Malaysia Tatler
June 2007
HOTSPOT : Where to be Seen

Back to Black
DESCRIBED AS KUALA LUMPUR’S BEST-KEPT SECRET, RUBINI KAMALAKARA EXPLORES THE ECHOING STRAINS OF THIS UNIQUE CITY VENUE

Like many a success story, the trail of stepping-stones leading to a resulting triumph can be traced far back in time. The story of No Black Tie (fondly referred to as NBT) is no exception. The journey begins with one lady, Evelyn Hii, and her passion for music. The founder of NBT credits her parents and piano lessons for instilling in her an unquenchable love for classical music.

Music quickly became a huge part of her life, propelling her to further her education in the US where she obtained a Bachelor in Music and, shortly afterwards, a Masters.

The progression of events triggering NBT began when she returned to Malaysia in 1995, settled in KL, Evelyn accepted college teaching and at night, went in search of the best live music, at the time restricted mostly to bars. She quickly noticed one thing in common – the audiences paid no attention to the talented musicians used to attentive audiences.

Fueled with frustration and a burning desire to improve life for musicians in KL, she started to devise an alternative platform for expression. The first thing she needed was a venue with excellent acoustics.

She heard about a bar with wooden interior, among a row of shop houses in partially derelict conditions, along Jalan Mesui. “When I stepped into the place and saw the wooden interior, I immediately knew that it had good acoustics and would be perfect for classical music performances,” she shares.

She approached the bar operators and convinced them to let her bring in musicians. History was made in 1998 when No Black Tie was officially initiated, turning out to be a gold mine for the operators as the venue began to reel in the cream of KL’s community.

One has to wonder if the unusual name in some way helped to create its resounding success. Evelyn explains, “At classical music concerts patrons were expected to dress in full evening wear; ladies in gowns and men in tuxedos and black ties. I didn’t want to impose such restrictions. I wanted the music to be enjoyed by everyone. The name No Black Tie is a simple expression of that desire.”

For one year NBT showcased only classical music with Evelyn inviting members of the symphony orchestra as well as visiting classical musicians, to perform.

Eventually she realised that other genres of music needed an equally good showcase. Her fear was that good jazz and blues, left to the noisy bars, would limit their cultural growth.

“In order to listen to music, there needs to be a synergy between the musicians and the audience. If it’s not there, it’s difficult for jazz, blues or classical musicians to concentrate during their performance,” she explains.

During the formative years, NBT was nomadic or in Evelyn’s words “like a travelling musical troupe.” In 2000 she grabbed the opportunity to sign a tenancy agreement with the bar owner. By now the venue had become home to local musicians and visiting international artists, staging at least 100 concerts a year.

Evelyn credits the success of NBT to supportive friends like talented musician, Rafique Rashid. “He was a huge help with NBT especially when we expanded the stage to jazz music because, for the first time, we needed a sound system,” she says.

However a potential crisis occured when the tenancy agreement expired. When Evelyn and the bar owner failed to reach an agreement and with nowhere to go, Evelyn made the difficult decision to close NBT. But its strong musical spirit was not broken – on the last day a huge concert was performed, leaving the venue echoing on a crescendo.

As far as the public was aware, NBT had simply disappeared. But unbeknown to many, Evelyn had her sights set on a shop house just five doors down the road, which had just become available.

Then began a two year plan to set up her dream jazz club. She drew on her own experience and knowledge of running a bar and sprinkled it with inspiration picked up from visiting other jazz clubs together with the input from two designers.

The old shop house was demolished and the club was custom-built for music. Through her extensive network, she found a fellow Sarawakian who was an acoustics wood panelling manufacturer and commissioned him to provide the wood for the club. “it’s all specially treated and I had it shipped over to KL from Sarawak,” she says. In addition to the stage, she fitted a small kitchen and a gastro bar, an antique she discovered in Malacca.

For the clincher, she requested a garden be established, with huge plants camouflaging the entrance. Looking very much like a green tunnel, it reminds some patrons of the mysterious rabbit’s hole from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

So, in 2006, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, NBT opened its doors again.

Unperturbed by the fact that it lies in a non-commercial district, Evelyn says it gives it a certain uniqueness to the club and the other establishments in the area, a concept that is quite common overseas.

On the hurdles she overcame, she says, “There will always be obstacles. Looking back I don’t know how we did it when we took up tenancy of the bar down the road. We had incredible licensing issues but we still saw the likes of the members from the Count Basie Orchestra, Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers and Abdullah Ibrahim perform.”

Now, with her commitment to provide good music to the KL community, she feels the Department of Municipal Affairs is slowly beginning to understand that NBT’s commitment is different from other F&B outlets.

She says the restaurant, which offers Japanese cuisine, is a value-added service, and offers light food to compliment the music. “I didn’t want patrons to feel lethargic after eating, that would diminish their enjoyment of the show.”

However the impressive menu, which includes a variety of popular choices, is actually as good as the music. The aromas coming from the kitchen wast round the auditorium, melding with the soft strains of jazz chords, leaving satisfied audiences salivating for more.

There is no doubt NBT strikes a chord of its own, tirelessly providing a platform that not only celebrates established artists but also discovers and cultivates new talents.