There’s No Duo Finer: Double Take in KK

Double Take - Roger Wang and Mia Palencia - in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Theological Seminary Auditorium

Double Take, the Sabahan duo of 12 years which is fingerstyle guitarist Roger Wang and jazz singer Mia Palencia, made Sabah proud with their stellar performance at the Sabah Theological Seminary Auditorium in Kota Kinabalu on May 13th. This concert was the first of three [JB and KL performances followed a week later].

Jade Sisters were the show’s supporting act. The girls were guests at Roger’s fundraiser for the same cause last year. Before the show, Jade sister Joan said, “We are going to perform two original songs, and this time there are four of us, the complete band! Last year, we were only three, because Erika was taking her exams.”

In their distinctive style of vocal harmony with acoustic instruments, the girls sang their mellow ballad “Hot Chocolate” and a new song “Lost in Seoul,” which was as whimsical as a new visitor to the Korean capital. The sisters would know about that: read about Jade sister Didi Moo in Korea’s MBC Star Audition talent search.

Jade Sisters, the supporting act for Double Take

Then Double Take walked on stage. They both sat on stools and Roger began a gentle lead into the Beatles’ “And I Love Her”. Mia hummed an accompaniment, and the rich depth of her voice gave me goosebumps. She filled this modern auditorium with her warm tones and a smile so happy it took my breath away.

Backstage before the show, Mia said:

“It’s been interesting revisiting the old songs after all this time. We wanted to do more original material, but because of the lack of time before the concerts we haven’t had the chance to work out new stuff. Unfortunately for me, I’ve had to pull out one of the songs I was going to do which was an original. I did such a good job of trying to write a swing tune, that it sounded like two other swing tunes we are going to do in the repetoire! Ah well. Next time!”

Mia is studying songwriting in Tasmania.

“It’s good because I’ve sort of done the whole jazz thing to death, and I wanted to concentrate on the craft of songwriting. A lot of people asked: Why are you going back to school? You dont need to do that! But I have not regretted it for one moment. A lot of people go to uni straight after school and a lot of it just goes over their heads. In my case, the theory is really making sense in my mind.”

“The theory would make sense to Mia now”, said Roger. “She had ten years of a professional career before thinking about studying the art.” We all muttered the words ‘child labour’ and laughed.

“I did study in KL for a couple of years,” Mia recalled. “But I just couldn’t finish because we were travelling so much. So I think it was meant to be that I would go back to it.

“For me, this night is going to be a bit of a Memory Lane trip. I’m sure there will be many people in the audience who have supported us from the very beginning, and it’s going to be a really, really good feeling.”

Mia and Roger warmed up some more; meandering scatting from her and throw-away flurries of brilliance from him. Mia acknowledged some familiar faces in the audience, and expressed the pleasure of being in Sabah again. She said “scatting” is the term used to describe a jazz singer improvising, and she hoped she wasn’t creeping anyone out with her unpronounceable sounds.

Are you kidding me?

Mia is Sabah’s ELLA! She scats! She sings! I mean she SINGS! She shapes her words lovingly and they come to us like newly-formed pearls shimmering with jazz on the cloud of a song.

Double Take played “Tea For Two”, starting with the verse [which I’d never heard before]; it was a song without shadows and Mia sang it like sunshine.

Roger took the mic. He talked about venturing into new waters by choosing this auditorium, and was happy to see a virtually full house.

They played “My Baby”, a song Roger composed in the shower [so Mia said] from their first album. It’s a fast upbeat swing with Roger playing a strong walking bassline throughout.

Following that was — for me — the jewel in the crown. I’ve heard Roger’s composition “Love Scale” before, because Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung made a Cantonese cover of it for his first jazz album “Private Corner”.

But this evening I heard it in its original form, sung in English, by Mia.

The lyrics are beautiful, and she sang them as if the words were hers. As they say – she owned them. It’s a unique love song, and a song about music! Roger must be so proud of it.

The duo stood up and launched into Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”. Roger switched to “Billie Jean” and a medley of Michael Jackson tracks, while Mia played catch-up and searched for the right lyric to belt out.

Next, the duo wanted to perform a P. Ramlee song. Mia said the two of them learnt the song “Tunggu Sekejap” from old footage on YouTube. Roger was pensive. He said he watched a documentary about P. Ramlee, which recounted how this Malaysian entertainment icon struggled in his later years, unappreciated, unable to get a job or a bank loan, having to rent “mah jong” tables just to make a living.

“At RTM, they made him wait in the cafeteria before they needed him. Can you imagine that? P. Ramlee having to wait in the cafeteria. It’s so sad that we didn’t appreciate him more while he was alive. So this is our tribute to P. Ramlee.”

Double Take performed “Tunggu Sekejap”. A film clip of P. Ramlee played on the LCD screen behind them. It was a moment for both Malaysian pride, and for quiet reflection.

Time for one more jaunty swing, “Just Squeeze Me,” before Mia went backstage.

Roger broke a solitary steel ‘twang’. It hung in the air, then he chased it with a cruel blues riff. I thought of a rattlesnake sliding on parched desert; Ry Cooder; Jack Daniels. With a driving bassline pulse, Roger played Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” adding two harmonizing voices over the top; and percussion as he knocked on the body of his guitar.

That’s Roger Wang. Simply. Great.

Before the concert had started, one of the event co-ordinators Emmanuel “Nuk” Chee said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

He took me into the audience, to a young man named Eszek Noel Tan.

Eszek said he’s originally from Sandakan, studies guitar with the highly respected Ronald James, and goes to Maktab Nasional school.

So how come he was here…

On stage, Roger was talking. “Ronald James called me recently. He said he has a student who plays just like me…He’s 15.”

After a pause, he added, “I have guitars older than 15.”

Head down, I scribbled notes and heard Roger introduce Eszek. Then Roger started up an intro on “Blue Moon”. I looked up; it wasn’t Roger it was Eszek! He really did sound like Roger! The audience whooped and cheered. The two guitarists played out the finish with fast, descending chromatic changes; bold and with pizazz!

“Hey Eszek, don’t practise too hard,” Roger said, with a wry grin.

Roger talked about his work with Leslie Loh and his audiophile record label pop pop music, which recently released “The Jazzy Sounds of Teresa Teng”. Roger described how hard it was to play a Teresa Teng song and try and put his own take on it.

Referring to “The Moon Represents My Heart”, Roger said, “The song is SO popular. Every time I hear it, I think of weddings! Not just the Chinese weddings, but Malay and Indian weddings too! And they all know the [Chinese] words! It’s hard to get past that.”

Just before he started, he added, “So if you feel the urge to join in and sing the words, please don’t.” Everyone laughed.

Roger’s version of “The Moon” sounded nothing like the original. He added new colours and reached for different harmonies; he let certain notes hang, while the rest of the melody moved on. It made me think of the prettiest explorations of Martin Taylor.

Mia was back. Roger showed us his recording device called a “Looper”. He recorded a couple of percussive sounds, and Mia switched styles effortlessly to a rock edge for Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance”. She looked to the crowd: “You think Roger can’t sing? He can!” So Roger sang “Can’t sing” into a loop, and now they were doing the song as a duet. It was fun and the audience stomped all the way through. Phil Collins would have been proud.

Mia said the song “Rainbow Connection” was originally written for the Muppet Show and Sesame Street, but they came across a version by New York singer/pianist Peter Cincotti which inspired them to do it too. This night, it was the very green Kermit the Frog who accompanied them. The cool video and puppetry work was by our young local percussionist, Kevin Coma.

Time to unleash Mia!

First on “Route 66”, her voice ran around like the U.S. highway itself. She asked mischievously, “What’s jazz without some trades?” Then she and Roger chased each other, trading music phrases. Next up was some Stevie Wonder. Mia let rip: light and euphoric for “Sir Duke”; dark and edgy for “Superstition”.

They did a lyrical version of “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, and for the encore, the whole auditorium sang “You’ve Got a Friend”, with — and to — Double Take. Afterwards we leapt to a standing ovation.

Were those tears in Mia’s eyes? She smiled her glorious smile, as Sabah expressed her unbridled pride and affection for her finest jazz diva Mia Palencia, and her peerless fingerstyle guitarist, Roger Wang.


On The Sidelines…
Bose L1 line array speakers for live concert use

For this concert, Harmonics AV sponsored their Bose L1 model, a speaker for live concert use. “These are small, tall line array speakers, with a power stand, and with B1 bass modules,” said Henry from Luyang-based Harmonics. “In this line array, there are a lot of small speakers stacked up, shooting left and right, which supplies 180 degrees sound. One set of speakers can support a room with an audience capacity of up to 500 people.”

“Roger did a concert in KL, and Atlas [which is Harmonics’ supplier] sponsored him there. So for this concert, Atlas asked us to sponsor him as well,” he added.

Sabahan David Chin, now of Melbourne, makes Roger Wang's crossover nylon guitars
Sabahan David Chin, a retired engineer who is also a luthier, and who lives in Melbourne, makes Roger Wang’s crossover guitars.

“Roger is now playing the third guitar I have made for him,” David said after the concert. “The first two, including the one that you [SabahSongs] saw two years ago were prototypes. This one has the proper finish! The earlier ones were to test out the sound. This is more fine tuned, and more towards nylon and steel. That’s what Roger wanted. It’s nylon strings, and very mellow, but it’s got that steel sound which he can really bring out if he wants to!

The concert venue, Sabah Theological Seminary [STS], is an interdenominational Christian college on a 10-acre site on Signal Hill.

Maktab Nasional Vice Principal Alexander Funk said some of the concert proceeds would go towards funds for St. Simon Education Centre, a special needs learning centre which is part of Maktab Nasional, Roger’s alma mater. Roger held a fundraising concert for the same cause last year.

“The money raised last year was enough to run the centre for one year. We have to think of ways to raise funds every year, and Roger was kind enough to offer to help again. Last year the concert raised something in the region of RM 30,000 for the centre, and this year they will be getting about the same amount from this event. We won’t know the total until we do the accounts.”

Emmanuel “Nuk” Chee walked me around the venue. He pointed out the auditorium walls, built with acoustics in mind and treated for sound. Then he took me upstairs to the Control Room.

Don, Yap, Brian and Andy were there. Andy and Brian are students at Sabah Institute of Arts. “We are also studying Sound Tech at RAM studios,” said Andy. “We get credit towards our degree for it,” he added. Professor Roger! These guys are musicians too, Andy plays electric guitar and Brian plays drums. They were assisting tonight with the multi-skilled enigma named Yap Kv.

And lastly, a bit of local trivia…

“Hey Nuk,” I said. “Why are you called NUK?”

“There are a lot of people who find my name hard to pronounce and hard to remember, and it’s too long. When I was little, my friend’s neighbour had a problem remembering what my name was. She was like: Eem, Eem, Urm, Urm. She said: ‘I’ll just call you Emanuk.’ If you take away the ‘e’, “manuk” means “chicken”. From Manuk it went to Nuk. The name kinda grew on me.” He shrugged and smiled.


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