I discovered Pete Teo in 2003, while listening to "The World," a radio program produced jointly by the BBC and Public Radio International. Driving down U.S. 20, just outsde of Michigan City, I was hearing a voice from the other side of the world. "Would you fall in love in Jesselton tonight?" went the refrain of the lively song. Jesselton, I learned later, is the old colonial name for Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo).
Shortly after hearing the program, I ordered Teo's first
CD, "Rustic Living for Urbanites," from CD Baby of Portland, Oregon--Pete's only outlet here in the States. My favorite track from the album is "Budapest," with he notation, "Inspired by Krudy, 1896." Gyula Krudy was a Hungarian journalist. Here are the last few lines:
The women are all well read in their theatre magazines
And the porter greets you humbly on the street.
The innkeeper inquires of you appetite
With his hat in his hands.
The tramcars, they'll take you to places in your heart,
by the castle they won't fortify.
And the undertaker will show you all his gold teeth
When it's time to forever take your leave.
Take your leave.
Pete Teo has been compared to Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, but his style--a mix of American, British, Chinese, and Malaysian sounds, is unique. But like Cohen, there's a melancholy to his music. Even the happy, bouncy "Jesselton Tonight" has nostalgia for another era: "Would you fall in love in Jesselton ere days of 'burn baby burn?'" The last phrase doesn't refer to H. Rap Brown and the American Sixties, but to the burning of rainforests for cropland. I don't often listen to two of the three songs about Marianne because they're just too full of pain. Even the first, "Arms of Marianne," ends with, "Can't you see my love--and here's the funniest of them all--thet the rain it raineth everyday," a reference to Feste's song, "When That I Was," from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
Pete's second CD, "Television," has just come out. "Lost in America" and "Carnival Hall" are my favorite tracks from this one. It lacks a song with the ethereal beauty of "Budapest" or the nostalgic but happy "Jesselton Tonight." "Lost in America" is Pete's odyssey through this strange land I call home. It's worth the modest price. Three of Pete's songs have videos and may be seen on YouTube: "Lost in America," "Arms of Marianne," and "Rhapsody in Blue." The last is not an authorized video, but made independently. It's interesting, and a little bizarre, but it isn't of the quality of the other two. Pete's MySpace page includes "Jesselton Tonight." Since I originally published this post, Pete has a new video of "Carnival Hall," made by Kamal Sabran with a Nokia cellphone camera. (It won a contest for videos shot with Nokia cellphones.)
"Lost in America" probably would have been a better title for his second CD. This extremely talented Malaysian singer-songwriter seems to be "lost" here in America just because he's Malaysian. He deserves to be better known worldwide.