Editor's note : Compass Music is proud to introduce to you our second guest writer : Jocelle Koh from Australia/Singapore. She shares her selection of artists that breaks the mould of traditional Asian music and bring culture into their work in an innovative way.
Read more insights on the global music industry on our last article : Pop culture and its impact in the Middle East by Sana Romanos.
A jack of all trades, Jocelle is the founder of media platform Asian Pop Weekly, and currently a label manager with Believe Distribution’s Taiwan team. Starting out with an aim to bring Mandarin music to the world, this aim has now extended to bridging the gaps between East and West and challenging perspectives on Asian music wherever she goes.
Credits : SOPHY - pictured: SOPHY performing at Legacy Taipei
When one thinks of the term ‘Asian music’, notions of what it might entail might be vague, or limited to prominent pop culture references. Maybe you might think of the vibrant, slickly produced bops from the world of K-pop, or the sweet technicolour land of J-pop? Or maybe even the classic golden ballads from Mandopop (Mandarin pop music) that will stay in the hearts of those in the know for a long time to come.
While Asian music is all of these things, it is also much, much more. As the world’s most diverse continent with each country holding their own unique mix of cultural, religious, and historical influences, even the smallest scratch on the surface of any subset of what Asian music has to offer could produce the most enlightening of results.
Here we focus particularly on four contemporary artists who define (and change) perspectives on the Asian music landscape today. Coming from greatly different backgrounds, interests and influences, these artists represent just the tip of the iceberg, but deserve to be highlighted for their efforts in shaping their respective music scenes, and empowering new possibilities; sometimes even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Abao 阿爆 (Taiwan)
Credits : Abao
Hailing from Taiwan’s Paiwan Aboriginal tribe, singer-songwriter Abao 阿爆 (otherwise known as Aljenljeng Tjaluvie) has been an important ambassador of Taiwanese culture and Aboriginal music since her debut in 2003 as part of duo ‘Abao and Brandy’, but her best work has certainly come in the last decade of her career, with milestone albums “vavayan.woman” in 2012, and “kinaikaian mother tongue” in 2019, both released on Elevenz Production & Publishing. Abao’s musical philosophy is simple. Similar to many other notable Aboriginal singer-songwriters, she aims to update and incorporate elements of their culture into her musical works; preserving their languages through song. But as shown in her ground-breaking 2019 album “Kinaikaian” which picked up many an accolade for Abao’s ingenious and insightful fusions of the Paiwan language, modern culture, and the electronic genre, her artistry deserves a league of its own. Filled with an ever-giving warmth and the most genuine intentions to share her culture with the world (best conveyed through her single “Thank You”), Abao’s works are an experience which will open your eyes to the possibilities that exist for Aboriginal artists everywhere.
SOPHY 王嘉儀 (Hong Kong)
Credits : SOPHY
While Hong Kong and its music industry has faced its own unique and increasingly challenging set of struggles in the past few years, a pure love for music and passion for honing their craft has pushed some of the scene’s best and brightest to take stock and innovate. Singer, songwriter and producer SOPHY is one such artist who has truly taken control of her own destiny. Blessed with a full, luscious set of vocals, they have taken this songbird effortlessly across the pop, R&B and electronica genres ever since her debut in 2016. Singing mainly in Cantonese and occasionally English, SOPHY made the switch to Mandarin with 2019 album “HARSH 殘” by Bunny Eats Ltd. that marked a major transition for her, opening the doors for her chilled, mysterious tunes and wry lyricism to Mandarin speaking audiences. An intelligent commentary on the miniscule moments, happenings and sayings that make up youth culture contemporary society, SOPHY continues to daringly represent the voices of youths across languages and cultures.
Credits : Pyra
In recent years the Thai music scene has produced many artists who break the mould; none more so than Pyra. Invoking her own brand of music that she calls ‘dystopian pop’, Bangkok-based artist, producer and activist is one in a billion. Defined only by the consistency with which she chooses to defy societal expectations in her music and artistic endeavours, Pyra’s music discusses everything from her spiritual philosophy on 2018’s independently released record “Better Being: Suriya” to societal critiques on 2020’s lucid track “plastic world”, while sending clear messages about her political views on hard-hitting single “Bangkok” （Anytime you get a little too close/Take thе elevator to the top floor/And prеpare for impact）; the latter two released via Warner Music Thailand. Fearless in the face of change and vocal in the face of turmoil, Pyra’s presence on the Thai music scene empowers listeners (be they male, female or non-binary) to be proud of their differences, and vocal about what they believe in. A genre-bending artist who incorporates everything from R&B, hip-hop, pop and electronica into her offerings, Pyra may be a jack of all trades when it comes to her work behind the scenes, but when it comes to making a difference in meaningful ways, this global citizen is certainly a master of her craft.
Vira Talisa (Indonesia)
Credits : Vira Talisa Last FM
If you’re looking for a trip back in time, look no further than Indonesian singer-songwriter Vira Talisa. Inspired by the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, an enticing mix of Bossa Nova, French Yé Yé, rock’n’roll makes up the retro gal’s sweet, refreshing sound. Singing in English, Bahasa Indonesia and occasionally French, each song of Talisa’s transports listeners to colourful, psychedelic worlds of sound; to unmarked beaches where mojitos are free flow and worries can be tossed aside for a while. On songs such as “Down in Vieux Cannes” off her 2019 independently released album “Primavera” the sweet singer flexes both her linguistic and musical muscles as she waxes lyrical in French, bidding farewell to France after years of study there. While on others such as 2018’s “Janji Wibawa”, she introduces the Indonesian music scene to these lesser-known genres, adding new flavour with her mellow, sunny Bahasa lyrics. Who knew one would be able to find such a pocket of vintage sweetness hidden on the shores of Indonesia?
From Taiwan to Hong Kong to Thailand to Indonesia, these artists mentioned above inspire and evoke meaning in completely different, but equally amazing ways. From working towards the preservation of a culture that may soon be lost to time, to standing up in the fight of a lifetime, we appreciate these artists for their different modes of creative expression, and how each of them in some way have chosen to take the path less trodden; paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
Discover the underbelly of the Asian music scene through music blogs such as Asian Pop Weekly, From The Intercom and Turntable Thoughts who go out of their way to discover and showcase unique artists from across the Asian diaspora. Online radio shows such as Triple R’s ‘Mooncake’ out of Melbourne or Singapore Community Radio’s “High Tide 開台” also do a great job of drawing out niche selections of artists who are contributing to these flourishing scenes right here, right now.
Singapore, January 2021.