When the George Town Festival kicks off at the end of July, you can be sure it will be done in style and with much enthusiasm for all things Asean.

The Penang-based festival is now in its eighth year and will take place in several locations in George Town and Butterworth. It will host more than 100 events, ranging from art, design and photography to film, music, dance and drama.

This year, 60% of the George Town Festival programme will have a regional touch. It opens this year with Svara Asean, a musical tribute to South-East Asian music culture, featuring Malaysian singers Adibah Noor and Sean Ghazi, the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, the Madrigal Singers from the Philippines, Gus Teja from Indonesia and Thailand’s mezzo-soprano Anchee.

“This year, our focus includes youth, women, community and the Asean region. We have a vision to bring together South-East Asian artists onto the world stage. The festival’s opening will also feature Macam-Macam Asean, a market full of Asean flavours, art, craft and sounds,” shares festival director Joe Sidek.

The What Are You Singing? Taiwan Liam Kua show features the Taiwanese traditional form of spoken-sung stories.

The festival started in 2010 to commemorate George Town’s designation as a Unesco World Heritage site. Joe points out that the spirit of the GTF has always been all about “place-making”, something that is very much influenced by the long-term goal of seeing George Town flourish as a cultural hub.

“George Town is known for its local delicacies, but we also want it to be a place where talent converge. GTF is all about providing opportunities for local artists, giving everyone access to the arts, and building George Town’s (creative) character,” he adds.

Theatre practitioners, dancers and visual artists from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines will come together in Ikat by ArtISM to tell a story about people from different backgrounds who are intrinsically bound to each other by love, hope and dreams.

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Gus Teja (part of Macam-Macam ASEAN) will be at the George Town Festival 2017.

A similar spirit of unity is also seen in Anthar Agni by Temple of Fine Arts, a music and dance tribute to the sacred fire (Agni) that celebrates the spiritual significance of the integration of various cultures.

Elsewhere, Naohiko Umewaka, a grand master of the Japanese traditional Noh theatre, will team up with choreographer Aida Redza to present a new production of The Italian Restaurant. The play makes use of symbolism and metaphors – using the golden Noh mask yakan. The theatre performance features Chee Sek Thim, Hardy Shafii and Mislina Mustaffa.

Experimental theatre piece Riwayat, directed by Tung Jit Yang, will combine movement, multi-lingual text and original soundscapes, in its investigation of shared memories and stories of living and being in Malaysia.

If you are keen on “retro infotainment”, then the music-filled What Are You Singing? Taiwan Liam Kua is something to investigate. It’s a Taiwanese traditional form of ballad singing and spoken-word storytelling, packed with folk tales, gods and legends, and everyday life themes.

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Cell combines puppetry and physical theatre in telling one man’s journey of hope in living life to the fullest.

There will be no shortage of family-oriented shows at GTF, especially with the Australian award-winning one-man puppet show The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer on board. In this quirky combination of animation, puppetry, projections, live and recorded music, storyteller Tim Watt tells the tale of Alvin Sputnik, a deep sea explorer, and the search for his lost love in the seemingly endless depths of the ocean.

In British-based production Smoking Apples And Dogfish’s Cell, you find Ted, newly diagnosed with motor neurone disease, embarking on the trip of his lifetime around the world – with his pet fish. This heart-warming production features puppetry and physical theatre.

Cell, which is a project close to the hearts of those involved as they have lost family members to motor neurone disease, has also been nominated for a Peter Brook Award (a British arts award).

If you think dancing is for everybody, then look no further than one of GTF’s highlight shows, Gala, which is choreographed by French choreographer Jerome Bell. Gala is a show to break down borders. It will showcase 20 handpicked George Town individuals, who will take turns in executing different styles and genres of dance.

Elsewhere in the mix, Indian director Roysten Abel returns with The Manganiyar Classroom, featuring 35 village children on a four-row bench terrace on stage, dancing and singing to the tunes of their school days.

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Traditional flute player Gus Teja, from Bali, Indonesia, will lead his group at the Svara Asean musical tribute. Photo: The Star/Lim Beng Tatt

Beijing-based choreographer Tao Ye brings two of his Straight Line Trilogy series from Tao Dance Theatre to Malaysia for the first time. The mesmerising dance pieces 6 and 8 will play at this year’s festival. 8 marks the last dance in this series.

Gravity And Other Myths, an Australian acrobatics ensemble, will push physical limits in A Simple Space, merging the delicate with the taut, raw and intimate.


George Town Festival is on from July 28 to Sept 3. Its satellite event, the Butterworth Fringe Festival, runs on Aug 12 and 13. Activities and performances will take place at several venues in Penang. The GTF will close with Week On Women with talks, workshops and a bazaar. An International Women Arts Forum curated by the International Women’s Arts Exchange Association from South Korea will round up the festival.

Tickets are on sale at redtix.com and at selected outlets. For more information and the festival schedule, visit the website