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Old world charm in new-age getai
MUSIC festivals these days generally mean grooving to the likes of Laneway or Coachella, or indie music from, say, Grimes or Mumford & Sons.
But before that, Singapore has its own festivals too: getai, street wayang, and even the "Worlds" amusement parks of the 1920s to 1980s, where circus acts and bangsawan troupes performed next to carnival rides and food stalls.
That old world charm is precisely what Getai Soul 2016 wants to recapture and elevate. To be held this weekend at Pearl's Hill City Park, the two-day music festival is produced by creative agency Getai Group, which has gained a cult following with similar events such as Getai Electronica.
Getai Soul is their most ambitious project to date: With 16 bands and a host of fringe events, the festival costs around S$200,000, funded in part by the Singapore Tourism Board's Kickstart Fund.
Expect local indie headliners such as Charlie Lim and The Steve McQueens crooning soulful tunes alongside heritage performances such as Teochew puppetry from opera troupe Xing Ye Li Heng and nanyin music from Siong Leng Musical Association.
"Getai Soul is a reaction to those big, famous international festivals," says co-owner of Getai Group Tim De Cotta, a musician himself. "We want to provide an alternative option, with a strong focus on local and regional talent, with a voice that's distinctly ours." De Cotta believes that millennials here are beginning to take a real interest in their own history and culture.
"Singapore is advancing so fast and becoming a billionaire's playground, and the last thing I thought would be reviving is traditional arts. But that's actually the logical emotional response; the young ones are trying to find their identity," he explains. "Customs and traditions tend to be scolded down to us in Asia and maybe that's why we sometimes associate it with something negative, but attitudes are changing."
As a Eurasian of Dutch, Portuguese and Indian descent, De Cotta has experimented with rhythms from his heritage with his band TAJ. They'll be joined by other fusion acts such as RaghaJazz at the festival.
One East-meets-West number to look forward to is a mash-up of Cantonese opera and hip hop. Vocalist Ye Ruoshi will perform an excerpt from opera classic Hua Tian Cuo Hui (Encounter in the Flower Fields) while dance duo ScRach Marcs busts out some moves.
"Traditionally speaking, what I'm doing is quite unorthodox," says Ms Ye, who started learning the art 16 years ago from Singapore Kwan Tung Association. "But I want to embark on my own journey of expression and find my roots in a westernised society, while reaching out to younger people. In China, it's common to find younger folks performing opera these days, which we're not seeing here."
However, adapting traditional arts for a younger generation can be challenging; De Cotta has previously liaised with various opera troupes who were not open to the idea.
Some boundaries can't be crossed and respecting tradition is important, he acknowledges, though he'd push the envelope further if he had the chance: "I would have Cantonese opera vocals backed up by a fusion band and a classical string ensemble, and maybe bust out a couple of rappers. But done in a tasteful way of course!"
Getai Soul 2016 is on May 7 and 8 at Pearl's Hill City Park from 1pm to 10pm. Tickets from S$48 (one day pass) to S$78 (two day pass), available from Peatix at http://getaisoul2016.peatix.com/
A salute to Singapore music history
EARN Chen has always been a huge fan of underground street culture - he scoured record stores for 1960s garage rock vinyls as a teenager in Toronto. But last year, the discovery of local music producer Fauxe brought Singapore's music history to his attention. Fauxe's track Chang Siao Ying samples a song performed by '60s Mandopop singer Zhang Xiaoying.
That encounter planted the seed for the Keong Saik Carnival. To be held later this month, this collaboration between F&B group Potato Head Folk (of which Mr Chen is director) and creative agency Division Communications is out to prove that local heritage can be a rich source of inspiration, and that going back to our roots doesn't compromise our cool factor.
There will be four stages for music acts, 27 food and retail gazebos, amusement park rides, interactive art installations and even a lion dance performance. The entire affair will stretch across Keong Saik and Jiak Chuan roads, which will be closed for the event.
The best part? Entry is free. That's something, considering that costs are well into six figures, but Mr Chen says that it's "not a commercial project but a community-driven event".
Music-wise, Mr Chen has curated a lineup of local and regional indie artistes who draw from their traditional cultures.
Apart from Fauxe, there's also SA, an ethnic contemporary trio that uses traditional instruments like the zither. International headliners include Beijing's Howie Lee, a DJ who blends Chinese influences into electronic beats.
"This is the kind of music that blows audiences from the West away," says Mr Chen. "There are musicians out there like The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band which draws inspiration from Molam music - the kind of music tuk-tuk drivers listen to. We've got our own local music that the older folks listen to, and we should be exploring the possibilities there."
The carnival is a first step to fostering more mainstream interest in Singapore's music history so Mr Chen intends to add authentic '60s elements to the programme, though the details are not confirmed. For him, Singapore's Swinging Sixties is a well of inspiration, dampened later by the government's clampdown on "Western" cultural influences which intensified in the '70s with Operation Snip Snip.
"As a kid, I always looked to the West; now, I dig into Singapore's own music history. I've started speaking to our local musicians like Joseph Clement Pereira and Ronnie See (of Ronnie & The Burns)," says Mr Chen. "What they were doing was pretty underground and close to the heart. Discovering more of our own local scene is not so different from when I went digging for garage rock records."
The hope is that some of these musicians will be able to perform, but things remain hazy. "Some of them can't be found, some turned us down for health reasons, others have passed on," says Mr Chen. "It just goes to show that we're really losing these important pieces of Singapore history, and not enough are paying attention to these pioneers."
Keong Saik Carnival is on May 28 at Keong Saik Street from 12 noon to 10.30pm; entry is free
Still flourishing and evolving
THERE are many dying arts in Singapore but getai is doing just fine, says Alan Puah. The getai manager with 30 years' experience now sees his talents being booked for events throughout the year, on top of the frantic rush during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Recently, he's also been asked to advise for Ge Tai - The Musical, the first Chinese-language production (with English surtitles) by Resorts World Sentosa. Starring artistes like Hao Hao, Desmond Ng and the Bao Bei Sisters, the show also features guest performances by international stars such as Zhang Di and Qing Shan.
Audiences can look forward to getai's campy comedy and glamour while taking a trip down memory lane; the show will tell the story of local getai culture from the 1980s until now while promising a behind-the-scenes look at the industry's high drama and its close-knit community.
"Getai continues to flourish because innovation is in its culture," says veteran director Jalyn Han, noting that this musical adaptation of the genre is yet another example of its evolution. "We're exposing even more people to this local art form."
Mr Puah agrees, noting that in recent years, tourists have been turning up more frequently at getai shows.
Interest from even the younger crowd has grown; they sometimes make up a quarter of the spectators. It seems leading man Desmond Ng draws hordes of teenage girls who follow him around in a van, K-pop groupie- style.
That's perhaps no surprise, especially given the media attention on getai culture in recent years. Meanwhile, Royston Tan's films such as 881 (2007) and 3688 (2015) introduced evergreen classics to a new generation, while Channel 8's inaugural televised singing competition GeTai Challenge was held last year, of which Ng happens to be the winner.
Younger getai artistes are also introducing Top 40s hits into their repertoire, although they've been careful to balance that with the classics.
Moving getai into a theatre, as with this musical, opens up possibilities, says Ms Han - for instance, flying- wires, rotating stages, elaborate set-pieces and sophisticated lighting can now be employed.
But in the midst of its evolution, certain aspects are steadily being phased out. More traditional acts such as Chinese opera or even face- changing performances are less common, with skits, comedic acts, music and dance dominating the stage.
That's not to forget the multi-sensory nature of getai, which can include banquets, auctions, funfair booths and religious rituals - an all-round spectacle which is lost in translation in film or on stage.
That's why Ms Han has woven some of these elements into the musical. In one scene, an opera singer performs alone. "It's my own sentimental take on these dwindling aspects of our culture," Ms Han explains.
Also, getai should retain its intimate connection to Chinese dialects. "In adaptations of getai, we must return to its core of evergreen songs, sung in dialect. Dialect is the vehicle of our traditions and culture, and we're fast losing that."
Ge Tai - The Musical is on until May 29 at Resorts World Theatre on Fridays (8pm) and weekends (3pm and 8pm). Tickets from S$38 to S$98, available from Sistic.
[Amendment note]: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that music producer Fauxe is a rapper and that musician Joseph Clement Pereira belonged to The Silver Strings. The article above has been revised to reflect this.