Cultural Cringe

Alright so I’ve been discovering (and falling in love with) a lot of Singaporean music recently. While I’ve explored and appreciated the pioneering Singaporean music acts like The Thunderbirds, The Stylers, The Quest, etc, it’s only recently that I started discovering the more recent ones.

I can’t describe how madly in love I am with The Observatory. I shook Leslie’s hands at their most recent gig at Keong Siak Street and told him how much I loved their music. (Holy fuck I shook his hand, oh my gosh!) He asked for my name and smiled. (Oh my gosh, he asked for my name!) And then I started exploring earlier music acts by Leslie and The Observatory members like the Humpback Oak (which I’ve also fallen madly in love with). Then there’s the Stoned Revivals, and the Great Spy Experiment.

I’ve always been particularly impressed by the kind of original creativity, avant-garde experimenting and strong script-writing that The Observatory exudes. It’s not exactly something I’ve been cynically inculcated to expect of the local arts scene – that it is dull, barren, run-of-the-mill and an idiomatic dead-end. I can still remember how pleasantly bewildered I was when I listened to The Observatory for the first time at the fact that it was lyrically and musically sophisticated, it was original and it was good. It was something you’d last expect from a local band.

To illustrate my point, when The Observatory started playing at the carnival, there was a surprised crowd. Surprised because (1) those guys on stage were Singaporean, and; (2) those guys on stage were good. And “Singaporean” and “good music-making” are mutually incompatible in the eyes of many (or maybe just mine, for the past 19 years of my life).

I had a horrifying realisation this morning that Electrico was a Singaporean band. I’ve had a few of their songs in my music collection that I inherited from my sisters and I’ve always unthinkingly assumed that they were some obscure indie group from the land of the ang mohs. It just didn’t occur to me that a local band could mimic (okay “mimic”, is mean. I meant “match”) the kind of professional music-making vibe, skill and originality that one would expect from a billboard’s chart music act.

(“Mimic” would be a blasphemous word to use to describe The Observatory because their impassioned music-making has created its own entire unique music genre. I suppose the angsty political material that they feed on gives rise to a lot of emotion and inspiration, something rare in this little island. And of course, their music isn’t the everyone’s cup of tea.)

It was a horrifying realisation because it revealed just how prejudiced I’ve been brought up to be towards local potential – prejudicial, dismissive, cynical. And how much I’ve missed out because of this wilful ignorance. And it also reveals a desperate need for arts education for the public – our music scene, our theatre groups, our visual arts, our performing arts, our writers, our poets, our painters, our film-makers.

Not the contrite low-quality made-for-cheap-laughs Jack Neo-esque imitations, but the actual thing: things like The Observatory, things like The Quests, or xinyao, or Kuo Pao Kun or Haresh Sharma. Call it nationalism or whatever, but it’s nice to have something you’re proud of to call your own.

My gosh, there’s so much out there I have to explore and to love.

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