Thursday, 15 May 2014

10 Asian Artists Everyone Should Know - Part 2


My post from last August entitled "10 Asian Bands You Should Know" was one of my most popular - popular enough that I felt compelled to write a follow-up post on the same subject. For one, the research that went into writing it unearthed far more than ten candidates, requiring some culling, and since then I've stumbled over countless others, making the original ten seem like a paltry representation of the musical cream of a continent that's home to over half of humanity. So here we go with Part 2.

Notice the slight change of title. I opted to open things up to include solo artists, as the term 'band' is unnecessarily limiting. I've also done my utmost to cover countries that weren't included in last year's list. Here we go again!

1. Faiza Mujahid

Origin: Lahore, Pakistan
Style: Pop-Rock
Recommended for fans of: Karen Zoid, Lily Allen, Cyndi Lauper, Sarah McLachlan

The emergence of preteen human rights heroine Malala Yousafzai as a global household name following her near-death at the hands of local religious extremists has done much to shed light on the deplorable state of women's rights in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. While Pakistan was among the earliest countries to elect a woman leader and women have held notable positions of political power, the country ranks near the bottom of virtually every study on the global status of women. Bride murders, acid attacks, child marriage, honour killings and domestic violence remain epidemic in much of the country, but thanks in large part to Malala's remarkable activism, there appears to be slow but tangible progress in pushing back the country's barbaric Hudood Ordinances and combating misogynistic tribal notions of 'justice'.

Paralleling Malala Yousafzai's emergence as a global figure in the fight for women's rights has been the emergence of Pakistan's new leading lady of rock music, Faiza Mujahid. Born and raised in the musical hothouse of Lahore, home to icons such as the late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sufi rock legends Junoon (a band often referred to as the U2 of Pakistan), the young star has quickly become a fixture on Pakistani TV and radio thanks to her catchy pop-rock anthems and her promotion of women's rights through her music. Her latest single 'Uth Oye' ("Wake up") was accompanied by a critically acclaimed video by Pakistani filmmaker Fatima Shah, which features literacy crusader Farah Deeba, acid attack victim Sabira Sultana and the members of Pakistan's national women's field hockey team in one of the most triumphant feminist music videos in recent memory.

2. Chthonic

Origin: Taipei, Taiwan
Style: Thrash Metal
Recommended for fans of: Sepultura, Slayer, Lamb of God

The past few decades have seen the island "nation" of Taiwan emerge as arguably Asia's most vibrant and energetic civil society and liberal democracy. In spite of the country's perpetual geopolitical conundrum vis-à-vis mainland China and ugly political factionalism (or perhaps because of it), the Little Island That Could enjoys, in addition to one of the region's highest standards of living, Asia's highest press freedom rating, a thriving media culture and some of the region's most progressive social attitudes. (Taiwan is set to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.)

As I noted in my original Asian band post last summer, Taiwan's complicated and often traumatic history and its present-day crisis of identity have helped engender a diverse and vibrant modern music scene. Of the island's musical exports, none have achieved the notoriety of Taipei's premier thrash-metal hellraisers Chthonic. Founded in 1995, Chthonic combines heavy metal theatrics with lyrics in Mandarin, Japanese and a handful of Aboriginal Taiwanese languages and incendiary political messages and have courted their share of controversy over the years. (Their antics have included burning the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) flag in commemoration of the 2/28 Massacre of 1947.) Outspoken in their advocacy of Taiwanese independence from China, land rights for Taiwan's Aboriginal tribes, Tibetan and Uyghur liberation, feminism (bassist Doris Yeh is a noted women's rights activist) and animal rights, Chthonic have been banned from mainland China on multiple occasions, while their popularity - in China and elsewhere - continues to rise.

Heavy metal may not be able to bridge one of Asia's most protracted geopolitical impasses, but at least it's worth a try. And given this band's uncanny ability to broach topics that have long been taboo in the region, Chthonic might just be the ones to lead the way.

3. Miila and the Geeks

Origin: Tokyo, Japan
Style: Punk, No-Wave, Riot Grrrl
Recommended for fans of: Bikini Kill, X-Ray Spex, PJ Harvey, Cibo Matto

Japan may still be very much a man's world, but when it comes to the country's indie rock scene, it's anything but. In the early nineties as the Riot Grrrl scene was flourishing in the northwestern US, a parallel female-driven rock scene was brewing in basement clubs in places like Shibuya (Tokyo) and Shinsaibashi (Osaka), from which internationally successful girl bands like Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, Shonen Knife and Red Bacteria Vacuum were born. Not that Japan's Riot Grrrl scene was born of a vacuum. Japan is home to a long and under-recognized tradition of female musical experimenters from postwar big band jazz innovator Toshiko Akiyoshi and the future Mrs. Lennon (a lynchpin of the 1960s Fluxus movement) to DNA drummer Ikue Mori and electronic music pioneer Sachiko M. Certainly a far cry from the "good wife, wise mother" stereotype.

The girl-punk scene in Tokyo and Osaka still appears to have plenty of life to it. Among its latest exponents are Shibuya kids Miila and the Geeks, who consist of vocalist-guitarist Moe Wadaka, drummer Kaoru Ajima and saxophonist Ryota Komori. Sound-wise they're an amalgam of Stooges-era garage rock, late-seventies No Wave punk in the spirit of DNA and Teenage Jesus, the Olympia, Washington scene of the early nineties that gave the world Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney and the rest and a dose of Shibuya-kei glam. Komori's sax gives the band a sound akin to vintage X-Ray Spex, while Wadaka's sexy vocals are reminiscent of a young PJ Harvey. A relatively new addition to the Tokyo music scene, Miila and the Geeks have cultivated a strong following in Japan but have yet to branch out overseas. Time will tell if they can follow in Cibo Matto's footsteps.

4. MastaMic

Origin: Hong Kong, China
Style: Hip Hop
Recommended for fans of: Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Kanye West, Eminem

In my previous post on great Asian music acts, there were two notable omissions: hip hop music and the city of Hong Kong. Both have something of a reputation problem within the context of this topic area. Hong Kong, in spite of its outsized presence in the global economy, has long been an underachiever in the arts (with the notable exception of its film industry), owing to a lack of public investment, a dearth of performance venues and, until 1997 at least, political isolation, which until made it difficult for Hong Kong artists to tour in mainland China. Likewise, hip hop music, in spite of its remarkable ubiquitousness across the globe (arguably only heavy metal can match hip hop's track record for travelling well) has long been a hard sell in Asia. While foreign rap artists have long enjoyed popularity in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere, homegrown rappers in these countries have had an uphill battle gaining respectability. And in spite of Psy's recent transpacific success, the notion of Asian rap still elicits snickers in the west.

Tong Sung-ching, aka MastaMic, is a one-man machine dedicated to raising the bar for Cantonese language hip hop and gaining respectability for the Hong Kong scene. Active since 2005, the 28-year-old MC has already been dubbed Hong Kong's "Freestyle King" and is currently the city's best known rapper. In addition to his prodigious rapping talent, MastaMic has also earned recognition for his scene-building activities, namely the establishment of the 'Justice League' - a motley assortment of musicians, break dancers and graffiti artists - and Hong Kong's first hip hop news community at While rap in Asian languages may not yet have earned respectability outside the region, Cantonese rap is certainly no longer considered a joke in Asia's World City. And much credit is due to this guy for fighting on its behalf.

5. Avial

Origin: Thiruvananthapuram, India
Style: Alt-Rock, Jam Rock
Recommended for fans of: The Police, Phish, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Asian Dub Foundation

Cosmopolitan, laid-back and socially progressive, the tiny, densely populated southwestern Indian state of Kerala has long punched above its weight in cultural and artistic terms. Thanks to a long history of cultural cross-pollination, a large diaspora population in the Middle East, East Asia and elsewhere and high levels of literacy and media penetration, Kerala has emerged as something of a powerhouse in literature, film and music, combining a rich tradition of Malayalam-language poetry and Carnatic music with modern influences from around the globe. Kerala's best-known musical export is legendary classical-pop crossover singer K.J. Yesudas, who has recorded over 50,000 songs in a phenomenal 17 different languages over the course of his 50-year career.

Rock music in India has long enjoyed an outsized following in the country's southern states, with prosperous southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai being home to sizeable indie rock scenes. Of Kerala's current crop of bands, the most celebrated has been the Thiruvananthapuram-based band Avial - a name taken from the state's signature spicy vegetable curry dish. Founded in 2003, the quartet of vocalist Tony John, guitarist Rex Vijayan, drummer Mithun Puthanveetil and bassist Binny Isaac stands out among south Indian rock bands for their almost exclusively Malayalam-language material and their infectious blend of traditional melodies, rich politically charged Malayali poetry and hooky jam rock. Their name perfectly captures their sound: rich, complex, sometimes fiery but always delicious.

6. Pesawat

Origin: Ampang, Malaysia
Style: Alt-Rock, Post-Punk
Recommended for fans of: We Are Scientists, The Killers, Deadmau5, Manic Street Preachers

Malaysia, like Hong Kong, is something of an underachiever on the international music scene, although for somewhat different reasons. While the country has all the ingredients for a great music scene - cultural diversity, a rich indigenous musical tradition and a growing middle class, social conservatism, authoritarian governance and creeping Islamism have long conspired to make life difficult for homegrown and visiting international artists alike. International stars ranging from Madonna to Linkin Park have felt the sting of Malaysia's censorship laws, and more recently Erykah Badu was banned from performing in Kuala Lumpur because of a tattoo featuring the word 'Allah'. While the current prime minister has called for a retrenchment of the country's censorship regime and recent concert dates by Katy Perry and Adam Lambert have gone ahead in the face of Islamist ire, Malaysians still have a long way to go before they can enjoy the sort of artistic freedom their counterparts in Taipei and Tokyo take for granted.

Censorship notwithstanding, Malaysians are still a musical bunch and there are plenty of bands around, especially in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur. Among the most celebrated bands at present is the KL quartet Pesawat ('Airplane'), whose punchy, bilingual (Malay and English) indie rock anthems have gained them a substantial following both at home and in neighbouring Indonesia, and earned them a spot at the 2010 Music Matters festival in Hong Kong alongside Jason Mraz and other international headliners. The band's love of all things aviation-related is a tad awkward in the wake of their country's worst ever air disaster, but their musical chops are undeniable. It will be interesting to see, though, if they lose the aviation fixation in light of the MH370 tragedy.

7. Sliten6ix

Origin: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Style: Hardcore Punk, Deathcore
Recommended for fans of: Slipknot, Murderdolls, Napalm Death

The demise of Phnom Penh's once vibrant rock 'n' roll scene is one of the most tragic chapters in modern Asian music history. While Cambodia under the rule of King Sihanouk in the 1960s was mostly characterized by poverty, corruption and mismanagement, the country's worldly capital city burgeoned with artistic energy, including what was once Asia's most fertile rock music scenes, a scene that persisted into the early 1970s amid military coups and carpet bombing. Then in 1975 it was completely silenced, obliterated by the Khmer Rouge forces. The vast majority of the country's musicians were physically eliminated by the new regime, either executed or worked to death in rural 're-education' camps. Some pre-revolutionary rock stars amazingly survived the Khmer Rouge nightmare, including 1960s Cambodian rock legend Touch Seang Tana, who succeeded in passing himself off as a peasant in a tale recounted in the recent documentary film Cambodia's Lost Rock 'n' Roll.

While Pol Pot has been dead for a decade and a half now and the Khmer Rouge are long gone, the colossal blow to Cambodia's cultural life that they dealt is one the country is still struggling to bounce back from. Cambodia remains an extremely poor country, and even in Phnom Penh musicians struggle to make ends meet. That said, there are signs of a musical renaissance in the country, particularly within the capital city's hardcore punk scene, with a new crop of fierce young bands like No Forever, the Anti-Fate and Sliten6ix giving voice to some of the country's pent-up anger. Of these, deathcore band Sliten6ix has garnered the most attention for their extreme sounds and confrontational lyrics. If there's any band active in Cambodia today that truly encapsulates this traumatized country's lingering pain and anguish, it's these guys.

8. Rudra

Origin: Singapore
Style: Death Metal, Black/Pagan Metal
Recommended for fans of: Children of Bodom, Burzum, Dimmu Borgir, Tengger Cavalry

The city-state of Singapore broke away from the Union of Malaysia in 1963 (actually was pushed out - it's a complicated story) but inherited much of the latter's authoritarian governing style and socially conservative temperament, giving the city the unfortunate nickname "Fine City" thanks to its penchant for issuing fines for trivial offences ranging from gum-chewing to not flushing the toilet. Fortunately, southeast Asia's Garden City has loosened up a great deal in recent years, a move that has coincided with a veritable music boom. Things started to get interesting in Singapore in the early 1990s with the birth of the Lion City Hardcore (LCHC) scene, a homegrown hardcore punk scene inspired by the New York Hardcore scene, and one that brought the likes of NOFX, Fugazi and The Oppressed to a town still struggling to overcome its 'No Fun City' reputation.

More recently, Lion City has seen the rise of a small but significant heavy metal scene, spawning a . Singapore's metal community stands out not only for its energy but also for its ethnic diversity, and appears to have an outsized following among the youth in the city's Malay and South Asian minorities. Of Singapore's recent metal exports, the two most electrifying acts are the terrifying grindcore ensemble Wormrot, who have gained substantial international exposure thanks to a recording contract with the British label Earache (of Napalm Death and Carcass fame) and the hypnotic 'Vedic Metal' group Rudra. Originally formed back in the days of LCHC in 1992, the Indo-Singaporean band is the South Asian answer to the Viking Metal of Scandinavia, combining Indian classical sounds with Sanskrit Vedic literature with brutal death metal riffs.

Singapore may be a world away from Oslo or Reykjavik, but the spirit captured by Rudra is much the same as that of their Nordic counterparts. It's as though there's a direct correlation between orderly, law-abiding societies and thriving death metal scenes.

9. Yat-Kha

Origin: Moscow, Russia
Style: Space Rock, Post-Rock
Recommended for fans of: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Magma, Mogwai

In 1922, in the wake of Russia's post revolutionary civil war, the People's Republic of Tannu Tuva broke away from Russia to form an independent socialist republic in central Siberia that was recognized by nobody except for the USSR and Mongolia. The country was a total disaster, ruled by a mentally unstable Kremlin stooge named Salchak Toka - a man primarily concerned with suppressing nomadic cattle husbandry and Buddhism (Tuvan society's two most defining pillars), and in 1944 the country was reabsorbed by the Soviet Union. But the Tuvan region's fierce sense of national autonomy never wavered, and in the post-Soviet era this remote corner of the Siberian steppes with longstanding cultural ties to Mongolia and Tibet has experienced a cultural renaissance, all the while avoiding the sort of separatist strife that has plagued Chechnya and other wayward backwaters of the Russian Empire.

In the early 1990s the Tuvan Republic's iconic kargyraa throat singing enjoyed a period of world music cachet thanks to albums by Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet and others. In the meantime, exiled Tuvan folk rocker Albert Kuvezin joined forced with renowned Russian electronic composer Ivan Sokolovsky to form the band Yat-Kha (named after a distinctive Tuvan-style zither), a unit that remains one of the Russian Federation's most innovative rock bands. Combining throat singing with synth and guitar-driven space rock reminiscent of vintage Hawkwind, Yat-Kha has over the past few decades featured a rotating cast of premier musicians from the Tuvan region and elsewhere and earned plaudits from the likes of Brian Eno and Russian music journalist Artemy Troitsky, who famously lauded Kuvezin as one of "two unique voices on earth" together with Luciano Pavarotti.

Unlike Pavarotti, Kuvezin is still around, as is Yat-Kha - still channelling Tuva's ancient traditions into the 21st century.

10. Side Effect

Origin: Yangon, Myanmar
Style: Alt-Rock, Pop Punk
Recommended for fans of: Green Day, Blink 182, Foo hell, anyone likes to see rock 'n' roll triumph over totalitarianism!

Myanmar? Burma? I don't really know which name to use. Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi says 'Burma' but atlases say 'Myanmar'. Regardless which name you go with, until very recently this country was about the last place you'd expect to find a thriving rock scene, being home to the most despotic regime in Asia not named North Korea. Yet even through the darkest years of repressive military rule, music had a way of squeezing through the cracks. A curious industry emerged in the Burmese capital during during the junta years known as "copy tracks" wherein 'professional plagiarists' would deliver bang-on renditions of everyone from Metallica to Lady Gaga to cheering throngs. Illegal? Definitely. Necessary for a beleaguered nation's sanity? Almost certainly. And so far Lars Ulrich hasn't kicked up a fuss.

It may well be that a decade of Metallica, Motley Crue and Coldplay knock-offs have paid off in grand style in Myanmar, as the country has seen a veritable explosion of homegrown rock music since its military rulers began loosening their grip in 2012. Myanmar's long deeply underground punk scene is now so prominent that a German film crew recently shot a documentary about the scene, entitled Yangon Calling. Of this new generation of angry young Burmese bands, the one that's garnered the most international attention thus far has been Side Effect, a Yangon-based pop-punk unit who have successfully crowdfunded their way to the 2014 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas - a triumphant first for a Burmese band. Based on their sound, one can only imagine they've paid their dues in Yangon bars doing Blink 182 and Green Day covers, but their exuberance is that of a country taking its first tentative steps into democracy. Chee kyu ba de, boys - you've made it!

Happy listening!

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