party? Heh..Bullshit!“ To help garner public support for the crackdown the government gave pictures of the cult members dressed in black leather and face paint to the media with the aim of outraging the mainstream of Malaysia also saying that “This is worrying, we are placing undercover officers to monitor the situation”. The use of such propaganda should have given warning of what was to come in the first few months of 2006.
On New Year’s Eve a black metal concert in Kuala Lumpur (in the Jalan Kelang Lama region) was raided by the police and (according to some sources) as many as 380 people were unlawfully arrested for suspected drug use and other crimes. In an interview I conducted the M.A.K.A.M drummer ‘Black Doom Sri Mayan gakala’ (available in entirety to read on their myspace) he said of the arrests , “I had left the concert before the police came, some of my friends are in jail now. I am very sad about that, they were sent to ‘Pusat Permulihan Akhlak’.” His friends were sent to this prison (used mostly for drug related offences) and detained without any trial, a common practice in Malaysia.
On January 23rd 2006 the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia officially placed a ban on ‘black metal’. Datuk Shukor Husin, a spokesman for the council, was quoted as saying (by Malaysian state news agency ’Bernama’) that, “Followers of black metal could be prosecuted under Islamic law.” He further added, “It has been established that black metal practice are way against the syariat and every effort must be taken to stop its spread. Black metal culture is unacceptable for Muslims and can cause listeners to rebel against the country’s prevailing religion. We are trying to prevent any increase in our society in the number of such band members”. Mantheravathee of the aforementioned Haygriva believes, “This issue was brought back by the media and came from the Malaysian Islamic society, to ban black metal ’teaching’ for Muslims. Poor them can’t define this metal. At the press conference on the local news they say this ‘Black Metal’ was founded by Metallica around 1990, to me this is all wrong!! They are too foolish to judge I presume!” As vague as the terms of reference were to what is ‘black metal’ were the penalties to be handed out for those who were members of black metal bands as these were not clarified. However the chairman of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) said they would be working closely with state religious departments to amend the syriah laws to give power to the departments to act against those involved in black metal, Husin was quoted as saying, “It may take some time for the law to be enforced. In the meantime, we hope other relevant authorities would play their role in putting a stop to this culture”. Religious leaders had said they found ‘Satanic’ objects — necklaces of skulls and references to animal sacrifices in underground fanzines devoted to black metal.
Following on from this the chief minister Mohamed Isa Abdul Samad Mohamed of the southwestern state of Negri Sembilan stated his support for the clampdown, “We will gazette (the decision) as a fatwa (Islamic Edict)”. The same week religious and political activists urged the authorities to cancel the upcoming concert by veteran German rockers ‘The Scorpions’. One of the forerunners of the black metal movement Mayhem from Norway were banned from performing in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 4th, perhaps their tour slogan “Bringing hell to your doorstep” was not the wisest idea in a country with such a history of fear of black metal! The gig was cancelled as the state saw this slogan as an endorsement of “satanic worship and drug use”. During the same month in Sungai Petani a town in the Kedah region twelve youths aged between 12 and 15 were arrested on two occasions in an abandoned building in the early hours of the morning between the 2nd of February and the third week of the month, Police claimed they found various ‘black metal cult’ items such as silver metal chains with lockets depicting a ram’s skull, leaflets, books, magazines, tapes with information on the cult and also some Chinese prayer paraphernalia. They were subsequently released after extensive questioning.
So where does the future lie for Black Metal and all extreme music in Malaysia, around the time of completing this article it came to my attention that pop princess Avril Lavinge’s performance in Kuala Lumpur was almost cancelled as she was considered “too sexy“ by Kamarulzaman Mohamed the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. This comes after the Pussycat Dolls promoters Absolute Entertainment were fined 10,000 Ringgits (£1,436) for allowing the act to perform “sexually suggestive” routines in March 2008. If major label artists as mainstream as the aforementioned are in danger of being reprimanded what hope does that hold for the underground extreme metal/punk scenes and most importantly what does this all mean to the bands and fans of this music.
One member of the band Nekro Vomit I spoke to, who come from the Kataha region, quite defiantly stated “For sure we’re playing black metal. The Government knows nothing and they don’t have a fucking idea on what they (are) preaching about it’s totally bullshit. Nothing is gonna stop us, this is the underground scene. They can do anything..but…they can’t stop us…fuck them…fuck ‘em all”. The resilience of these bands to continue despite all odds inspires me, from talking to them it seems that the innate power of the ‘Black Metal’ sound is what makes them continue, “The ban is very bad..it affects the gigs and the Metal market over here. Everything seems faded.
At one time, around 2001 when Napalm Death played at Kuala Lumpur 3,000 people filled the hall! But now at the same venue, only 300 might pay in for a local band’s gig. This is because it is hard to promote and get the permits for metal gigs”, Mantheravathee wrote despondently, “but I believe if outside bands come here again the crowd is still here. For example when Kreator played in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, 2000 people were there”. Kreator made the sensible move of entering the country as tourists rather than a live band like Mayhem did. For the smaller gigs there are many dangers still present, Azan lead singer and guitarist of Tyranny (who are listed as being from Norway) stated “If we want to set up a gig then we must pretend that there is no black metal band performing or we will suffer in the jail for at least a few weeks until they finish the investigation”.
However these band’s remain defiant, and the scene continues to grow and strive for wider recognition with renewed anger and passion, “They used religion to charge us. Not only Islam but also Christian, Buddhist etc…that existed in Malaysia. We cannot blame them but the creator of this story will slowly rot in HELL!” Xul, vocalist and bassist in the black metal band Neftaraka spoke angrily, “But all this thing don’t even make me drop down. This propaganda makes me stronger than before. Fuck all this false monkey money business. All this are also related with political issues and for me political are pigs! Neftaraka still standing proud along with other survive. We’re not afraid of anything because we know what we are doing since the beginning. Black Metal will stay in our heart!