SINGAPORE: Despite the unassuming black door and the boarded up windows, there was no difficulty in distinguishing Al Capone’s from the other establishments at Far East Shopping Centre.
Even on a Thursday night, the live music in the bar was loud enough to hear from the level below. Inside the bar, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder, gathered in anticipation of a blues jam session by Jason and the Afronauts.
Some of these visitors might even have been old regulars of Blu Jaz Cafe.
“A lot of people who used to go to Blu Jaz come here now,” said Mr Shyam Raj, who runs Al Capone's along with the main partner of the bar, Mr Anil Goswami.
He was not only referring to the visitors, but also the artists, several of whom were veterans of Blu Jaz Cafe, which until recently was at the heart of Singapore's network of small performance venues.
Since the cancellation of its Public Entertainment Licence, Blu Jaz Cafe has not been allowed to provide any sort of public entertainment on its premises since Feb 1.
The announcement was met with dismay by some in the arts community, and even the wider public, who rallied around the jazz bar with a petition to appeal against the cancellation of its licence.
The cancellation followed breaches in Blu Jaz Cafe’s licensing conditions, said the police, who cited two instances of severe overcrowding at its premises.
Since then, acts which had previously performed there have had to find new venues. While such establishments come and go, moving elsewhere seems to have been straightforward for many of the artists who performed at Blu Jaz.
AN ARTISTIC COMMUNITY
A thriving ecosystem of smaller entertainment spaces, typically at bars and clubs, allows many locals artists to make their first foray into live performance.
This was how poet Jennifer Anne Champion got her start.
She recalled that she was part of NUS's drama society around five years ago when she got invited to perform at Blu Jaz Cafe’s poetry open mic.
“I had never seen spoken word before, especially Singaporean spoken word. So when I saw it I just thought that’s amazing, and I think I can do it too.
“It’s been five years, (and it has) pretty much given me my job and my career,” she said.
For musician Jordan Wei, these performance spaces are crucial for musicians to come together and collaborate artistically.
“Without the relevant outlets of expression, the musical hive mind eventually loses its creative focus and withers. And thus some of the potential greatest artistic ideas may never materialise,” he said.
Mr Chris Gomez of the band Jason and the Afronauts agreed, saying: "It's (about) the camaraderie that is built in the circuit."
AN INITIATION FOR PERFORMERS
Performing at bars and clubs is often the best way for musicians and spoken word performers to learn their craft from veterans.
Part-time lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts and organiser of the Singapore Poetry Slam Chris Mooney-Singh sees these smaller performing spaces as a place where younger artists could train before moving on to larger venues.
“(Smaller performing spaces) is kind of an initiation for young writers to find their feet though public presentation of their works.
“These venues are often small … Having to (perform) for a huge environment (could) be perhaps overwhelming for young writers.
“(These places) serves new people very well I think, socially as well as artistically,” he said.
Head of Lasalle College of the Arts' School of Contemporary Music Tim O’Dwyer expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s just building capacity. It’s getting in front of people; other musicians are giving them critique. Over and over again they’re going through that whole thing - rehearsing through the material, learning new material, just basically being a professional musician,” he said.
Without venues to play at, musicians would not get the experience of playing in front of a live crowd, passing on this inexperience to musicians after them, said Dr O’Dwyer.
"If you really want a very vibrant, really young people coming through and developing into mature musicians who've got something to say and telling Singaporean stories ... then they need to have a place to do it," he added.
THE NEW BLU JAZ?
Ever since the cancellation of Blu Jaz Cafe’s licence, its old performance regulars have moved to new locations.
For now, Destination: Ink has found a home at Miss Chinatown, a bar owned by local musicians Jack and Rai.
The Singapore Poetry Slam has moved to the Southbridge Hotel’s Whisky Bar, while Mr Wei has started performing at various locations like Origin Bar at the Shangri-la hotel, NUDE Grill at Marina One and Al Capone's at Far East Shopping Centre, among others.
With the exodus of performers from Blu Jaz Cafe, are there any new locations that might come to take on its position at the centre of the live performance scene?
Most artists that CNA spoke to were unsure.
“Honestly, it’s up to event spaces and restaurants themselves - how much effort they want to put in it,” said co-organiser of the Singapore Poetry Slam Ajay Govinda Menon.
To him, “only time will tell” if a new hub for the arts emerges among the current live performance spaces.
This is an aspiration that is perhaps on the cards for the owners of Al Capone's.
“We want to be a bar that gives the stage for every kind of local musician to boost their craft.
“Hopefully (we can) be one of those people that influences Singaporeans to like original music and receive it with an equal amount of passion as their top 40 covers,” said Mr Raj.
And what about expanding beyond music to include other types of art?
“Yeah, sure. Anything that’s art. Where there is art, where we can offer a venue, we’d love to marry the both. That’s fine,” he said.