SINGAPORE’S grassroots music community may be small but it has open ears. The artists and DJs who make up the tight-knit underground circle are champions of eclectic sounds from all corners of the world.

Some of the city’s best parties are thrown by collectives such as Sideshow, Darker Than Wax, Revision Music, Mugic Soundsystem, Good Times, Tropical Temple, and Matteblacc.

The selectors behind these groups regularly take revelers on ethno-musical journeys – everything from funky 45s to ghetto house and Latin boogie in a single night. In embracing a variety of left-field styles, their approach resembles the deep range of international taste-makers such as Gilles Peterson, Lefto and The Gaslamp Killer.

It can be quite a struggle to push authentic, alternative music that we genuinely love.

(Photo: Darker Than Wax)

But surviving on tunes can be a tough ride in Singapore, one of the world’s most expensive cities. While grants from government arts councils do help with funding needs, artists often rely on a can-do attitude and a hustler’s mentality to see the fruits of their labo. For these local players, it can also be tough finding venues with decent sound-systems to host events at. Aside from a select few intimate bars and small-scale clubs, such as Kilo Lounge and Kult Kafe, most Singaporean establishments cater to a Top-40s-loving public.

“It can be quite a struggle to push authentic, alternative music that we genuinely love. It’s still very much a commercial crowd that we have to appease,” explains Farah Azizan of Revision Music and Darker Than Wax, who DJs under the name RAH.

“But in saying this, the struggle is a welcome challenge … There’s also a whole bunch of artists that are doing quality stuff and it’s a great feeling to play their stuff overseas and have people go, ‘Wow, what the fuck is that?’”

Notable names to check out in the scene include O$P$, a cyberpunk pair that blends trap and bass; and T-REX, a band that taps into avant-garde, stoner rock and psychedelic influences. Here are three other artists worth listening to.

The Dreamy Soul Of E R I

IN recent years, a wave of emerging and established talents have sparked fresh life into Singapore’s underground circuit. These artists are increasingly cross-pollinating genres to create rich sonic tapestries that resonate as well on festival stages as they do in smoky rooms.

One of them is E R I, aka Ashley Erianah, whose winning combination of sultry vocals and lush beats stretches across categories. A triple threat – she sings, produces and MCs – the 23-year-old has been a force to reckon with ever since she emerged more than a year ago.

E R I channels dreamy Malay neo-soul on tracks like ‘Hati Berhat’, ‘Jaga Jarat’ and ‘Sleeping Bag’ (all produced by multi-disciplinary artist F A U X E). ‘B2 GATHER SAN’, meanwhile, is certified jazzy hip-hop that bounces like a Jill Scott jam with the help of beatmakers Young Spice while ITch is a dusky house slow-burner that plays with synthesized vocals.

E R I’s textural soundscapes, which recently got airtime on Worldwide FM and Rotterdam’s Operator radio station, continue to evolve as she works with different producers. Currently, she’s venturing into footwork territory so watch this space.

The Tension And Release Of AKJ Trio

THE AKJ Trio, a three-piece ensemble under local electronic label Phyla, is another shining example of the city’s creative versatility.

Their debut 2017 release fuses broken beat, jungle and dub, organically building up tension and release. The 16-minute-long untitled set starts softly and ends on an atmospheric note, making listeners feel as though they’re watching a live performance.

“The music could go in any direction at any time, and yet does not,” the collective’s official description says, and rightly so.

Featuring Stephan Kain (aka KAIN) on production, Jonathan Ho Chin Kiat (aka jandaL) on bass and Benjamin Low (aka Anomy) on drums, the trio balances the spirit of improvisation against detailed production. The result is a refreshing instrumental-electronic dynamic that’s similar to the vibe underpinning the UK’s current jazz renaissance.

(Photo: Afiq Omar)

NADA’s Retro Futurist Beats

A LONGSTANDING trading hub, Singapore has historically benefited from exposure to a myriad global influences that have become ingrained in daily life. But musicians haven’t forgotten their roots. One of the island’s most transfixing performances is visual and sound duo NADA, who deconstruct old Southeast Asian songs and re-imagine them through a contemporary lens.

Safuan Johari, who makes electronica under the alias Max Lane, handles the beats and samples while theatre artist Rizman Putra sings and gracefully performs the traditional Malay folk dance known as Joget. Part of audio-visual collective Syndicate, NADA is motivated by the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, portraying themselves as a fictional Malay electronic pop group that existed back in the ’60s.

Having performed worldwide, the retro-futurist group is known for surreal shows in which they sport monochrome songkoks and jubas (traditional Malay attire) with Rizman painted completely in white.

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