After K-pop and J-pop, what about ASEAN-pop?

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Six Filipino bands and eight musicians from ASEAN member states come together for a music festival in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. Illustration by JL JAVIER/Photos courtesy of ASEAN MUSIC FESTIVAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s K-pop, J-pop, Cantopop, and even Pinoy pop. But do we know what kind of music our ASEAN neighbors are producing?

The dominance of Western music notwithstanding, ASEAN Music Festival organizer Annie Luis of the National Commision for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) wanted to put the spotlight on music from ASEAN member states, this time turning to the rich and varied contemporary music made by young musicians from countries such as Laos, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

“It all started for the 50th anniversary celebration last August,” says Luis. “When we were assigned to put that program together, the ASEAN Landmark Lighting, we wanted to bring in ASEAN member country representatives, not just Filipinos performing and wearing costumes of the ASEAN states. We realized that it’s different when you bring in the real performers talaga.”

With that idea in mind, the NCCA, together with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and Gabi Na Naman Productions put together the ASEAN Music Festival, held in conjunction with the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila. The festival also serves as a breather from the formal proceedings of the five-day meeting of world leaders.

Invitations were sent out to the ministries of culture of ASEAN states to choose their own representative for the music festival.

“We wanted to bring in bands that create their own music and who have at least released albums so we can have a taste of what contemporary music is in our ASEAN region, which we tend to kind of put on the sidelines,” says Luis. “For this festival, we hope to bring to fore the wealth of artistic talents and contemporary music that we have in ASEAN. We don’t have to look to the West first.”

To the organizers’ surprise, the resulting roster is a varied mix of performers that give their own take of contemporary music and incorporate elements of traditional music from their own cultures, thus producing distinct genres of their own.

For example, Malaysian band Nading Rhapsody is an avant garde Borneo ethnic band that uses myths, tales, and chants from their culture. The band’s name is taken from the Dayak tribe’s god-like character called Nading Grasi who was expelled from the heavens. Nading Rhapsody went on to represent Malaysia in different music festivals around the world. But the band struggles to find a platform to reach a wider audience.

“When we started Nading Rhapsody as a world music band, there was a different perception and acceptance from people in the music industry in Malaysia,” says the band’s singer Opha. “We had a few struggles to bring our world music to the surface because it’s always been underground or undiscovered. But now we’re really happy to see that there’s more people coming out [to appreciate] world music [as a] genre.”

She adds: “The best thing is the youth of Malaysia who are picking it up and we’re proud that people are with us to bring out culture, tradition, and heritage and keep it there and bring it forward for the world to see.”

Khmer duo Nimith and Sophea also face a similar situation. Chamroeun Sophea and Chhith Sovann Nimith (Ting Tong) provide a modern take on traditional Khmer music and the newly formed duo also want their music to be appreciated by many, especially the younger generation.

“The traditional seems to be silent,” says Tong. “We want to adopt it and protect it so we have to combine it. We might be the only one who’s trying to do this in our industry. We’re not really famous but we want everyone to know us.”

Brunei’s rock band D’hask does not incorporate traditional music in their songs yet but member Syarif Baharudin is familiar with the struggle.

“It doesn’t mean that rock is [from the West],” says Baharudin. “We have our own rock. We want to let it out, [and show] how Brunei rock sounds like. So for me, that’s representing who we are. I have a friend in Brunei, they [use traditional music]. It’s actually quite nice. I see my younger sister, she knows the song, so as soon they are into this kind of music, it’ll be stuck in their head [and then they can show], ‘Oh this is how the original [traditional] song sounds like.’ It’s a stepping stone so they can pick it up. It takes time but we still do it.”

“A lot of young people love pop music. I think as an artist, the best we can do is to use traditional music, live or recording, and use some traditional and ethnic instruments and mix it with new sound, so the young people can listen and feel connected with it.” — Mia Ismi Halida, Indonesian artist

Hailing from an archipelagic nation with 17,000 islands, Mia Ismi Halida of Indonesia also knows how hard it is to create music using her culture’s traditions.

“Each province [in Indonesia] has their own language and traditional music, dance and everything,” says Halida. “If we travel around the provinces, it feels like we’re in another country, because the sound, the voice is different. It’s rich in culture.”

But for attempts to put forward traditional music, she says, “A lot of young people love pop music. I think as an artist, the best we can do is to use traditional music, live or recording, and use some traditional and ethnic instruments and mix it with new sound, so the young people can listen and feel connected with it.”

Other ASEAN bands, such as Laos’ Sack Cells, Thailand’s Asia 7, Vietnam’s Tuan Anh, and Myanmar’s Eint Chit look to the festival as an opportunity to get to know their neighboring states more, and hopefully, create a network of musicians to promote a musical ASEAN region.

Eint Chit — who, like Halida, was in Manila for the 50th anniversary celebration of the ASEAN last August — is actually working with a few ASEAN artists on a collaboration to showcase the sound of the region.

“The last time we were here for the ASEAN anniversary concert, we’ve been friends with the ASEAN singers,” she says. “We’re still connected with each other even if we went back to our home countries. Right now, we’re talking about an ASEAN song. It must include the language everyone understands plus our [own] languages. We’re planning to do that, just among us, a collaboration. I’m already writing something and we can do it in our countries and collaborate [online]. We will make it happen.”

Get to know more of the music of the regional acts for the ASEAN music festival below. Performing alongside them are Filipino bands Sandwich, Franco, The Ransom Collective, Ben&Ben, Parokya ni Edgar, and Silent Sanctuary.

                                                              D’hask (Brunei)

Sack Cells (Laos)

                                                   Nading Rhapsody (Malaysia)

                                                          Eint Chit (Myanmar)

                                                             Asia 7 (Thailand)

                                                        Mia Ismi Halida (Indonesia)

                                                  Nimith and Sophea (Cambodia)

                                                        Tuan Anh (Vietnam)

Photo courtesy of ASEAN MUSIC FESTIVAL


The ASEAN Music Festival is on Nov. 14, 7 p.m. at the Ayala Triangle Gardens. Admission is free. For more information visit the Facebook event page.