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"Uplifted and united": An insider's guide to touring Kuala Lumpur

DJ and writer Ashley Casselle spends three heady days in the Malaysian capital

  • Words: Ashley Casselle | Photography: Raja Mazri, Sunky
  • 8 July 2019

The taxi is quiet and cool after the hustle of the airport, but there’s a sense of anticipation when Kuala Lumpur’s skyline looms into view, the Petronas Twin Towers looking as impressive in the hazy afternoon sunlight as they do lit up at night. My hotel is beside these two concrete immensities in their wrapping of steel and glass. Not that I’ll spend much time in my room. I was here only seven months ago, playing at Kuala Lumpur’s Sweatbox, and it’s a pleasure to be invited back. Kuala Lumpur is perhaps my favourite place to party in on the planet. I’m familiar with a small portion of this vast city of nearly two million people – particularly the bustling area called Changkat, a densely populated scene of bars, restaurants and small clubs.

Experience dictates that it’s better to stay up all day and then get to bed early to avoid jet lag. It’s Privi club owner Rob Gilland’s birthday party tonight. Rob is a pale Australian who looks like a young Keith Richards with black spiky hair, high cheekbones and big brown eyes, known for wearing smart attire despite the sticky humid heat. His club (and attached restaurant Drift) are a gathering place for the local party people; an array of Malaysians, British, Australians, Iranians, Russians, Romainians and Brazilians and more. It’s a Great Gatsby fancy dress party tonight, and many of the girls are wearing feathers and sparkly, sequin-studded dresses, F. Scott’s flappers to a tee. Privi is modestly sized but dreamy, its big, warm, clear soundsystem tuned up perfectly and turned up high. Pictures of Charlie Chaplin hang on the walls and multicoloured lights flash in time to the house and techno. It’s often described as ‘KL’s best secret disco’ with no officially announced line-ups and long nights running into even longer days of partying.

An all-girl DJ line-up is on the decks, all of them members of the Girls Got Groove collective. After a couple of hours of partying and ice cold beer I’m invited to do an impromptu DJ set, and happily dedicate it to Rob for his birthday. Fish Go Deep’s ‘Believe In Now’ with its sleek male vocals slides into an old Idjut Boys remix of JKriv and the Disco Machine’s ‘Make It Hot’ (which seems appropriate for tonight) followed by some housey techno grooves as the air conditioning just about keeps the cool crowd from overheating. It’s all good prep for tomorrow’s gig.

Across the road is the Pisco Bar where I meet Nicolás the owner, an ageless Spaniard with a mod haircut. Charismatic, fast-talking and affectionate about the scene here, he’s proud of how his upstairs-downstairs club and bar, which has been the mainstay of quality music since 2013, helped set the tone for the area. “It was the first bar to be popular amongst locals, expats and trendy locals, and to give a voice to people who are not heard,” he says. He used to open up and play music himself from an iPhone, from Neil Young to The Cure to New Order and Blondie, but recently Pisco’s has played host to the likes of Soul Clap and Jesse Rose. Dora, a petite, charming Malaysian/Portugese DJ with a healthy Instagram following and flowing, musically precise mixing skills takes a break mid-set. She invites me to spin for a while to the heaving, rowdy yet musically educated crowd. It’s a chance to try out another couple of new ideas for tomorrow, but I’m more than a little heady now from the jet-lag and Tiger beer. Meliha, another DJ from Girls Got Groove, steps up and plays more chunky tech-house complementing the flow of the night’s music.

I buy a coconut with a straw in it from a roadside vendor. It makes a lovely change from beer. Later on I find I’ve stayed up all night, ending up with some particularly lovely party people in an apartment full of Graham Greene novels, Oscar Wilde and Richard Branson biographies, while they play obscure 80s and 90s music. I’ve not slept in a bed for a very very long time and it’s all got rather surreaI. I decide to have lunch at the Vietnam Cafe in the searing bright midday sunshine and then wander through the busy street markets back to the hotel to rest.

It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to the heat, lack of sleep and full-on schedule when you’re on tour. I’m refreshed and eager when I arrive at KL’s W Hotel for a mineral water on the roof terrace. Positioned directly beneath and between the Petronas Twin Towers, it’s razor-sharp and angular on the outside yet filled inside with flowing lines wrapped sinuously around pulsing blue and pink LED globes, and a huge poster of Anja Schneider, who’ll be playing here in the large lounge area soon. Kyo, however, is just across the street. Playing in a club the second time is usually a DJ’s better set, in my opinion, and even though my previous visit here was successful I knew I’d taken too long to build up to peak time. This time I opt to begin my set faster than I usually would, and I’m into the flow immediately. This soundsystem is described by many DJs who play here as the best in the world, and I’m inclined to agree. The records all seem to be selecting themselves, and soon I’m dancing in the booth with a number of other DJs, lighting guys and local luminaries, with the odd blagger shouting happily, and I’m enjoying every second of it.

Afterwards I get a big hug from Daniela Horeanga, promoter, DJ and a key player here in KL. Tall, with newly dyed black hair and the cheekbones and deep brown eyes of her Romanian birthplace, Daniela arrived in Penang in Malaysia in 2005, and has been throwing parties around the region (and DJing under the alias Biscuit) ever since. She started Sweatbox to cater for her own tastes in house and techno, and has since branched out into a record label of the same name as well as the regular parties here at Kyo; she organised last night’s Girls Got Groove party as well. “Everybody who I book is in my record library”, she says. “If the ethos behind them isn’t credible then I’m not booking them.” Mark Fanculli, Eddie Richards, Loco Dice and Satoshi Fumi have all appeared on her label recently, testament to her ambition to create a KL house label of real international repute. Of course, there’s a hastily arranged afterparty, this time at local DJ Niall F’s apartment, where about 80 people are dancing about highly enthused by pumping house music. It rocks on until 11:AM. As I’m about to leave the concierges bang on the door and say they’re calling the police. Luckily a smile, an air of authority and some fake sobriety whisk me past the fuming security and I’m out into KL’s midday sun where, thankfully, I discover that the hotel is right next door. I set my alarm for a three-hour sleep.

Somehow I manage to arrive at the Zouk Club on time the next afternoon for the Wired Music Week conference (WMW), Malaysia’s equivalent of IMS or ADE, where Daniela’s invited me to be on a panel comparing club scenes in different regions and countries. My hangover starts to fade under her careful questions and I possibly even start to make sense alongside a cool assembly of mainly local DJs, promoters and artists. As we finish, monsoon rains clatter on the roof and the heavens open for an almighty session, the thunderous claps like some huge bassy soundsystem in the sky.

After dinner and a rest I jump in a Grab car (Malaysia’s Uber), for a short trip along KL’s maze of motorways to Iron Fairies, a club that seems to be on everyone’s lips right now. The distinctive Butterfly Room has 50,000 butterflies hanging from the ceiling. The Illustrious Blacks from NYC are playing disco and house tonight, and the duo are as striking as the venue itself in masks dripping with slim metal chains, looking like cool superheros from another galaxy. They play a mixture of big and uplifting (yet never cheesy) disco anthems and re-edits occasionally mixed with more introspective house, while the flamboyantly dressed, diverse crowd lap up their every move. I have a mad, beautiful hour to dance to their set and find out who they are behind the masks. Manchild and Monster are partners as well as touring DJs - a New York DJ tag-team supreme. Monster is originally from Williamsburg, Virginia, and describes himself as “facilitator of good vibes” and an MC, while Manchild selects the tunes. What they tell me resonates with my own ethos. They want to inspire people to “leave the TV and the politics behind and be transformed by the experience, leaving them feeling differently than when they came into the party, totally uplifted and united”.

A bit like three nights in Kuala Lumpur. Around the venue are multitudes of iron fairies sitting in various nooks and crannies, and when I leave I’ve got my own as little souvenir of this unique place. It’ll head home with me tomorrow. Back to London. And a proper sleep.

Ashley Casselle is a writer and DJ, follow his Facebook page

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