Music

An Asian musical odyssey: from Indonesian Celtic punk to Chengdu rap

British-Hong Kong indie star EMMY THE GREAT takes us on a whirlwind journey through Southeast Asia’s kaleidoscopic musical landscape

The image will always be with me. I was 12 years old and had been invited, for the first time, to a teenager’s pool party in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels district. I sat on a plastic chair, puffed up with the pride of new experience, and watched the older boys diving into the cool, blue water, their legs disappearing into rushes of white foam.

Asian musical odyssey

That day, we listened to a compilation of Hong Kong punk bands on someone’s pink boombox. The divers were in a punk band, too – Nopdogs. It stood for ‘No Our Parents Don’t Own Grocery Stores’, a satirical nod to the lead singer’s Korean heritage. Years later, when I wrote my song Swimming Pool, about watching something beautiful jumping out of reach, I was thinking of them, and the lasting memories to which their music was the soundtrack.

The 1990s Hong Kong skatepunk scene lost several key members to emigration around 1997, and eventually faded, giving way to other styles. This November, the local bands performing at the city’s Clockenflap festival are bound by new sounds and energies. These are typified by the spiky math-rockers GDJYB – internet-savvy and reflective of contemporary attitudes towards identity. They have arrived like a wave, washing over what came before, binding those old bands to a past era. But that ’90s compilation CD is out there somewhere, a time capsule of what the city was then, channelled through the interests of its youth.

Asian musical odyssey

To be a music lover in Southeast Asia, you have to be prepared for change. In this pocket between China, India and Australia lies an extraordinary mishmash of cultures – informed by hundreds of ethnic groups, ways of life and geopolitical forces, opening and closing avenues of experience. Like the change of the guard in the guitar bands of Hong Kong, music scenes in Southeast Asia have undergone vast, sometimes sudden, overhauls, allowing for the emergence of exciting, urgent micro-genres. They bubble beneath the surface of a country’s mainstream culture, so that even the well-travelled reader might need to search to find them.

Hong Kong was not the only place in Asia where punk thrived in the ’90s. In Indonesia, the leftist, anti-fascist punk of that era spread across Java and Sumatra. Today, the genre remains popular across several of the country’s 17,508 islands, but has evolved into disparate entities. Jakarta’s Punk Muslim are an example of the devout punks who are building their own version of the Islamic punk style Taqwacore. Meanwhile, in Bandung, the flat-cap-wearing seven-piece Forgotten Generation are the leading light of the country’s established Celtic punk scene. Yes, you read that correctly – there are so many Indonesian musicians taking on this Irish-influenced style of ska-punk that they released a compilation album in 2014, called Wind from the Foreign Land.

Foreign influence has been part of life in Bali, Indonesia’s tourist paradise, since the first Western travellers began settling there in the 1930s (and long before, when Portuguese and Dutch traders breezed through in the 15th and 16th centuries). In recent years, one of the best collaborations between Western immigrants and local traditional culture has come from the label Island of the Gods. Founded by British creative director Dan Mitchell, it brings contemporary electronic artists together with players of Balinese gamelan, the trance-inducing traditional music with a free-form structure that seems to mimic the wind. Together, these artists blend their rhythms – one handed down through centuries, and the other forged from recent club culture – creating a sound that is unlike anything else.

Asian musical odyssey

Stability is rarely a feature of Southeast Asian life, and many countries live with a collective trauma that lingers in the DNA of new subcultures. In Myanmar, a rocky path to democracy breeds anxiety that is best expressed through the distorted guitars of Yangon’s metalcore community. In Cambodia, where a golden age for psychedelic rock was violently silenced by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, modern musicians have to restart the industry from scratch. Many have adapted the sounds of golden age artists in tribute, creating a new folk-psychedelia, while others channel their rage through punk and hardcore.

Both Myanmar and Cambodian punk and metal have picked up traction online from US music websites like Noisey, but arguably the most internationally acclaimed genre in Southeast Asia is Viet rap. Spearheaded by its reigning queen, Suboi, the genre is a singular musical force, marked by a poetic flow that carries searing social commentary.

Vietnamese hip-hop had its origins in the arrival of MTV in the ’90s, and the affinity for American rap felt by kids like the Saigon-based Wowy, who were growing up in conditions that resembled the neighbourhoods of American rap icons like The Notorious BIG and Nas. It’s fitting that this new genre is now feeding back to the US, through the arrival of something else new – social media.

Despite the shared terrain of online life, geography still plays an important role in the rise of a musical niche. It is no coincidence that the Philippine island of Cebu, famed for its beaches, provides a centre for the Philippines’ reggae scene. Other influencing factors on youth culture include drug laws (just ask the beer-only ravers of Singapore’s dance music scene) and national identity. When I spoke to Niko Batallones, a Manila-based music blogger, he told me that, despite the myriad styles of Filipino music, there was no escaping the ubiquitous romantic ballads. ‘Filipinos enjoy a love song,’ he shrugged.

But most curious is the case of country and bluegrass music in Thailand. In 2010, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label signed a Bangkok-based artist called Hugo Chakrabongse. At the time, I was taken by his rootsy, blues-tinged guitars, and the fact that, in his music videos, he seemed to have access to a lot of horses. I shouldn’t have been surprised – acoustic-tinged Americana is a popular strand of music in Thailand. It began with the arrival of Hollywood Westerns in the 1960s, after which a fashion for dressing like cowboys began in the rural north, and neighbouring Laos. Today, however, these sounds have spread beyond agricultural communities – Chakrabongse is a bonafide Thai royal.

For those of us who grew up here, the many melodies of Southeast Asia are difficult to shake. Whether sung by princes or punks, they tell the modern history of a mysterious and evocative region. Many years after that pool party, I heard that one of the Nopdogs had become an R&B star in South Korea. I wonder if he, too, sometimes thinks back to our shared time in Hong Kong, and finds himself humming an old song. Maybe he even takes out a guitar, hitting the strings to form the power-chords of his youth. The echoes of those chords are in every piece of music I write. I know they will return one day, freshly reborn in the hands of a new generation.   

This year, Clockenflap brings bands from across Southeast Asia – and the world – to Hong Kong over 9-11 November. For details, visit clockenflap.com

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