Chacko Vadaketh's 'Songs & Stories' returns by popular demand with an updated set list

The former litigation lawyer turned cultural practitioner and arts activist talks about his upcoming shows in KL and Penang.

Part of the proceeds from the show on July 11 will go to wildlife conservationalists Rimau (Photo: Shahrill Basri/ The Edge Malaysia)

Options: You have a series of performances happening soon in town and up north. Tell us what to expect.
Chacko Vadaketh: 
Songs & Stories is a revised and updated version of the show I did a year ago at BoboKL that sold out in four days and got standing ovations each night. When it got accepted for the George Town Festival, BoboKL and I agreed we should restage it before I take it to Penang. The show, as the name indicates, is a mixture of some of my favourite songs, mostly from musicals but also has a Meatloaf number, a Malay lagu patriotik, a Chinese love song and even a Malayalam chant! It’s a very personal journey, looking back at 60 years of Chacko and of Malaysia — we were born in the same year, 1957! Many of the stories are humorous, some are poignant, but all have a lot of heart.

Do you remember the first time you sang for an audience?
I was five and my sister Anna was three and we were sent to live with our grandparents in Kerala, India, for two years while mum [the late Puan Sri Dr Rebecca George] specialised in paediatrics in London. My grandfather’s sister, a retired headmistress from Sri Lanka, lived nearby. She taught the local kids English, literature and music. Every now and then, she would have little concerts, with her verandah serving as a stage and the audience seated on chairs laid out on the yard.  We had to play the piano, recite Shakespeare and, yes, sing songs.

The show on July 11 is in aid of Rimau. Why this cause is so important to you?
I have always loved animals and been passionate about wildlife conservation. We had a lot of pets growing up: dogs, cats, chickens, terrapins, colourful budgerigars and a squirrel called Squeaky, which I rescued from a drain. We also had a giant tortoise called Aristurtle that lived under the garden hedge and would emerge for a walk, like some prehistoric creature, when it rained. My favourite books were by [British naturalist and conservationist] Gerald Durrell and, for a time, I wanted to be him.

I got to know Rimau founders Lara Ariffin and Harun Rahman through their roles as documentary film makers and my work as a voice-over artist. Their passion for our magnificent Malayan Tigers is infectious, and I was horrified to learn we have only 150 of these unique subspecies left in the wild, found only in Peninsular Malaysia. They do such important, effective work with the international award-winning Menraq Orang Asli rangers from the Jahai community and in raising awareness. I was honoured to be invited to sit on the Rimau board. Our tigers are critically endangered and on the brink of extinction. Saving them and their habitat means we save our jungles and all the amazing flora and fauna that live there.


Chacko performing at his first solo show at BoboKL last year (Photo: CloudJoi)

How else can Malaysians support the arts?
Apart from going to watch the shows, spread the word! Support productions in cash or kind. Take your kids along and get them to discover an aspect of the arts that appeals to them. We need to build audiences and nurture talent. When I visited some schools, I was sad to find out most kids have never seen a play and know next to nothing about our rich traditional art forms.

Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
Warming up the body and, critically, the voice. I do a bit of yoga and stretching as well as 30 push-ups and 40 sit-ups, followed by intense vocal warm-ups. The show is very demanding on my voice, as I am talking or singing for 90 minutes, with just a 15-minute break in the middle. I will run through a couple of songs with the band, to warm them up and go over anything that might be a bit tricky. After, I need to unwind and it’s a joy to hang with friends and others who caught the show … assuming they enjoyed it! I have to force myself not to strain my voice, though. I always gargle with warm water and salt before going to bed.

What are you listening to right now?
Buena Vista Social Club. Working on the show reminded me how much I loved them. Their music makes me happy and want to dance!

What are you reading right now?
Sivam Selvaratnam: A Life in Art. I was the emcee on July 5 for the launch of this beautiful book about the late prolific artist who was part of the fabled Wednesday Art Group.



You read law and archaeology at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Do you miss your litigation days?
I do at times. I specialised in medico-legal law and loved that area, which included, apart from courtroom work in medical malpractice trials, disciplinary enquiries before the Malaysian Medical Council. I also sat on the board of the Malaysian AIDS Council, looking at Law & Ethics for them. But it wasn’t a big money earner then, and so was expected to do more lucrative corporate, commercial and banking work, which I didn’t really connect with. So, no, I don’t miss that aspect of practice. But I do miss the structure and support of a big law firm like Shearn Delamore, and the camaraderie and fellowship of being part of the Malaysian Bar.

Besides Penang, where else is on your travel schedule for the rest of 2024?
My father and I hope to go to Melbourne for the admission of my nephew as a solicitor, which will be moved by my sister who is a lawyer there. We will also head to Sydney to see my other sister and family. The brain drain of Malaysians is, sadly, very real in our family. In August, I will be going into the heart of the Royal Belum State Park for our Rimau Global Tiger Day Celebration. I am on standby to, hopefully, be part of a play at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide in October or November. Fingers and toes crossed that this will materialise!

Describe your idea of the perfect weekend.
Drinks, dinner and some live music with family or friends on a Friday evening. A long walk with my dogs and brunch at a dog-friendly café on Saturday — I have a Great Dane and an Ovcharka, both giant breeds that can prove overwhelming for some venues — followed by an afternoon siesta, a show or movie in the evening and then supper after to talk about what we had just seen. On Sunday, it’s nice to do something spiritual, connect with the community and family in our Mar Thoma Syrian Church and/or do some meditation or maybe a sound bath. But, invariably, there’s always some event or other that I have to attend or work at.   


'Songs & Stories' will be held at BoboKL from July 11 to 13 and at Batu Café & Bar in Penang from July 18 to 20.

This article first appeared on July 8, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

Follow us on Instagram