After a spell as a singer songwriter, performing one man shows in Kuala Lumpur, Faris Saad, was asked whether hehad a band and could perform at a gig a couple of weekslater at a pool party. He didn’t but he jumped at the extra work.
Life as a solo artist on stage was getting lonely and besides -- how hard could it be to pull together a band anyway?
“We sucked. If I was in the crowd I would have booed us off the stage,” Faris said by Video call
“But at least we sucked together.”
Fast forward ten years and Faris -- a transgendered man, who began transitioning in 2014 -- is the lead singer for KL-based punk band Shh..Diam. Malay for “be quiet” Shh…Diam’s hits include “Lonely Lesbian and “I Woke Up Gay”, the four-member group, including Yon on guitar, Alfi on drums and Yoyo on bass, have built a enthusiastic following in Malaysia and in Europe
The band aims to take lighthearted digs at the hypocrisy that are never too far beneath the surface of homophobia.Audiences tend to be evenly split gay and straight. Making everyone laugh helps drive the messages home.
“It’s not a super critique of the system,” said band member Yon, who plays guitar.
“It’s sort of the politics of being. We’re assigned a gender or citizenship or orientation so our being is political. Just by being visible and heard we are being political.”
But in September it got tougher to make jokes.
In the Malaysian province of Terengganu, two women were caned for having sex. The pair, 22 and 32, who had been caught in parked car, was whipped in front of a crowd of 100, according to media reports
Band members said they were frustrated and could relate to the victims. Gay women in conservative parts of the country are under tight supervision. For an unmarried woman, getting a hotel or renting an apartment is unthinkable.
“I was like ‘what is this shit?’” recalls Yon.
“We could talk to our friends and go online and make noise but I don’t think that gets us anywhere.”
That frustration and a bit of the leap- before- you- lookattitude that brought them together in the first place propelled the band to their latest project.
Shh..Diam collaborated on “To Which My Brother Laughed” (https://www.star2.com/culture/2019/02/26/klpac-new-devised-play-to-which-my-brother-laughed-punk-rock/) a play about the caning. Shh…Diam contributed music and dialogue over three months. The show sold out all six performances, which wrapped up in early March.
“This is a huge issue,” Faris said.
“It not only affects Muslim queer women it affects all Muslim women. It’s like they want us to shut up. Like they want to bully women.”
The play and Shh..Diam’s performances draw needed attention to gay women who tend to be overshadowed. Cat Brogan, who is married to Yoyo and who helps the group organize its European performances says the group is a lone role model for other queer women in Malaysia.
“LGBT tends to be gay biased. Lesbian invisibility is a fact,” Brogan said.
“They want to set an example.”
Shh..Diam is getting that chance. Amazingly neither the play nor any of the band’s events have run afoul of authorities. That’s no mean feat in a place where antigay hysteria is on the rise.
Last August a photo exhibit of prominent Malaysians posing with the country’s flag was forced to remove references to LGBT activists. .
The same month police raided and forced closed Kuala Lumpur’s BlueBoy Discotheque after 30 years of business.
Band members say the moves underscore the difference between regular Malaysians and authorities trying to appease religious conservatives. Faris says half of the crowd coming to the band’s shows are straight and appear to be having fun.
“Malaysians are empathetic,” said Faris.
“Straight people at the shows get the jokes. They aren’t threatened.”