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Southeast Asian Experimental Music Is Growing Overground

As regional artists increasingly come together, more than ever, experimental music is about rebuilding connections - to other humans, and to our histories.

by Sharon Shum
09 September 2019, 4:53am

Bali-based Gabber Modus Operandi’s frenetic face-melting tempos paired with Thai voguer Amazon Sun’s fluid fem poses. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

With a relatively small population and clean reputation to uphold, Singapore might not have been blessed with the best conditions for breeding a diverse underground music scene. Despite such preconceived notions, Singaporean avant-rock band The Observatory is marking a nearly twenty-year trajectory through multiple line-up changes, while homegrown record labels like Ujikaji Records are curating seminal releases that support independent artists through their sonic experimentation.

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The latest constellation of The Observatory features Yuen Chee Wai & Dharma Shan on guitars and Cheryl Ong on drums; with Ong and Yuen multitasking on electronics. Their recent live performance featured elements of prepared guitar with spoons, wood mallets and violin bows. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

It is undeniable that experimental music is breeding on the shores of this island, and that 'staid Singapore' is very much part of a growing movement - of bodies and minds - all across the Southeast Asian region.

It’s a simple fact that in our age of budget airfare and that wild thing we call the Internet, artists are no longer confined to a specific scene or discipline. Sound travels faster and farther. The ethos of the underground is now broadcast overground.

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BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic drew a crowd with its curation of forward-looking experimental musicians. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

Events like BlackKajiXtra – Nusasonic, don’t happen often enough yet, but they are sparking fires of regional conversation and collaboration. Take for instance Bali-based Gabber Modus Operandi’s frenetic face-melting tempos paired with Thai voguer Amazon Sun’s fluid fem poses. Or the raw energy from Setabuhan’s modern take on tribal trance music matched with the tension and spectacle of sparring performances by Singaporean silat clubs. There’s also notorious Singaporean techno-punks Horizon99 joined by Bangkok-based post-internet drag queen Nuh Peace in a celebration of the queering of club culture.

More than ever, experimental music is about rebuilding connections - to other humans, and to our histories.

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Kasimyn of Gabber Modus Operandi on the decks. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

We hear this in the cross-pollination of noise music and club sounds.

A lot more experimental music is being made and played for dancing, and club music in recent years has been infiltrated by heavy industrial. Experimental sound is becoming closely intertwined with the spirit of underground party culture in upholding an environment for openness, acceptance and freedom.

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The raw energy from Setabuhan’s modern take on tribal trance music matched with the tension and spectacle of sparring performances by Singaporean silat clubs. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

We hear this in the conscious and consistent cultural referencing.

By drawing reference from balia, a traditional healing ritual from Palu in Sulawesi, Setabuhan is grounded in heavy interlocking percussion to create a visceral reaction in the body. Through such performances, we become part of a rite, and are confronted with the power of musical vibrations.

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Ican of Gabber Modus Operandi supplies powerful vocals and performance reminiscent of his punk roots. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

Gabber Modus Operandi is making waves on international party circuits for constructing an Indonesian hardcore rave fantasy, riding on the energy of jathilan, supported by beats of kendhang drums found in dangdut koplo and pentatonic scales of gamelan. They recently released HOXXXYA on Shanghai-based label SVBKVLT, and went on tour in China to seal that Asian connection. They even performed all the way in Uganda at Nyege Nyege Festival this year, alongside a whole host of Chinese artists such as 33EMYBW, Hyph11E and Kilo Vee.

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Singaporean producer FAUXE mined Malaysian folk and pop music for his album Ikhlas. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

With less boundaries and barriers to entry, cross-cultural exchange and recontextualisation is rife. During a long stay in Kuala Lumpur, Singaporean producer FAUXE mined Malaysian folk and pop music for his album Ikhlas, and polished his rock solid finds with playfulness and dance floor-ready sampling dexterity.

All around, we see artists going back to the roots in a world where everything is overground.

Instead of pushing sonic limits and asking the question “what is music?”, experimental music today is bringing the organic back to the electronics. It is punk of the digital era, an invitation to return to the bunker of collective being, as defense against disillusionment with our broken socio-political structures. It is about finding release and freedom through our connections with each other.

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Rully Shabara conducts Cari Padu, a participatory performance art piece involving public to form spontaneous improvised choir, exploring the role of voice and harmony in community. Photo by Henzy David courtesy of BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic.

In the words of Rully Shabara, vocalist of Setabuhan and renowned experimental band Senyawa: “It all comes down to knowing what we need. It’s not financial, it’s not money, it’s not support from the government. It’s working together. [...] It’s about networking and infiltrating.

Sharon Shum is the Content Manager of VICE Asia who believes noise and movement are essential to life.

BlackKaji is a series conceived by Ujikaji and The Observatory. BlackKajiXtra - Nusasonic was conceived in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut.

Nusasonic – Crossing Aural Geographies is an initiative of Goethe-Institut Southeast Asia and is a collaboration between CTM Festival (Berlin), Yes No Klub (Yogyakarta), WSK Festival for the Recently Possible (Manila), and Playfreely/BlackKaji (Singapore). The project kicked-off with a two week long Artistic Lab and Festival in Yogyakarta in October 2018.