By Alfian Sa’at
I watched ‘The Songs We Sang’–a meticulously-researched, affectionate documentary about the xinyao music movement in Singapore, and it was an invaluable eye-opener for me. There were so many elements which made me think about the cultural frames that we use to evaluate pop music, and I found certain conceptions of fandom and stardom really, for want of a better word, exotic.
To begin with, many of the stars of the movement, with the exception of Eric Moo, who had a bad-boy twinkle in his eye, seemed quite square (even by the standards of 80’s giant-framed glasses and high-waisted jeans). Arrangements were stripped down, often accompanied by a lone guitar, and performances were similarly no-frills, devoid of either Cantopop theatricality or the operatics of mainland Chinese revolutionary singing.
In place of charisma, there was ‘sincerity’; instead of angst there was ‘idealism’; instead of noisy rebellion there was virtuous harmonising. Lyricists were prodigy-like men and women of letters, who spoke studiously about metaphors in their songs. When asked if a love song was based on real-life experience, it was quickly disclaimed–as if high-minded chastity was more prized than the confessional intimacy of a pop confection. Nobody smoked, except for a woman interviewee, who smoked in a way that could only be described as intellectual, like she was contemplating lyrics involving the boundlessness of the ocean in a Taiwanese bookstore-cafe on a rainy day.
What was remarkable was that all of this was youth-driven, which one would never associate with music that was values-driven. To me, this phenomenon seemed to contradict how pop music is supposed to work–lyrics were supposed to be plainspoken, not poetic; singer personas were supposed to be sensual, not sexless; pop was all supposed to be about the disposable high, not edifying depths. And yet it found a following.
Watching the docu made me realise how much I take cultural production in the Malayosphere for granted. Singapore was a centre for Malay music for many years, and the history of Malay music here is so overwhelming it would take ten documentaries to tell its story. There were keroncong troupes, bangsawan orchestras, the rich flowering during the golden age of the Malay film industry when there were studio orchestras (and where luminaries like Zubir Said and P. Ramlee created their classic compositions), pop yeh-yeh (whose name comes from the ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain from the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ and whose members dressed like mods), kugiran (kumpulan gitar rancak=rhythmic guitar ensembles), made-in-Singapore bands like Black Dog Bone, Sweet Charity, Lovehunters and Gingerbread. And influences were global: you could find Afro-Cuban beats in Malay songs of the 60’s, Hindustani styles (DJ Dave, Uji Rashid) in the 70’s, slow rock/hard rock in the 80’s and diva power ballads (Aishah, Ziana Zain) in the 90’s.
Pop music has always been a site for identity politics contestations, with constant debates about authenticity and ‘Western influence’. In Mao’s China, one response was to suppress popular music as ‘yellow music’ or ‘bourgeois music’, but the Malay response has been to nag a little and then wait for an inevitable pushback trend. When things got a little decadent, a superstar like Sharifah Aini or Siti Nurhaliza would release an album of asli (traditional) songs, or a whole slew of nasyid (religious) boybands and girlbands would emerge, and all would be well again.
‘The Songs We Sang’ made me keenly aware that the Chinese community in Singapore has a history that is really quite different from the Malays. Singapore is right at the heart of the Malayosphere, but it is at the periphery of the Sinosphere. As a diasporic community at a remove from the motherland, Chinese anxieties about preserving their culture are existential. But sometimes ‘preservation’ becomes problematic when it becomes the only overriding agenda of cultural production.
At the end of the docu, I thought about how so much of what I know as Malay popular music has been enriched by the contributions of non-Malay artists: composers like Alfonso Soliano and Jimmy Boyle, music directors like Mac Chew and Jenny Chin (who helped produce albums by Sheila Majid and Zainal Abidin), singers like David and Loga Arumugam (from Alleycats), Irene and Helen Savaree (from Cenderawasih), Francissca Peter and Jaclyn Victor.
Xinyao grew from some very specific circumstances–the closure of Nantah, the alienation felt by the Chinese educated with the elevation of English as Singapore’s lingua franca. But one of its missions was also to produce a ‘Singapore sound’, in contrast to the music coming from other parts of the Sinosphere. I wondered about what would have happened had these Chinese singers and songwriters researched the indigenous music of the region, claimed it as their own, and incorporated it into their songs. What sounds could have emerged, and can such songs transcend all our fears about cultural dilution, assimilation and deracination?