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Old Man Musings — The Sultan of Brunei

Nook Schoenfeld • News • January 22, 2021

Brunei village

Sometime in the late 90’s. I get a call from Tam Fairgrieve, the Scottish production manager for Sting. I try my best to make out the words through his thick brogue.

“Nook me lad, we’re headed to Brunei. I need’ya to FedEx your passport over to Brandy.”

“Huh. Where’s Brunei?”

“You go to Malaysia and hang a right.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Bryan Adams is opening, then we’re in the middle, followed by Elton.”

“Copy. Is this the place where they built an amphitheater just so Michael Jackson could play there for the Sultan’s 50th birthday?”

“It is indeed. But we’re not playing there.”

“No?”

“No Nook, we’ll be playing the Badminton Court.”

“First time for everything.”

“One other thing. You are required to pick up a bottle of liquor at duty free before you leave.”

“Tam, you know I don’t drink much liquor.”

“I’m not concerned about what you drink me boy. We’re flying into a dry country. Each of us is only allowed to bring one bottle into the country. You must consider your mates, we’re there for three days.”

And so it begins. 9,000 miles in the air til I arrive in a country that will be sweltering with humidity. I’m airborne because the Sultan, one of the richest men in the world, is throwing a birthday party for his son. His son, the Prince, gets to pick the acts who will perform for his honor. The acts, in return, get to name their price, and they must bring all their production. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Stories about his majesty’s extravagances are legendary. One story has it that he decked out one of his 767’s entirely in gold. Once finished with the custom design work, it became too heavy to actually fly, so it sits off to the side, glittering on the tarmac of his airport. The stories about the Sultan piqued my interest, but at 9AM when I arrived at the hotel to meet my friend and Sting’s LD Nick Sholem, all I could think about was cooling off from the 125° temperature outside with a beer.

Nick designed a lighting rig that all three bands could use, that was to be set up in a height-challenged venue, on a stage half the size of what was usually requested. I was there to help program lights. Paul Devine is the lighting crew chief from Meteorlites, and he’s brought all the lighting gear over from the U.K. He is less than pleased and in the weeds when we arrive on site. As had been meticulously planned previously by the promoter (I think this was a Harvey Goldsmith event), the Sultan was sending his royal 747 jumbo jet to London with his wive(s) to visit Harrods for a little shopping spree. Once they were done, the staff were to fill the plane ¾ of the way up and leave room for Devine and company to load all the production elements into the bowel of the cargo area. The evening before Paul is to load the plane, he gets a call. “Sorry mate, the royal family has exceeded their allotted purchases and have filled the aircraft in its entirety. We can’t fit your gear, but not to worry, his majesty is sending a backup 747 that will be here the day after next.”

So instead of getting there a week before the event, the crew is loading in two days prior. This includes all the room décor. The English crew assembled for the gig have to do the brunt of the labor themselves, as the average local assigned to the labor force is under 5’ tall, less than 100 lbs., and speaks no English. We set up my Hog 1 console and I go to work helping the lighting crew. We finally get the air rig up and running, which is about half of the lights. We are starting with a blank lighting desk with a punt page for this event, and Nick is doing the programming himself, as I am wiring fixtures and getting stuff to work. Eventually we have enough looks in the console that we are set for now and hand the rig over to Elton’s LD. He’s using an Artisan console. We agree to head back to the hotel and get some rest.

There is no bar nor restaurant at the hotel, so if we want to eat we need to order food from room service, delivered to the hospitality suite. I cannot get a beer, but they will provide mixers for our Duty free liquor. Ice is slightly problematic, but once they realize we will require a new tray every three minutes they go on a mission and sort us out. The entertainment provided for our three day stay consisted of a sole rolling TV on a stand hooked up to one of those big video laser players, the kind that played disks the size of long playing albums. We had three movies to last three nights. There was no hotel internet at this time. No English CNN.

Nick and I decide we’d like to do a walkabout, but there is no real safe place for two obvious tourists to hang out. And it’s like a zillion degrees out. So we settle in for a James Bond matinee at the hotel with cocktails. The promoter has suggested we go on a boat ride around the harbor the next morning, prior to work, before it’s too hot to stand anywhere without air conditioning. We’re up for it, and at 6 AM, a cab pulls up in front of the hotel to take us to a marina, where our vessel awaits.

At the end of some dock sits a boy in a 15’ triangular water taxi of sort with a small outboard engine hanging on the transom. It’s sitting in water as brown as the Mississippi. Our translator tells us this young lad is going to take us on a quick round trip around an island in the harbor and meet us back here in 40 minutes. Nick has his palms out in one of those “Why not?” shrugs and we get onboard for what is hopefully not a three hour tour. We are a couple hundred feet from the dock when we notice our craft has become entrenched in a garbage filled wasteland of water. We are surrounded by the local villagers whose houses are all makeshift huts on poles sticking six feet out of the water at low tide. There are whole village islands made up of these connected abodes and I realize quickly that we are travelling through their sewage system, as well as garbage dump. But we can’t tell the driver to turn around, who knows where we’d end up.

Around 7 AM the heat starts rising fast and with that comes the fine aroma of Brunei at low tide. We dock the boat not a minute too soon and quickly disembark to head to the hotel , when I slip and catch my index finger in a dock slat, bending it back like a basketball finger. It swells, but I can tell it’s just a sprain. Upon arrival at the hotel the crew is getting ready to head to the gig when Tam tells me I oughtta get my finger checked out. There’s a hospital down the road and the translator is quite adamant about escorting me.

I’m not looking forward to my impending destination, let alone any treatment in this poverty stricken country. After 20 minutes of backroads thru third world city streets, I get to the hospital, and it’s exactly the opposite of what I expected. It’s totally devoid of sickness and injured people. As I am escorted in I notice I’m the only one there other than the staff. Marble floors and chrome shines inside and out, like only a movie set hospital could. I’m met by a bowing staff who ushers me back in to see the physician on call. Turns out he’s the only physician currently working in what appears to be a modern, three story hospital.

The Doc’s main gig is to look after the players on what I am to find out later, have been assembled to become a world class Polo team. As in guys on horseback whacking balls with mallets. The hospital is not open to the public and exists to treat the royal family and their guests (Polo injuries can be serious I’m told). I get an X-ray taken and while I sit waiting for results I quiz the good doctor on how an American with a London accent wound up in Brunei.

I apologized for taking up his valuable time. “Are you kidding me? You’re my first patient in three days and the last time I was called out was to treat a little girl’s tummy ache.” Turns out he had been recruited like a ball player. Apparently there was only one real reason to come to Brunei, and it wasn’t tourism.

“Mad Money. I was in West Palm working as a trainer for a club. The Sultan’s agent decided to hire some of the team’s players for his own team. They were offered an exorbitant rate to come here for the off season and represent Brunei. Somewhere along the way his people decided their country would need a real doctor to look after their players, offered me a job with a price I could not refuse. So I signed a contract for a year of residence. I would not be allowed to leave the country unless summoned to attend royalty. The only catch was, I don’t get paid the majority of my contract until my time is up. But it’s turned out to be a good life. I’m single, on my third year here.” The Doc assures me it’s just a sprain but he throws a splint on my finger.

The translator takes a different route back to the gig. It’s an actual highway this time. But this strip of road is pristine, two lanes of concrete either side with no guard rails. In fact, we are the only vehicle I see on the entire route back to the venue. I am told the highway was built so people could get to the amphitheater that was built to accommodate Michael Jackson’s show last year. It doesn’t get much use at all, so the people from town come out here for picnics on the weekends now. It is literally impossible to drive down the highway at that time. The highway and the jungle beside it has become their national park. As I walk into the Badminton center I find Nick programming away, and he says he’s fine. He doesn’t need me.

We have some time to kill, so a few of us are taken on a strolling tour around the grounds. They have some amazing automobiles displayed in one house. The sultan’s palace in Brunei is not on these grounds, but I’m told that it’s the largest royal residence on the planet. He has several other palaces about and the compound we are currently traversing includes one in which his son the Prince resides. It is the son’s birthday, I think his 21st or so. The only stipulation given to bands willing to fly to this hellish corner of the earth was that the prince got to sit in and play drums on one song with the band. I remember him doing so, and all was had in good fun.

The Prince’s home is a mere twenty-something-room mansion in comparison. We stroll escorted through an amazing piece of architecture, adorned with gold leaf furniture, original paintings of beauty, dining room place settings of ivory and gold, and gorgeous women sitting about everywhere. The women are reading, or staring outside at nature, or just looking back at you as if they are statues of art. These women are of all persuasions, each one more beautiful than the next. It’s as if the Sultan has collected beautiful women and displayed them as a homage to the human art form, with one in each room. I suspect they are working girls, which is confirmed later at the event.

The event in the Badminton Center is fully catered with special invitations to the country’s elite. By elite, we mean those employed by the Sultan. That includes the hospital staff who have all wandered over to express their concerns over the sprained finger of Mr. Rick. I find my doctor friend at the long bar conveniently located behind the lighting desk. I am slightly thrilled to find they have cold beer on big buckets of ice, so the Doc and I lean on elbows and swop stories. Only half of the tables on the courts are full of attendees, with the Prince commanding attention as well wishers congratulate him on his birthday and fine drum playing.

About twenty finely groomed men soon sidle up to the bar as well. The Doc nods their way and informs me these are the hired polo players. We’re all in the same position, back to the bar, gazing towards the stage. Yup, there we stand, a pathetic group of male whores holding our own sausage party while gaping at the 27 escorts sitting at tables, waiting for the Prince to request they join him. I gather the players can look, but better not touch. The Doc informs me he also serves as the royal gynecologist and knows all the working girls personally.

The event itself goes well. Paul punts through Bryan Adams’ portion and leave Nick to run the Sting show. I literally have nothing to do. Dinner’s soon over and folks are mingling before Elton’s set. I’m standing at the bar when Eva walks over and asks for a light. Tall, black haired beauty dressed to the nines in heels and an evening gown. I’m in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. We start talking about how she ended up here and what her gig is. She explains nonchalantly, “I was working Miami Beach as an escort. These rich guys came in and asked my employer for the highest priced talent. After meeting these men, they offered me this weird deal. I would be paid handsomely to be available at all times, but had to agree to stay here for a year, on call, so to speak.”

Despite being single at the time, I realized I had zero chance of a hook up. Yet I found the conversation intriguing, as this is a world I know nothing about. The birthday Prince is short and easily 100 lbs. overweight, probably never worked a day in his life. Eva’s not bashful about small talk and lets me know she’s been summoned to his chambers a total of three times in her 11 months on site, to spend the night. Sometimes with a fellow worker. She is one of 27 women currently employed to service the Prince. She also informs me that her $250,000 condo in Miami would be paid off by the time she exits next month. I estimate she’s 25 years old.

The show winds down with the three artists personally giving a giant 7-layer cake to the prince. Everyone applauds, and just like that, they file out as if pre-instructed. As a reward, each crew member working the show is handed a gold bracelet with the prince’s initials and a date on it. They’re nice, and while I’m appreciative of the gesture, I realize I can never re-gift this lovely trinket to a girlfriend due to the initials. I get home and chuck the thing in a junk drawer. A year later I’m searching that drawer for something when the still untarnished gold sparkles at me. I think what the hell and drive down the road in my town of Lake Tahoe, to the pawn shop by the casino. They offer me $150 cash. I stash the bills in my shirt and Brunei in the far recess of my memory.

Now that I’m older, I sometimes wonder where the #27 comes from. I think that was the number of virgins some suicide bombers are told they will receive in their afterlife. But would I be happy to grow up 100 pounds overweight with 27 obviously non-virgins attending my every desire? Probably not. But I do sometimes wonder, who’s the guy with the job that requires him to go find 27 new escorts every year.., and does he try out the talent first? As for the good doctor and Eva, I left them at the bar deep in conversation, probably contemplating their future. Something tells me they both caught the same flight back to Miami and lived happily ever after, well beyond their means.

 

 

 

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