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The Sounds of SouthEast Asia


Rawan Saadi (she/her) | @rawan0934 | Contributing Writer

If there is anything I've learnt about music over the last few months on exchange in Singapore it’s how limited my experience has been so far. Being an immigrant in Aotearoa, I was under the impression I had a decent amount of interest in music that pushed the boundaries of Western categories. It didn’t take long for me to realise there was still a lot for me to explore.


I used to think Auckland was quite the melting pot, but Singapore's population is almost entirely made up of different ethnic groups from across Asia, and more specifically Southeast Asia. Malaysia, China, India and Sri Lanka are just a few of the larger ethnic groups that make up Singapore’s diverse cultural landscape. With such large numbers from different backgrounds, it’s no wonder Singapore’s inner social, art, and music spaces are a mosaic that reflects the talents of cultures across Southeast Asia and beyond.


I began to notice this diversity in the small things. The first grocery store I went to was playing music with lyrics in Mandarin. Other stores I went to played a mixture of Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, English and even a few Spanish or Arabic songs thrown in there. It was this simple exposure to multi-lingual music in public spaces that made me realise how accustomed I had become to only hearing English music or at least expecting a singular language and culture to be expressed. 


This was of course only the beginning. As I visited some of Singapore's cultural hotspots including Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street, I began to crave more experiences that spanned across different regions of the world. One way of doing this was looking for upcoming celebrations and festivals. 

The first one I went to was Lunar New Year in early February. Celebrations of this national holiday stretched across different locations. Gardens by the Bay, Singapore's landmark tree groves, held a special light show incorporating Chinese music and beautiful dragon decorations. Chinatown had a countdown with music, dance and firecrackers, not to mention the different communities and neighbourhoods that also put on their own performances. One thing I noticed as I walked through Chinatown's busy streets was the crowd around me. The celebrations of this event had drawn people of all backgrounds. Some of the people I saw and spoke with were locals who celebrated the Lunar New Year, others were tourists who had come to experience a different culture. Many were also locals of other ethnicities who did not culturally celebrate the new year but often came down to join in on the festivities. 


It became clear to me that in Singapore different cultural and religious holidays were celebrated by all locals. When I attended the Holi festival, I saw how even the organisers of these events acknowledged that it was common for those from other backgrounds to enjoy these festivals. Holi or the Festival of Colours is a Hindu festival celebrated across India with music and coloured powder that people smear on one another. The celebration I went to incorporated all of this, playing many Hindi and Bollywood classics, some of which even I knew. However, the DJ also added a few songs in other languages including some in Farsi and quite a few in Spanish. 


It was a similar idea when I attended the Hari Raya or Ramadan Bazars. The playlists at these busy markets were a mixture of Malay, Arabic, Indonesian and Hindi music. At one Bazar they had performances by a Malaysian singer, who to my surprise began rapping in Malay after a few songs. At another, the group of Egyptian men running the Shawarma stand were blaring Egyptian music that is often played at Egyptian events, especially weddings. As someone who is Muslim, I can say for a fact that this blending of cultures is not something I experienced when I celebrated Ramadan in Arab countries. 


As wonderful as it was to experience these different cultural events in one little island I also realised that there was more to this diversity than first meets the eye. Before going to Singapore, I had some knowledge that it was a diverse place, given that it had several official languages. But it was simultaneously praised as one of the more 'Westernised' countries in Asia. Much like the diverse cultural expression, westernisation is also blatantly apparent in Singapore. A simple example is tourist and city spaces in Singapore that played more Western music and displayed a significant number of Western styles and brands on its billboards. 

Although some of the Western influence may not be negative, when it came to culture, I realised that the celebrations I attended existed in a country that was gradually and successfully being overtaken by Western trends. So, it’s become important for me to appreciate that the festivals, songs and dances I have come to enjoy here are not just for fun, they are not even done simply out of tradition. Instead, they are also a method of resistance by groups of people who refuse to be erased or forgotten. 


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