The fledgling Asian music festival circuit is going from strength to strength – but there’s a darker undercurrent that may yet derail it, writes PAVAN SHAMDASANI
THERE’S NO COMPARISON. None whatsoever. Sure, there’s always a grumbler or two: audiophiles usually, harping on about the quality of vinyl, the ageless sound of musicians recorded in their prime, forever captured for every generation to hear. But really, there’s no substitute for live music.
Live music’s there. It’s real; it’s right in front of you – rock, jazz, classical, it doesn’t matter. Music isn’t made to be heard through a middleman; it should communicate directly from creator to ear: the sound of strings filling a music hall, voices echoing throughout a stadium, a drummer’s beat subconsciously grooving you to the tune.
Here and now, it’s all about live music – or more specifically, live music at Asian festivals. Because, as the new kid on the global festival block, we have a lot to prove. We certainly have the time, space and organisational skills to put on those exhilarating long-weekend events, with such major recurring festivals as Japan’s Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic proving our worth. And our talent is starting to grow, a true sign being those festivals determined to showcase home-grown musicians.
This year, it all looked like it was going to come together – until it started to fall apart. Because a dark cloud has started to form over that glorious summer of sounds, one that’s been building up for a couple months now. In March, Malaysia’s Future Music Festival, an up-andcoming pop showcase that normally lays the groundwork for the months ahead, was cancelled on its last day.
The reason? What most would see (but never publically admit) as an inevitable part of any music festival: there’s the trifecta, of course – music, people and booze – but there are also drugs. One festivalgoer at Future died (rather than the six that were initially announced) – and it’s not even sure the death was drug related. But nevertheless, after what seemed like heavy pressure from the police, the final day was cancelled.
The problem here isn’t so much the cancelled acts (Pharrell Williams and Macklemore, among others), but what the cancellations might mean for the future of Asian festivals. Imagine the possible repercussions: restricted entry, extra security checks, tougher disciplinary measures for illegal activities, tougher visa restrictions for visiting bands. It’s the kind of thing that could potentially destroy all our slow-but-steady attempts at a festival scene – but not if you have anything to do with it. So where do we go this summer? How do we support our festivals and get things back on track?
Start with the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia this June. Now in its 10th year, the festival takes place in a stunning natural location at Borneo’s Sarawak Cultural Village. But more than that, it features sounds you couldn’t find even if you were looking for them: funky redneck folk tunes from England, Singaporean chamber ensembles, Afro-Spanish-Cuban rhythms and Canadian old-time roots. It’s a rare glimpse of an oft-neglected world.
Not your thing? So be it: next up, Singapore’s Baybeats, a smaller festival that eagerly divides the line between local and regional acts. At the time of print, the line-up wasn’t announced, but even based on the finalists of their audition process, there’s some serious talent here: I’m particularly digging the Kills-like dreamy sounds of Lost Weekend.
Then it all kicks off in July, leading with the big two in Asian festivals: Fuji Rock in Japan and Jisan Valley in Korea, both on the weekend of July 25-27. The line-up for the latter hadn’t been announced at time of print, but considering they nearly always share acts, it’s safe to assume they’ll do so again.
Kanye West was meant to headline at Fuji, but as it is with the sometimes brilliant, often ridiculous artist, he’s dropped out with little reason. But it doesn’t matter; there’s another hip-hop act I’m more excited about: Outkast. Twenty years after they first formed and just two months following their reunion show at California’s Coachella, they’re exactly what rap needs to counter its degeneration into embarassing gangsta posturing and grand-ambition bombast.
The rest of the bill is impressive – a mix of decade-ago sounds (Basement Jaxx, Franz Ferdinand) and somewhat fresher faces (Foster the People, The Strypes) – but unlike previous years, there’s a sad lack of focus on Asian bands.
It’s a similar situation with Japan’s Summer Sonic a couple of weeks later – its line-up is a little more clear-cut and a little less experimental: standard big-name rock act (Arctic Monkeys), a couple of nostalgic lures (Kraftwerk, Pixies), a few hipster favourites (Azaelia Banks, Phoenix) and some minor American or Japanese bands – but nothing really exciting from the rest of our continent.
Finally, to finish off the summer, there’s Busan International Rock Festival at the end of August. It’s a smaller event without a doubt, but one that’s important for its dedicated focus on local Korean musicians. And while Gangnam might be all you know, there’s an incredible abundance of creative talent coming out of the country.
If you’ve been following along at home, you’ll have noticed a trend here: a divide between festivals that host mostly major international acts and festivals that focus on local and regional names. Why is this, you might ask?
It all comes down to what the music world has become – because at a time when any song is forever available online and bands are routinely making up for losses through extra touring, we consumers are spoiled for choice. There’s no middle ground between musicians any more: they’re either successful or starving.
And for better or worse, that’s a situation that we as listeners have created for ourselves – but that’s next month’s column.