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From Gigs to Jigs
Modern artisans are keeping handmade arts alive all over Malaysia. The ultimate combination of music, woodwork and ingenuity, Roger Wang is a Sabah-based musician-turned-carpenter who makes his own guitars.
Ask any Sabahan about the local music industry and the name Roger Wang will surely be mentioned. For the past 20 years, this renowned fingerstyle guitarist has played a vital role in the development of the music scene in Kota Kinabalu.
After graduating from the Ocean Institute of Audio Engineering in Kuala Lumpur, he decided to move back to his hometown despite warnings that it was a bad career move. Kota Kinabalu only had one recording studio back then, but Wang was confident of his calling.
Roger Wang has played a vital role in the development of Kota Kinabalu’s music scene.
"In 1996, I came back to literally nothing. The recording industry was revolved around Kadazan Dusun music. No local productions were heard, let alone sold outside of Sabah. Foreigners dominated the live music scene and not a lot of young people were playing music. But I saw the pontential and it was very exciting," recalls Wang.
Wang began working at Baxter & James Music Company, and taught guitar lessons on the side. He also joined his uncle's band, Good Company, and was regularly performing at weddings and events. His luck improved when he met Asmin Mudin, a Sabahan songwriter who made his name writing hits like Kau Ilham Ku by Man Bai.
Asmin who also moved back to Kota Kinabalu had the same intention as Wang to market local music to the rest of Malaysia. They started scouting for talents and worked on a few productions together. It was around the same time that Wang met Mia Palencia, an eager 14-year-old with a voluptuous voice.
"Mia and I had very similar taste in music. That was one of the reasons we bonded so well,” says Wang. “When we first met, I was already experimenting with fingerstyle guitar techniques. I was studying the works of artists like Tuck & Patti, which was the band that Double Take [the duo which Wang later formed with Palencia] was modelled after."
In November 2000, Double Take released their self-titled debut album. It was the first English album that was 100 percent produced in Sabah. Wang and Palencia had high hopes of opening doors in Kuala Lumpur, but to their disappointment, none of the record labels were interested. No one understood their choice of genre and why two youngsters were making what they called “old people music”.
Also a professional woodworker, Wang makes his own guitars.
Feeling defeated, the duo returned to Kota Kinabalu and decided to focus on playing gigs instead. It wasn't until two years later a Singaporean distributor saw the potential of the album, and decided to repackage it and import it back into Malaysia.
"I'm not sure if it was a timing thing, but it worked out perfectly. We didn't change anything in the album. People just became more open to our music. New artists like Norah Jones made jazz more mainstream and that helped a lot. We started playing at festivals in KL, and did a lot of radio and TV shows," explains Wang.
After making two albums together, Palencia moved overseas and Wang started working on other projects. He collaborated with artists such as Farid Ali, 2V1G and Gina Panizales. In 2010, Hong Kong superstar Jacky Cheung recorded a song that Wang wrote called Love Scale, for which Wang played guitar.
In 2015, Wang invented the kuBeat, the world’s first portable acoustic MIDI drum machine.
Roger Wang's work extends beyond producing music. He owns RAM Studio and teaches music technology to students at the Sabah Institute of Art. He is a founding member of the Society of Performing Arts Kota Kinabalu Sabah and has been president for the past eight years. He’s also the co-chairman and backbone of the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival.
In 2015, Wang achieved another career high when he invented kuBeat, the world's first portable acoustic MIDI drum machine. According to Wang, the drum machine was designed out of his desire to create a fuller sound on stage during his solo performances.
"I tried using a digital drum machine, but I realised that it didn't suit my music. It sounded too mechanical,” he says.
“I wanted to recreate the sound of having a percussionist playing next to me. I couldn't find anything that I could buy, so I decided to make one. The idea was too crazy for me to tell anyone."
It took an entire year of trial and error before the first version of kuBeat debuted at one of his shows. The original model was built into a readymade table, which made it heavy and bulky. Realising that portability was an issue, Wang decided to learn the basics of woodworking so that he could build everything from scratch. This was the beginning of Wang Made, his woodworking business.
Wang started learning how to make guitars and slowly moved on to household goods. His first non music-related creation was a loft bed that he made for his daughter, Sarah.
Wang’s popular multi-function laptop table, which he designed himself.
He started posting pictures on social media and to his surprise, people wanted to buy his handiwork. Once, he even received 30 orders of a multi-function laptop table within 24 hours of posting its photo.
Today, despite having back-to-back orders, Roger still finds the time for fun projects like making a Thor-inspired hammer.
Woodworking reminds Wang of his early days of making music. It seems like a drastic change of direction, but to Wang it’s the same creative process, and it gives him the same kind of joy and excitement. The only thing differences are in the tools he uses.
"Throughout my whole life, everything that I made was digital. Nothing was tangible. When I started woodworking, it felt so satisfying to be able to see and touch the things that I've made,” says Wang. “I don't know where this will lead, but it has definitely created possibilities that I've never thought of before."
Lately, Wang has been getting concerned messages from fans saying that they miss his music. Although music has taken a back seat for now, fans can rest assured that it hasn't been replaced. Regardless of what he makes next, Roger Wang will always be a creator at heart.
By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Danielle Soong
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