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Singapore's heritage re-invented through music, arts festivals

Creative players are finding new ways to depict the island's rich history and make it more publicly accessible in a trend that could lift Singapore's presence on the international arts stage.

Singapore's identity is defined by a mix of ethnicities, including Malaysian, Chinese and Indian—three groups that constitute the bulk of the population. That gives the island a multi-layered and diverse history that few other countries can claim. While heritage has long flavored the local arts industry, the past three months have seen artists re-invent the theme by blending the past with the present and reality with fiction.

Club Malam [meaning night in Malay], part of the ongoing Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), is one example.

Having debuted on Thursday, the event transformed Old Kallang Airport, the country's first commercial international airport, into a rave inspired by 1940s and 1950s nightlife. It referenced old-school entertainment complexes such as Gay World, which was housed in the same neighborhood from the 1920s-1960s and offered both Western and Malay music.

NADA performing at Club Malam on July 7, 2016
Ruth Lo Weng See
NADA performing at Club Malam on July 7, 2016

One of SIFA's key aims was preserving the memory of human activity that occurred in historical areas, explained director Ong Keng Sen. While maintaining physical monuments was essential, it's equally important to keep a sense of what activities occurred there and what the place stood for, he noted.

But Club Malam isn't just a nod to the past. "We were looking how to make a new cosmopolitanism. We used the ethnic roots of one community but took a universal approach and made it more porous," Ong said.

Exemplifying that theme is NADA, a visual arts and sound duo consisting of Rizman Putra and Safuan Johari. One of Club Malam's eight acts, NADA celebrates traditional dance music from the region through a contemporary lens.

"Our intention was not to replicate the past but to excavate the old perhaps lost history of Southeast Asian music and re-imagine it," Putra remarked.

Music aside, the duo's image itself is a toast to Singapore's heritage makeover.

NADA views itself as a fictional Malay electronic pop group that existed back in the 60s. "The core idea was to deconstruct the old songs and re-present them musically and visually. We started developing this NADA existence and historical packaging by re(creating) old ticket stubs, concert posters, photos of the band traveling. It's like bringing the elements of popular mockumentary 'This Is Spinal Tap' to the real world," Putra said.

In May, Keong Saik Carnival, an outdoor music and food bazaar that took over the street bearing its name, gave citizens a fresh take on Chinatown.

The 2016 Keong Saik Carnival
Leica Cameras
The 2016 Keong Saik Carnival

Organized by restaurant and lifestyle group Potato Head Folk, the inaugural Carnival channeled the neighborhood's former red-light district reputation but the addition of underground electronic music artists from Shanghai and Singapore added a modern twist.

"We wanted to focus on culture, whether its past or present, young or old, foreign or local, everybody could appreciate it," Earn Chen, Potato Head Folk director, explained. "The region has so much history so we wanted to focus on those musical talents while staying true to Chinatown's past."

This new spin on heritage is significant for a country that's long concentrated on economic development and industry for the bulk of its 51-year history.

"It's exciting to finding out more about our history and identity that's normally brushed aside," observed Tim De Cotta, co-founder of creative arts curation agency Getai Group, which has launched a series of music festivals featuring home-grown talents, including Getai Electronica last year and Getai Soul in May.

"I think having more accessible and interesting approaches to our heritage helps Singaporeans deal with a common identity problem as we tend to follow the wind and trends."

Getai is the term used for live variety shows occurring during the Hungry Ghost Festival, a Buddhist and Taoist celebration of underworld spirits.

"Emphasis on heritage does more for us as a society and individuals to decipher who we are and what we want, and ultimately what we will leave as our legacy in the world as Singaporeans," De Cotta said.

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