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Innovative music takes off in Maritime Southeast Asia

Musicians are returning to their roots to create a new regional genre

Kuala Lumpur-based band Margasatwa repurposes the golden age of Malay and Indonesian Western-inspired rock music of the 1960s and 1970s, infusing it with a profound ethnic awareness. (Courtesy of Levi's Music Project)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Since the end of World War II, the soft power of Anglo-American popular culture has expanded to most parts of the developing world. Thanks to radio and television broadcasts, exported recordings and international tours, Western popular music has become a global standard of reference.

"Music has been sort of a medium for cross-cultural communication for a long time," says Kimal Mokhtar, who sings in the five-piece Malay rock band Margasatwa, which released its debut album in 2020. Based in Kuala Lumpur, the group situates its music in the tradition of Nusantara, an Old Javanese word whose modern Indonesian/Malay meaning loosely refers to Maritime Southeast Asia -- now divided into Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of Southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and East Timor.

Margasatwa repurposes Malay and Indonesian Western-inspired rock music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also infuses it with a profound ethnic awareness. Its lyrics are in Malay, its songs are influenced by local pop stars like the late Sudirman Arshad and Singaporean-Malaysian songwriter M. Nasir, and it adds musical accents from traditional Malay musical styles such as Zapin, Inang, and Keroncong. Margasatwa is one of a number of Southeast Asian bands that are fusing Anglo-American popular music tropes with local ideas and approaches to create new music genres -- a process that the pop music scholar Edward Larkey defined in 1992 as "reethnification," the last stage in his theory of popular music innovation, which starts with the consumption and reproduction of foreign styles.

The emergence of bands like Margasatwa indicates that Southeast Asian artists are starting to break away from the globalizing shackles that Anglo-American popular music has placed on the region's music development since the 1960s. Europeans had imported rock 'n' roll during the colonial period, but the key event was a concert by the British star Cliff Richard, backed by The Shadows, who stormed Singapore's Geylang Happy World Stadium on Oct. 14, 1961, bewitching thousands of local youths.

Almost every band in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia imitated the distinctive rock 'n' roll twang of Richard and The Shadows, along with their clean-cut looks. This peculiar regional trend developed into a genre known as "Pop Yeh Yeh" after the 1963 hit song "She Loves You" by The Beatles, another British rock group of the 1960s whose style became a blueprint for most popular music around the world.

Malaysian rock band The Red Stars were a prime example of the Pop Yeh Yeh genre that developed in Southeast Asia. (Screen grab from YouTube)

The Shadows bug also spread to Thailand, where the 1960s Wong Shadow (Shadow Music) movement offered another pioneering regional take on Western rock, this time infused with Thai melodies. American troops brought more foreign sounds to the Mekong River region during the Vietnam War. But a thriving Western-influenced rock 'n' roll scene that developed in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s was wiped out when many of the performers and other creative artists were executed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Southeast Asia's rock-derived popular music, together with other Western-based genres such as hip-hop and R&B, has largely continued to follow Anglo-American trends. In her 2011 book "Burma's Pop Music Industry," Heather Maclachlan writes that even in Myanmar (the current name for Burma) local pop musicians continued to recreate Anglo-American pop music, rather than "developing a locally marked sound or style."

Cambodia had a thriving rock 'n' roll scene in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was wiped out when many of the performers were executed by the Khmer Rouge regime. (Screen grab from YouTube)

That has changed in parts of the region in the past few years, notably in Indonesia, where movements such as Punk Muslim and the One-finger Salute have infused Islamic proselytizing into the trademark sounds of the Western-born punk and heavy metal subcultures. The main problem, however, is that beyond singing localized themes in local languages and replacing the Western harmonic structure with Arabian scales, few Southeast Asian artists have dared to shape their sounds with unique elements from their own peculiar musical traditions and ethnic roots.

Other artists in developing countries have made this step, including North African bands such as Tinariwen, Bombino, Mdou Moctar and Tamikrest, which have successfully distilled their Tamasheq identity and language into a unique sound that the industry defines as "Desert Blues."

There are also a few Asian exceptions, including the Hu and Hanggai, respectively from Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, which have infused throat singing and traditional instruments into heavy rock bases. In Southeast Asia, Khun Narin's Electric Phin Band in Thailand is possibly the most unwilling of revolutionaries. This quirky ensemble from Petchabun Province mixes Lao and Thai folk music with psychedelia and garage rock, and snared an international record deal in 2013 after an American producer saw a YouTube video of an impromptu jam session in the Thai countryside.

Top: Buddha Beat's Krishna Armum, left, and Cole Yew perform at Soundmaker Studio in Penang, Malaysia. Bottom: The band uses contemporary electronic bases and electric guitars to support a tapestry of ethnic sounds from Hindu and Chinese musical traditions. (Photos by Marco Ferrarese)

However, the global mood of introspection prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have spurred a wider musical awakening in the region, and Southeast Asian musicians are starting to express themselves in novel forms. In addition to Margasatwa, Kuala Lumpur-based Mayabayu, from Malaysia's Sabah State, is fusing modern R&B with the ethnic imagery and sounds of her native Borneo.

"Everyone has their own journey, and I believe that each artist should be allowed the freedom to do what they do best: create, without conforming to a set genre," Mayabayu says. "So whether it's to produce a more Western-sounding song or something closer to their roots, it's their own prerogative. In saying that, authenticity is key. To make music from the heart, isn't that the whole point?"

Mayabayu's latest song, "O Sayang," is sung in the endangered Kadazan language of her ancestors, and was produced as part of Levi's Music Project, a mentoring platform for musicians which launched in Malaysia in late 2020.

Sabahan-born Mayabayu brings her ethnic Kadazan-Dusun ancestry to global R&B and pop music genre tropes. (Courtesy of Mayabayu)

The multiethnic Malaysian duo Buddha Beat from Penang is also on a journey to self-awareness. Formed by ethnic Chinese and Indian multi-instrumentalists Cole Yew and Krishna Armum, Buddha Beat fuses electronic music and guitars with traditional Hindustani tablas and the dizi, a type of Chinese folk flute.

"Electronics give a contemporary feel to our music, so that we don't end up sounding like a traditional religious worship band, but the folk instruments represent our two different and unique cultures," says Yew, Buddha Beat's flutist and guitarist, and a veteran independent musician and producer. "Trying to sound like the bands you listen to will end up taking your identity away," he adds. "And we want to create something that truly belongs to us, our ways, and is uniquely us."

This musical soul-searching is not confined to rock-derived genres. Another Penang-born artist, the rapper Dato' Maw -- a play on the similar-sounding Mandarin words for "tapir" and "devil" and the honorary Malay title of "Dato'" -- is challenging the local Malay and English-language hip-hop scene with a novel style he calls cina music.

Dato' Maw couldn't find any rap music that resonated with him as a Malaysian Chinese. His own brand of "Cina Music" fills a global gap in perspective. (Courtesy of Levi's Music Project)

Cina is a Malay word used to identify the local Chinese community, and the namesake music has hyper-localized themes and a vocal flow that infuses rap with Penang's multiple local languages -- Malay, Mandarin, Penang Hokkien and English.

"I started doing this because I couldn't find any rap music that resonated with me as a cina," says Maw, who is following in the footsteps of the Higher Brothers, a Chinese group from Chengdu that sings in a Sichuanese dialect that few Chinese can understand. "Like every rapper, I wanted to represent where I come from, and that's why I utilize the way I speak into my music," Maw adds.

In spite of its language choice, the Higher Brothers have achieved international success -- an accomplishment that some participants in Southeast Asia's musical awakening think they can emulate. "Music from this part of the world [is destined to] be as big as Western or [South] Korean music in the near future," says Kimal.

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