The current generation should be grateful that entertainment is so easily available nowadays. Imagine living in Sarawak in the late 19th century with no smartphone, internet or TV… how did people entertain themselves?
Like most parts of the world in those days, people turned to music.
For the-then Kingdom of Sarawak, having a ruler who was real fan of music did play an influence on Sarawakians’ exposure to music as entertainment.
According to historian W.J. Chater, the second White Rajah Charles Brooke was passionately fond of music.
Rumour had it that was probably the reason he married Ranee Margaret, who, under her maiden name of Lady de Windt was for some time during the 1860s regarded as the finest amateur pianist in France.
‘The Band’ in the olden days
If you hit a club or bar in Kuching, Miri or Bintulu, there’s a chance that the band playing comes from the Philippines.
Apparently, Sarawak has been inviting Filipino bands to play music here since the 19th century.
“There had always been a band of sorts in Kuching, but the Rajah decided that he wanted somethinng better; so in early 1888 he made a special visit to Manila to engage a Filipino band and although he had only little real knowledge of music insisted on auditioning and selecting the bandsmen himself,” Chater wrote.
Charles was shocked at first when the bandmaster whom he had engaged was enticed away for higher pay.
However, everything went well when the band duly arrived in Kuching in May that year, accompanied by a new bandmaster named Polycarpo.
Charles was hands on with his band. He even insisted that all programs were carefully selected. If the music failed to be up to standard, the bandmaster would receive a stern rebuke at the end of the performance.
The birth of Padang Merdeka
The first thing Charles did after employing his band was to find a location for the band to play at. He wanted it to be somewhere in town so that the public could watch the band’s performance.
So in 1889, the Rajah transformed what was once a swamp into what became known as the Esplanade (later Central Padang and now the Padang Merdeka).
Back then, the site was an ornamental garden with a bandstand in the centre.
The first public performance given there was a great event for Kuchingites. To mark the special occasion, the bandmaster composed a special tune called “The Sarawak Waltz”.
Was Sarawak’s band days a hit or a miss?
While the Rajah’s support for music and artists was undeniable, Chater shared that the opening of the Esplanade brought band days which were unanimously recorded as the most unpopular social functions ever introduced by the Rajah.
When he was in his 70s (with one deaf ear and only little hearing in the other), he still insisted that band day should be held twice a week. Additionally, he ordered all his European officers to attend.
“One these occasions, he used to like to surround himself with the prettiest ladies of all communities and once the band had started nobody even dared to whisper without receiving his icy stare,” Chater wrote.
The Rajah even did something that would be considered against our present day lawbour laws. Since in those days, there was no such thing as annual increment in salaries, the Europeans officers only received their increment when the Rajah remembered them. Thus, it became a matter of “no band, no rise in salary.”
Ranee Sylvia’s thought of Sarawak band day
When Ranee Sylvia Brooke was still the Ranee Muda, she disliked band days so much that she wrote about in her book The Three White Rajahs.
“There was an extremely undesirable ceremony called ‘Band Day’, when twice a week everyone would dress up in their best clothes and congregate round the Rajah upon a stretch of grass where the band would play classical music, or would respectfully listen to the discordant sounds issuing from the Filipino band, which fortunately for him (the Rajah) was unable to hear. ‘Ah’, he would say, tapping his stick upon the ground, ‘Mozart… very lovely’, although the actual melody they had been playing at the moment was Chopin. None of us dared contradict him,” Sylvia wrote.
Nonetheless, the Ranee still found delight from watching some of the officers, who having put in an appearance and been seen by the Rajah, would then try to slip away for a drink at the Sarawak Club.
Only a few managed to escape as reportedly the Rajah’s eagle eye would usually draw them back.
Sylvia also shared that at the end when the Sarawak Anthem was being played and everyone stood to attention, a sigh of relief would ripple through the crowd.
The end of Sarawak Band Day
Eventually, Charles himself could not stand the band. On May 22, 1910, he wrote a letter to the Commandant of Sarawak Rangers to whom the band was attached to.
He wrote, “The band was somewhat worse last evening and the programme very badly chosen. I can’t stand this and longer and I now direct you to inform the Bandmaster Julian de Vera, that he is to do no more duty and he will retire on pension $6 per month as from today. Put the other man (Pedro Salosa) in his place, and I will see to the band when I return. It is much better to have none at all than a bad one. Be good enough to carry out these orders to the letter.”
Hence that was how de Vera’s 21 years of service as bandmaster abruptly came to an end. After that Pedro Salosa replaced him as bandmaster and he continued to serve until 1932. It was when the band was disbanded along with Sarawak Rangers.