Photo essay Clubbing
Looking for Singapore’s underground music scene.
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
“THEY ARE SO LUCKY TO BE P L AY I NG UNDER THE EIFFEL TOWER . IT ONLY HAPPENS ONCE IN A LIFETIME .”
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
THERE ’S SOMETHING REFRESHING ABOUT HEARING THE HONEST HOPES AND DREAMS OF WONG AND SURESH , DESPITE THEIR SETBACKS.
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.