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Asian underground bands rock outside the box

Musicians get creative amid COVID-19 social distancing rules

Space-rock folk band Buddha Beat play with Mohammad Kamal Sabran at Universiti Sains Malaysia's School of Arts in Penang, Malaysia, as part of the Healing Art Project. (Photo by Marco Ferrarese)

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia -- On Oct. 2, the Chinese singer Dryad stepped on to the stage of Beijing's live music club Omni Space to scream as he hadn't screamed for months. His Buddhist-influenced band Bliss-Illusion unleashed a sonic wall of post-black metal riffs upon an over-excited crowd that had not attended a metal show for the best part of the year. By the end of the set, very few patrons still had their masks on.

"Beijing is now safe, something I cherish more than ever after more than half a year in lockdown," Dryad said from the Chinese capital. His band is among the first metal groups to have returned to the stage despite the rise in COVID-19 infections that has ruled out live music in much of the world -- including the U.S. and Europe, the global epicenters of underground and alternative music.

Things look brighter in Asia, where lockdowns are slowly easing, and even punk and metal bands are enjoying a gradual return to normality. Some, like Bliss-Illusion, have already returned to local stages: Dream Spirit, a Chinese metal band that mixes global epic metal tropes with the use of local folk instruments, completed a successful mini-tour of China in October.

In Taiwan, where the pandemic was handled with great efficiency, live music clubs are already back in full swing. "All the venues are free to operate just as they did pre-COVID, the only difference being the mandatory hand sanitizer at the door, and the fact some venues ask patrons to wear masks indoors," says Taipei-based Canadian freelance writer Joe Henley, the former singer of local brutal death metal band Revilement and grindcore act Stench of Lust.

On Oct. 17, Henley's new band Dharma played Taipei's biggest metal show in months at the underground music club The Wall, attracting more than 200 fans who had been patiently awaiting the moment to let it all out.

Top: After months of living under lockdown, Chinese singer Dryad and his Buddhist-influenced band Bliss-Illusion are unleashing their post-black metal fury in front of live audiences again in Beijing. (Courtesy of Bliss-Illusion) Bottom: Joe Henley, the Canadian vocalist for Taiwanese death metal band Dharma. (Courtesy of Dharma)

The live comeback of Asian underground bands is a much-needed opportunity to acknowledge their commitment and determination to rock outside the box. Dharma, for example, takes a clever and innovative spin on the death metal genre by focusing on Buddhism. "All our songs are actually just Buddhist mantras," says Henley, who spent the past four months deepening his religious knowledge.

Dharma was conceived over the past decade by drummer and mastermind Jack, who sought the opinions of many high-ranking Taiwanese Buddhist nuns and monks before pairing Buddhism with extreme metal. The clergy's answer was overwhelmingly positive, and now Dharma proudly performs with a monk, Master Song, who bangs a Buddhist bell on stage. "We're all older guys in the scene [...] and want to harness the power of positive thought, [something one can't do] with the usual blood, guts and Satan themes trotted out by metal," says Henley.

Live music may already be back with a bang in China and Taiwan, but in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's largest underground music scenes, bands and venues are still wrestling with social distancing protocols. In Indonesia, the government has prohibited live performances because of the pandemic, which reached 452,291 cases and 14,933 deaths by Nov. 13. As a consequence, the 2020 edition of the Hammersonic Festival, a leading Southeast Asian metal event that has brought the top international metal bands to Jakarta since 2012, has been tentatively postponed to Jan. 15.

Top: Dharma performs their first show in Taipei in 2019, before COVID-19 grounded live concerts. Bottom: High-ranking Buddhist nun Master Song supports Dharma's message and decided to perform with the band onstage. (Courtesy of Dharma)

The thriving Indonesian punk scene is also in dire straits. "Some created a livestreaming performance on YouTube called 'Ripple The Show: Tribute to the Crews' to collect donations and help their crews put food on the table," says Hikmawan Saefullah, a punk musician and lecturer at Universitas Padjadjaran in Sumedang, near Bandung.

In Bandung, musicians and social activists formed a support movement, Solidaritas Sosial Bandung, with the aim of opening public kitchens across the city and providing the disadvantaged with free food and clothing. "Some punks also created new outdoor activities such as 'Harkorpang Bike,' riding bikes together around the city. I guess it's their way to cope during this time of restrictions on live shows," says Hikmawan.

In neighboring Malaysia, where heavy metal bands have existed since 1982, live music performances are also still restricted. The handful of underground venues operating in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and George Town are closed or struggling to make ends meet and pay rental costs. For some, however, this situation has been a boon in disguise to reinvent themselves and get around restrictions.

Cole Yew, manager of Soundmaker Studio in George Town, fought tooth and nail for a decade to keep alternative rock, metal and punk music alive and well on Penang island, where George Town is the main settlement. The pandemic is just the next challenge on the list. To organize live shows that satisfy social distancing protocols, Yew's new band, space-rock folk duo Buddha Beat -- an original mix of loops, Hindustani tabla, Chinese Di Zi flute, and reverberated electric guitars -- started playing small weekly private shows disguised as "yoga sessions with meditative music."

Top: Buddha Beat's Krishna Armum, left, and Cole Yew at Soundmaker in George Town during the coronavirus. (Courtesy of Cole Yew) Bottom: Buddha Beat play onstage as Yuva Armum teaches Vinyasa and Hatha yoga to socially distanced patrons at Soundmaker Studio in George Town. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"It's a perfect way to put on a small show that feels like a workshop, which is allowed under Malaysia's current Recovery Movement Control Order," says Yew. "We started Buddha Beat Yoga to help listeners disconnect/recharge from their happiness/problems before coming back to them," says Krishna Armum, Buddha Beat's other half, who plays the tabla and guitar. While the band performs on stage, Krishna's brother Yuva Armum teaches a mix of Vinyasa and Hatha yoga to socially distanced patrons.

Creating soothing, healing connections of mind and music is also the new focus of another Malaysian musician, Mohammad Kamal Sabran. The former punk rocker and member of the musical collective Space Gambus Experiment is now a lecturer in new media at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. Kamal's doctoral research focused on the healing qualities of the gambus, a Malay lutelike instrument with Arabic origins, in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

This sparked the idea for the Healing Art Project, started in late 2018 when Kamal decided to play prerecorded soundscapes in the classroom to relieve his stressed students. This exercise grew into an immersive listening experience produced by musicians, sound designers and choreographers, to bestow therapeutic effects on the mind and the body. Spectators "heal" by following the yogalike exercises explained and executed by a participating dance troupe.

Top: A poster for a series of Healing Art Project Facebook livecasts that kicked off on Oct. 24. Bottom: Dr. Mohammad Kamal Sabran, the mastermind behind the Healing Art Project. (Courtesy of the Healing Art Project)

"We conducted research on 500 participants in the past year, and the results show that there is a clear need to continue with this type of cross-musical project in this most difficult of times," says Kamal. Because of current restrictions and a shift to online lecturing, Kamal has produced a series of six weekly video-recorded Facebook live jams in which he improvises with local musicians like Buddha Beat.

These projects, however, offer only temporary relief as Southeast Asian musicians wait for the sort of normality that their Northeast Asian colleagues are already enjoying. "Now that we know what it is to lose the ability to travel and tour with music, people will likely treasure it more once it makes its way back," says Henley. "Ideally, it will lead to a resurgence in the passion for underground shows and bands."

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