Photo es­say Club­bing

Look­ing for Sin­ga­pore’s un­der­ground mu­sic scene.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - words and Pho­tographs by tom white

I’m look­ing for Sin­ga­pore’s un­der­ground, but first I have to find the en­trance to the club. Turns out it’s down a back street. It’s not like this is a word-of-mouth only, popup club. No, this is a mid­week night in early June at Kilo Lounge. Af­ter find­ing my way in, the first thing I see is the stage di­vided from the dance floor by a slid­ing gate. As I find a spot, jazz sax­o­phon­ist Nubya Gar­cia, pi­anist/key­boardist Joe-Ar­mon Jones, Daniel Casimir on dou­ble bass and drum­mer Femi Koleoso take to the stage, the gates ease open and the crowd surges for­ward.

While the band on stage may hold Bri­tish pass­ports, this night is a tes­ta­ment to what is a lively and grow­ing Sin­ga­porean mu­sic scene. There has al­ways been lo­cal mu­sic of course, but there is a sense at the mo­ment that a wave is ris­ing. “It’s re­ally picked up this year,” mu­si­cian Nolan Brad­bury tells me when I catch him play­ing at Choice Cuts Goods + Cof­fee.

Not far from Kilo Lounge, a re­hearsal space in Chi­na­town is host to lo­cal band Sobs, whose core mem­bers Ce­line Au­tumn, Jared Lim and Raphael Ong play self-pro­claimed ‘un­cool pop mu­sic’ and are re­hears­ing as an eight-piece for a gig to cel­e­brate the re­lease of their first ful­l­length al­bum. Ong breaks the si­lence af­ter they fin­ish the crescendo of a song, “Let’s try that one again, be­cause it felt so good”.

Sobs is signed to lo­cal la­bel Mid­dle Class Cigars and I meet up with la­bel boss Nigel Lopez out­side Lithe House in Lit­tle In­dia. In­side, Stel­lar­ium is elec­tri­fy­ing the small venue, the walls of which are adorned with pho­tos, posters, news­pa­per clip­pings and even in­stru­ments telling the story of Sin­ga­pore’s un­der­ground mu­sic his­tory. The crowd is as close to the band as it can be. Up next that night is Cer­e­mony from the US. I spend most of the gig inches from the band, look­ing through my cam­era viewfinder while dodg­ing the swing­ing fret­board of Stephen Sul­li­van’s bass gui­tar and its fre­netic rhythms. Is this the un­der­ground? You can sit in a HDB ko­pi­tiam and not know that the next table is oc­cu­pied by mem­bers of audiovisual col­lec­tive Syn­di­cate SG, who soon head to an up­per storey where Jason Tan— who started mak­ing elec­tronic mu­sic in 1981—has his home stu­dio. This is where Syn­di­cate’s mem­bers hang out, mix tracks and lis­ten to newly pur­chased vinyl on a beau­ti­fully crafted turntable.

As tourists and of­fice work­ers saunter along Boat Quay, they can do so not know­ing that elec­tronic artists and DJs from Sin­ga­pore and around the world are play­ing cut­ting-edge dance mu­sic to an en­thralled crowd at Head­quar­ters, the club run by Eileen Chan, bet­ter known per­haps by her moniker, Cats on Crack. Marker pen graf­fiti cov­ers the walls, red lights barely cut through the dark, my cam­era reg­is­ters the noise.

At yet another ko­pi­tiam, mem­bers of grind­core act Worm­rot dis­cuss the up­com­ing record­ing of their new al­bum. Has it been two years since their last re­lease, they won­der? Over­seas tours oc­cupy their time, as do the ev­ery­day pres­sures of fam­ily and jobs. “There are peo­ple way more un­der­ground than us!” I am told. How deep does the un­der­ground go?

Scratch the sur­face of Sin­ga­pore. That sur­face that is said to be too con­trolled to have a lively cre­ative scene. Where is the pain that we of­ten as­so­ciate with great art, that gives rise to the myth of the suf­fer­ing, starv­ing artist?

But there is a his­tory here. Venues like the Sub­sta­tion are fully em­bed­ded in any his­tory of the arts scene in Sin­ga­pore. Step in­side for an event by Blackout Agency and you can feel that these walls have sto­ries to tell.

The lin­eage of ex­per­i­men­tal per­for­mance con­tin­ues at Goodman Arts Cen­tre, where the Ujikaji la­bel hosts mu­si­cians from Sin­ga­pore and be­yond. Im­pro­vised sounds willed into ex­is­tence, new sto­ries to tell.

In a coun­try that ben­e­fits from the flow of cul­tures that passes through, there can­not help but be a call­ing to carve your own niche, find your own sound. This is the spirit of the un­der­ground.

But then, ‘un­der­ground’ is a con­tentious term. Who or what is the un­der­ground? For me, it is the thing you need to seek out. It rarely presents it­self to you, and if it does, it might be a hook, a taste. Like serendip­ity, it can eas­ily be missed. It’s not a genre or a style, or whether you get ra­dio play or not. Un­der­ground is done out of a pas­sion for the art, for the love of the drop, or los­ing your­self in the mu­sic as a DJ or a band reaches the cli­max of a set, of the au­di­ence mem­ber who is fully en­gaged in the mo­ment. When you can peer into the DJ booth and count the grooves on the record, or stand within reach of the mi­cro­phone on stage, then that con­nec­tion is un­de­ni­able. In that sense, the un­der­ground is what you find when you get close, when you re­ally look.

“I’M NOT AS IN­SE­CURE AS MY WIFE,” an­nounces An­dre Agassi. “I won the French Open once and was happy with that. I didn’t have to win it over and over again to prove my­self.” His wife Stephanie Graf, more ador­ingly known as St­effi Graf dur­ing her pro­fes­sional ten­nis ca­reer, lets out a gen­er­ous laugh. Agassi flashes her a cheeky smile and turns back to his din­ner guests at Musée Rodin. “This re­ally is an hon­our to cel­e­brate 10 years of part­ner­ship with Longines,” he con­tin­ues. “It shows Longines’ con­tin­ued sup­port for chil­dren; for our next gen­er­a­tion.”

We’re in Paris dur­ing sum­mer. The man­i­cured gar­dens of Musée Rodin—the lo­ca­tion for many a Chris­tian Dior cou­ture show dur­ing Fash­ion Week—has been trans­formed into a deca­dent gala venue to com­mem­o­rate this decade-long part­ner­ship be­tween Longines and the two char­i­ties founded by Agassi and Graf: The An­dre Agassi Foun­da­tion for Ed­u­ca­tion, and Chil­dren for To­mor­row re­spec­tively. It’s al­ready been a spec­tac­u­lar night. On one hand, Longines un­veiled 10 sets of two exclusive time­pieces to be auc­tioned off in sup­port of the two char­i­ties and, on the other, two up­com­ing ten­nis stars had the op­por­tu­nity to meet two ten­nis leg­ends.

Vic­to­ria Jiménez of Spain and Kil­lian Feld­bausch of Switzer­land—this year’s win­ners of the Longines Fu­ture Ten­nis Aces (LFTA) tour­na­ment to sup­port the best ten­nis play­ers un­der the age of 13—are no­tice­ably star-struck; stand­ing shoul­der-toshoul­der with Graf and Agassi as pho­tog­ra­phers snap away, they blink in­stinc­tively un­der the heavy flash­lights. As win­ners of the LFTA, they each receive a Longines time­piece and a bur­sary to sup­port their ten­nis am­bi­tions un­til they’re 16. But it’s been a jour­ney. They had to beat 19 other play­ers from 19 coun­tries to be stand­ing here. And, just as with any sport­ing tri­umph, there’s a lot more to the story than bright lights, awk­ward smiles and din­ing un­der a clear Paris sky on a mid­sum­mer’s night.

Just ear­lier that same day, there was drama at the Eif­fel Tower. It’s a pe­cu­liar sight: a sin­gle clay court (ex­actly the same di­men­sions and con­di­tions as those found at Roland-Gar­ros for the French Open) has been con­structed un­der the Paris land­mark— it’s red ter­ra­cotta hue a stark con­trast to the slate-grey steel that arches above—and at the net, just next to the um­pire’s chair, a boy lies pros­trate on the court, legs and arms splayed straight out, and cry­ing. Cor­rec­tion. Balling his eyes out and sob­bing un­con­trol­lably. The um­pire is lost as to what to do. The tour­na­ment or­gan­is­ers are lost as to what to do. Feld­bausch, hav­ing just beaten the Amer­i­can boy in the semi-fi­nals of the LFTA, stands with his ten­nis bag to a side, clearly lost as to what to do. For ev­ery win­ner, there is a loser. And this loser is just 12 years old.

Seated court­side, former world num­ber one, ten­nis legend and win­ner of three French Opens, Aran­txa Sanchez (she has since dropped ‘Vi­cario’ from her sur­name) talks to me about what’s un­fold­ing in front of our eyes: “Men­tal tough­ness is very im­por­tant be­cause ten­nis is very very men­tal.” Rudy Quan, the Amer­i­can boy who lost to Feld­bausch, was ini­tially a set up and lead­ing 2-0 in the sec­ond set, be­fore sum­mer show­ers in­ter­rupted the game. When the game re­sumed, Feld­bausch came back fir­ing, took the sec­ond set and even­tu­ally stole the match.

Quan is now off court, rub­bing his tear-streaked face into his mother’s chest, mess­ing up her polo top with damp clay. “The most im­por­tant thing is that you have pas­sion, that you have a


good at­ti­tude,” of­fers Sanchez as a word of ad­vice. “Don’t give up. Ten­nis is a long ca­reer. It’s not a short ca­reer. Maybe you don’t win many matches now, but if you keep working and do­ing the right things, the re­sults will come sooner or later.”

They’re wise words drawn from ex­pe­ri­ence—Sanchez turned pro­fes­sional when she was just 13 years of age. “This event is a great op­por­tu­nity for the kids,” she tells me later. “In my gen­er­a­tion, we didn’t have this. As the LFTA am­bas­sador for the sec­ond year, it gives me a chance to pass on some guid­ance and rec­om­men­da­tions to this next gen­er­a­tion, to help and sup­port them in some way. And they are so lucky to be play­ing un­der the Eif­fel Tower. It only hap­pens once in a life­time. Even cham­pi­ons don’t have this op­por­tu­nity to play here.”

Also tak­ing part in this ninth edi­tion of the LFTA (the first tour­na­ment started in 2010) are Sarah-Anne Wong and Adithya Suresh from Sin­ga­pore. Longines held a tour­na­ment in Sin­ga­pore


to de­ter­mine which girl and boy un­der 13 it would send up to Paris. “It’s my first trip to France,” shares an ec­static Wong when we first meet at Wild Honey café in Sin­ga­pore prior to Paris. “I’m ex­cited to play at the base of the Eif­fel Tower and to see how good the other play­ers are.” Her mother and twin sis­ter—also a ten­nis player—sit be­side us, sip­ping away at their cof­fees. “Tell Nor­man about what movie you watched be­fore the lo­cal fi­nal in Sin­ga­pore,” in­structs her mother. “Oh yes, I watched the Lee Chong Wei movie. He is a Malaysian pro­fes­sional bad­minton player who didn’t make it to the na­tional team, but he per­se­vered and even­tu­ally he suc­ceeded. That re­ally in­spired me.”

Wong picked up ten­nis at five af­ter watch­ing her dad and aunt play on the lo­cal hard courts. “My sis­ter and I were pick­ing up the balls for them. It looked like a lot of fun so I wanted to play too.” Fast for­ward seven years, and af­ter rig­or­ous train­ing with her fa­ther—“My dad ties an elas­tic rope from my waist to the fence at the back of the court, to train my speed and agility”—Wong finds her­self in Paris, bat­tling it out with the best 12-year-olds in the ten­nis world. Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite a gal­lant ef­fort, she didn’t make it pass the round-robin stage to ad­vance to the quar­ter-fi­nal.

“Be­fore I went to Paris, I ex­pected the play­ers to be strong,” says Wong af­ter the tour­na­ment. “How­ever, the play­ers I com­peted against ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tion. It was such an eye­opener for me to play against such strong play­ers. I did worse than I ex­pected. I was in­tim­i­dated by their prow­ess and strength on the court.” It was def­i­nitely a wake-up call, with Wong un­able to se­cure a set in all five of her round-robin matches.

But will she con­tinue to pur­sue ten­nis as a ca­reer? “Ten­nis is a huge part of my life and I will con­tinue to pur­sue it as I love it. I will not let this set­back that I ex­pe­ri­enced in LFTA di­min­ish my love for the sport. In fact, I’m go­ing to work even harder. My next goal would be to qual­ify and rep­re­sent Sin­ga­pore for the ITF World Ju­nior Ten­nis, hope­fully by 2020. Wish me luck!”

Lead­ing up to Paris, Suresh’s per­sonal goal was just to get as far as he could in the LFTA. “I’m not go­ing to think about the com­pe­ti­tion or pres­sure. As my coach al­ways tells me, ‘If you’ve put in the hard work, you don’t need to worry about the re­ward be­cause it will come’. But Paris has been a great lit­mus test, high­light­ing to Suresh that, if he’s se­ri­ous about be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional ten­nis player, he needs to up his ante. “Due to my height, and the fact that I’m left-handed, my best weapon is my serve. I usu­ally win a lot of games with my serve, but it wasn’t enough here in Paris. I need to work on my foot­work. Ever since young, I’ve been on the big­ger side and strug­gle with mov­ing around the court agility-wise.” Like Wong, Suresh bailed out of the LFTA at the round-robin stage.

“I re­alised that the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween me and most play­ers was the num­ber of com­pe­ti­tion matches they play in a year. Some of the Asian play­ers also played in Euro­pean tour­na­ments be­fore com­ing to Paris,” re­flects Suresh post-tour­na­ment. “Ten­nis is my pas­sion. I will con­tinue to work hard on im­prov­ing my ten­nis, fit­ness and men­tally pre­par­ing for matches. Like my school motto: ‘The Best Is Yet To Be’.”

There’s some­thing re­fresh­ing about hear­ing the hon­est hopes and dreams of Wong and Suresh, de­spite their set­backs. But as the adage goes: it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be that mat­ters.

Back in Musée Rodin, Longines has ar­ranged for fire­works as a spe­cial sur­prise end­ing to the gala din­ner. Feld­bausch stands with his arms folded, look­ing up at the night sky. He ear­lier told me, and rather mat­ter-of-factly, that he wants to be world num­ber one and win all four ma­jor Grand Slams—a feat that only an elite hand­ful of play­ers have achieved; both in the men’s and women’s game. We’re talk­ing ten­nis legend sta­tus if he ever man­ages to pull it off. Leg­ends the likes of Agassi and Graf who are just stand­ing me­tres away and star­ing up at the same fire­works dis­play.

Will Feld­bausch be as cocky as Agassi and only win the French Open once? Or will he need to win it over and over again to prove his worth like Graf? Only time will tell. But right now, he’s just a 12-year-old wear­ing ten­nis shoes at a gala din­ner—the soles still red from the French clay—trans­fixed by the rock­et­ing lights. His face comes alive with ev­ery hiss and pop. Yes, he is still just a boy. But watch out world, this boy has the stars in his eyes.

sobs re­hearsal, Chi­na­town.

Above: Ce­line Au­tumn of Sobs at a re­hearsal, Chi­na­town.Left: On the dance floor at Lion Step­paz Sound.

Kil­lian Feld­bausch.

Vic­to­ria Jiménez.

Adithya Suresh.

Sarah-Anne Wong.

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