Bobo KL co-owner and artistic director Sean Ghazi on supporting and championing Malaysia’s arts fraternity

The singer and actor wants to give the establishment a new lease of life.

Sean says he is very encouraged by the support of the Malaysian audience and their pride in homegrown talent ever since Bobo KL was established (Photo: Soo Phye)

In Kuala Lumpur, live music venues are increasingly scarce, creating a void in the local entertainment scene. Audiences seeking the thrill of feeling the beat of a show in action often face limited options, relying on sporadic events or annual festivals for their dose of musical enjoyment. Some turn to the very few bars and restaurants left standing, those that have consistently served up shows along this vein, albeit on smaller scales.

One such establishment that has stood the test of time is Bobo KL in the hip Bangkung Row, Bangsar. No one can dispute its commitment to showcasing an eclectic array of musical genres and artistic expressions but, above all, the best of Malaysia’s musical talent in R&B, pop, jazz, P Ramlee (surely a genre by itself) and more. As they always say of this artistic sanctuary, it may be a tiny space but it has a big heart for art.

Since its inception as a piano lounge in 2015, its dedication to fostering creativity and supporting local artists has earned it a reputation as a cultural hub in the Bangsar community and, some say, the country. As the years passed, it became a cherished haven for artists and art enthusiasts alike. The venue’s intimate ambience, cosy seating and exceptional acoustics provided the perfect setting for musicians and performers to weave their magic, forging unforgettable connections with the audience.

The story took an unexpected turn when the pandemic struck, however, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the entire world. Bobo KL, like countless other establishments, found itself navigating the treacherous waters of lockdowns and restrictions. The original owner, Ed Soo, and his business partners, overwhelmed by the challenges posed by the Movement Control Order (MCO), was forced to put Bobo KL up for sale to keep his five other food outlets alive.


Since its inception as a piano lounge in 2015, Bobo KL's dedication to fostering creativity and supporting local artists has earned it a reputation as a cultural hub in the Bangsar community (Photo: Bobo KL)

Staying alive

“Ed was just trying to make it work. I think [the impending sale] broke his heart though,” recalls actor and singer Sean Ghazi, who now co-owns the place with executive producer and long-time friend Deborah Michael.

Fuelled by their unwavering passion for Bobo KL — they, after all, conceptualised and helped put together the whole place — and their love for the arts, they bravely stepped forward, determined to save the beloved arts hotspot from fading into obscurity. With a resolute spirit, they made the courageous decision to acquire the business, becoming its new owners in February 2021.

“We felt it was way too sayang to let it go because we built it with a long-run view. We like to think of us as an incubator for up-and-coming acts. Over the last eight years, we have helped, if I may be so bold to say, nurture acts like The Shang Sisters or The Frankie Sixes. When Reza Salleh [the man behind the latter band] had this idea, we were one of the first venues that invited them to perform. They are now a hot-selling act,” explains Sean, who also wears the hat of artistic director.

The beauty of this place is that it just gives you a safe space to bask in the music and arts. Even mainstream artists who have gigged here will tell you they are always happy to come back and perform. “For many of them, they get to kick off their heels and let their hair down or do material they don’t normally perform. It’s nice to see people like Noryn Aziz, Ning Baizura and Jacqueline Victor just feeling right at home here. Compared to corporate events, they really get to tell their story through the two sets of the show,” says Sean.

Michael concurs. Bobo KL is a special place for many people and she believes it is an aspirational venue that endeavours to meet the needs of artists and the audience. “Here, we really invest in developing a brand for the performers themselves.”


Sean and Michael, the co-owner and executive producer of Bobo KL (Photo: Soo Phye)

Sean says he is very encouraged by the support of the Malaysian audience and their pride in homegrown talent ever since Bobo KL was established. Under his stewardship, it has continued to flourish even in the face of adversity. Both he and Michael shared animatedly how challenging it was to run the place during the pandemic. First, they had to face the ban and, once they were allowed to open in the latter part of 2022, they had to adhere to a long list of SOPs and, not to mention, deal with the positive cases that would spark a frenzy.

“We had replaced musicians on the very same day they were [supposed to be] performing because they had suddenly tested positive, and we made many calls to our patrons who had become close contacts of Covid-19 positive cases unknowingly. We had to deal with refunds, recasting and rescheduling, on top of deep cleaning and sanitising the facility. It was so stressful. I don’t know how we managed it all but we somehow did because we just had to,” says Michael.

They were strictly not allowed to operate within certain hours and, to manage that, performers were offered more slots so they could still earn a living. “Debbie, remember how we had to vacate and lock up the premises by midnight during New Year’s? We basically had a Bangkok time countdown complete with confetti and all but before the stroke of midnight, we were out of the door and on our way home feeling unsatiated,” laughs Sean.

They had a couple of days to pull off a show after the Covid-19 ban and they did it with acclaimed jazz vocalist and pianist David Gomes. Despite the limited seating, the show opened to a roaring crowd that was hungry for a live performance. “I was excited, but there was this feeling of uncertainty about whether this was short-lived. We had just survived being called non-essential for the longest time and we were the last industry to open up during the tail-end of the pandemic. Sadly, we are still considered non-essential.”

Drawing upon their collective experience and unwavering dedication, they infused new energy into the venue, ensuring its enduring legacy as a haven for artistic expression. They embraced the challenge of adapting to the changing times, exploring innovative ways to engage with their audience while prioritising the safety and well-being of all who enter their doors.


David Gomes on the piano at Bobo KL (Photo: Bobo KL)

Art powerhouse

Through their resilience, Sean and Michael not only preserved the spirit of Bobo KL but propelled it to new heights. The venue emerged from the depths of the pandemic stronger and more determined than ever before. With each passing month, it continues to serve as a thriving micro hotspot for the arts, attracting talented musicians, aspiring artists and passionate patrons from near and far.

One of the biggest changes they embraced was going digital. “We did away with reservations and had to sell tickets online, which actually turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise for us. We found a great ticketing partner in Cloudjoi, formerly known as CloudTix. We had to choose between it and two foreign outfits, and we are glad we made the right decision, as it has been most supportive.”

Speaking of support, Sean admits that while they are thankful for the grant given by Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana) during the pandemic, more needs to be done for the arts and culture fraternity. “We need a substantial amount of money if we want to elevate our arts to another level. We need the support of anyone who believes in this cause.

“A personal/professional highlight for me is seeing how our audience is responding to our ticket pricing, which we make no qualms and secrets about. It can be expensive for certain acts, but our customer base is responding well because, finally, after years, they are realising there is value in this transaction, that there is value to art. ‘Immersive’ is the buzzword these days, but we did it before it became trendy.”

But is it enough? “No, it’s not. It’s a tiny space but there’s a trend trajectory from this to become a bigger theatre. We’re on our way. I want Bobo KL to go places, not just nationwide but why not Bobo Barcelona, New York or London? We’re a business, at the end of the day. We need to change, evolve with the times, but the nasi lemak after our show will remain,” he smiles. The reward at the end of every performance is the cherry on the cake.

Today, the venue stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of creativity and community. It remains a vibrant hub, where music, art and culture intertwine to create unforgettable experiences. It serves as a constant reminder that when love and dedication converge, even the most challenging obstacles can be overcome.


Sean and Ida Mariana in action (Photo: Sean Ghazi)

Busy as a bee

Sean certainly has his hands full, tirelessly managing Bobo KL and ensuring that all 52 weeks of the year are brimming with captivating shows and the seats are occupied. But he will always prefer being Sean Ghazi the performer, anytime.

“Bobo is one train but I also have my own career. Sometimes, the tracks meet; sometimes, they don’t. I try to perform here every year, at least twice. One is with my band Tarakucha! in the last quarter of the year and the other, a legit Broadway show,” says Sean, adding that he is now happy to be back in Malaysia after working in Singapore, the UK and Germany, among other places.

Tarakucha! is an outfit he fronts with Ida Mariana and it is powered by his 12-piece “terrer menerrer” big band. “Sometimes, we have three backup dancers I call Kuchettes.” Together, they effortlessly weave elements of Malaysiana underlined by P Ramlee’s famous hits and English and Mandarin numbers of a similar genre. Their performance is marked with their infectious energy, soulful melodies and impeccable chemistry on stage, leaving audiences spellbound. If you love the duo’s Lagu-Lagu Dulu-Dulu on BFM, then you absolutely must catch his show because it will tug at your heartstrings.

“I’m very interested in the legacy factor of our homegrown music. And so, that is tied to the work I do with Tarakucha! Bobo gave me a platform to workshop these ideas in 2016 and I am so proud of how far we’ve come along.”

Music materials are mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, but they are rearranged with big band orchestra arrangements to illustrate that our music belongs in the international arena. “With just a little bit of tweaking, our music sits right next to Frank Sinatra. It’s all great music and we are really trying to elevate and showcase our Malaysiana songbook,” he ruminates.

Sean’s shows Bobo on Broadway will run Aug 23-26 and Tarakucha!, Nov 16-26.

“I have one last thing I am going to add,” chimes in Michael. “I do think of you as a performer because that’s essentially who you are. But ever since we took over Bobo KL, I have seen you grow into this new role and really enjoy being the artistic director while constantly thinking of how to get support to grow this space. We started off talking about this place as a piano lounge but now our dreams are bigger.”

The indefatigable guardian of Bobo KL lets the curtain fall before announcing, “The show must go on.”


This article first appeared on July 24, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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