Rock ‘n’ Rollin’ in the Kampong

Guest article by Anika Manzoor Grinnell College
“Okay everyone, when Bumblefoot comes on stage, you should welcome him with crazy energy! Like this: Bumble-foot! Bumble-foot! Here, let’s practice.” I stifled a groan as a few lackluster chants of “Bumblefoot” echoed throughout the modest performance hall of SMK Majakir. I knew full well that these two-hundred plus secondary school students’ reticence had little to do with the early hours of the day or lack of excitement for the strangely-named guitarist and more to do with the common Malaysian student affliction known as malu (shyness). Oh, well, I thought to myself. I tried. Let’s hope they get it when the time comes. Boy, did they get it.
 
The hall exploded as I opened the doors to reveal Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, a member of Guns N’ Roses and an internationally-renowned musician in his own right. Beaming, I led Bumblefoot down the aisle of screaming students, feeling not unlike a rockstar myself. I’ve seen my students get hyped before, but not like this. This was different. The chorus of young Malaysian voicesvoices of students that I care deeply about, voices that I want nothing more than to elevate—chanting his name was electric. It was nothing short of magical. “BUMBLE-FOOT! BUMBLE-FOOT! BUMBLE-FOOT!”

Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal jams with nine-year-old DJ in Kuching, Sarawak.
Suddenly, laughter erupted. I turned around and saw Bumblefoot, grinning earnestly and posing with a shoddy welcome sign some students had whipped up on notebook paper while bored and waiting for his arrival. I knew then and there that for everyone involved, myself included, this would be a performance of a lifetime.
This year, two ETA schoolsmy own school, SMK Takis in Sabah, and Audra Wingard’s school, SMK Kota Samarahan in Sarawak—were given the opportunity to work with the US Embassy on bringing Bumblefoot to perform for Malaysian students. Audra’s event took place in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city, a week before mine. Mine took place in my semi-rural town, about an hour south of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu has perhaps had its share of decently famous musicians pass through (in fact, Bumblefoot performed there the weekend before my event), but I would be shocked if someone more internationally famous had been to Papar, let alone performed in a kampong school. And I think that’s exactly what the US Embassy had in mind when they decided that the event should happen in a school. Way to go, US Embassy!

During both events, Bumblefoot motivated the students by either giving a short speech and music workshop or by conducting a lively and friendly Q&A session, letting students who asked questions sneak in a couple of selfies while he spoke, even though they were technically not allowed. But the most unforgettable experience was watching Bumblefoot rock out with the students. In both Sabah and Sarawak, Bumblefoot performed “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with student bands and even some traditional songs in Iban and Malay. Possibly one of the most touching experiences of both events was the impromptu jam session in Kuching, which Bumblefoot kicked off when he noticed a nine-year-old boy in the audience with drum sticks and invited him to the stage. The boy jumped at the chance without hesitation.
 
“DJ is a small, soft spoken boy,” recounts Audra, “but his confidence on the drum set was undeniable. As he set the beat, it was clear even Bumblefoot was impressed. DJ and Bumblefoot played a song together before Bumblefoot invited others up to play. Brave students from the audience slowly but surely made their way up to the stage, picked up a guitar, or found their place at the keyboard. Bumblefoot let the students determine the rhythm and followed their lead. Like with DJ, the students’ shyness was quickly washed away as the jam session continued.” So… what exactly are the learning objectives? How exactly will this event benefit our students? These were questions asked throughout the planning process by teachers and education officials in Papar and they were fair questions. How did the students benefit other than having fun with a rock star and being “inspired,” a concept totally lacking in tangibility? But after the event, after witnessing exactly how inspirational Bumblefoot was for our students through his example of hard work, generosity, and amicability, these questions were more than answered. “Bumblefoot did not just come to give a performance, as we had all expected,” said Audra. “Instead, he did something much more meaningful. In just a few short hours, Bumblefoot created a space for the students to showcase their talents and understand their own greatness. He gave them a few seconds of fame that will inspire them to realize their potential to follow their dreams to one day become musicians.” One Kota Samarahan band member learned a lot from Bumblefoot’s “humble manners” and
talent: “From his impressive skills in playing guitar, I know he must have gone through years of hard work to achieve today’s success.” Another Kota Samarahan student was touched by Bumblefoot’s dedication to the audience even though he had injured his hand; the same student also learned that “it is not impossible to pursue our ambitions.” Many more students from both schools cited Bumblefoot’s humility and his years spent practicing and developing his craft as sources of their inspiration. In reflecting on the experience afterward, they wrote things like, “I will never forget this experience,” “I am so thankful,” and “I hope I can be like him” And as for fostering an interest in the English language?
“I want to learn more about English with him!”
“When I met him, the situation taught me to speak English and it make me know that I must learn more about English so that I can speak fluently.”
“I think this kind of program motivates me to improve my English,” reflected a rock lover from a lower-stream class who fought his way to come when only higher-stream students were invited. “I hope there will be more programs like this in the future.”
Footage from Bumblefoot’s performance in Kuching, Sarawak.

 

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