Discovering and Developing a Hybrid Musical Culture in Singapore
Hybridity theory has its origins in biology, and has developed significantly in the fields of culture studies and post-colonialism. In music, Weiss (2008) describes it as ‘cultural fusion in performance’. My research seeks to identify and analyse existing practices of musical hybridity in Singapore and to promote its further development.
My fascination in musical hybridity stems from being born and raised in Singapore, surrounded by people of various ethnicities living and working together. As a musician, I find myself intrigued by the myriad of different performances taking place on this tiny island, both interacting with one another and thriving on their own. Through my research, I hope to deepen my understanding of cross-cultural musical interaction and to share that knowledge with others similarly interested.
Singapore was unexpectedly thrown into independence in 1965, following a reluctant separation from Malaysia just two years after merger with the federation. The incompatibility of Singapore as a state of the larger Federation of Malaysia lay in ideological differences regarding race, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore advocated for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ while the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) stood firmly on their vision of a ‘Malayan Malaysia’. While the latter gave preferential status to the Malay population as 'Bumiputra' or 'Children of the soil', the former supported a stance of equal treatment for all races. The tension arising from the difference in ideologies culminated in severe racial riots in Singapore which left the response of separation as the lesser of two evils.
Following independence, the government strove to build a national identity founded on the ideologies of equal opportunity and meritocracy for all. This commitment can be seen in Singapore national pledge below.
We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
At the official opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 19 May 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:
‘We are also a multiracial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society. This diversity is a fundamental aspect of our respective identities...’. ‘So over time, each race has retained and evolved its own culture and heritage; but each has also allowed itself to be influenced by the customs and traditions of other races. The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct individual identities and ethnic cultures.’
PM Lee also mentioned that Singaporeans need the arts and culture to ‘nourish our souls’ (Lee, 2017). He speaks of a unified people across all cultural backgrounds, while at the same time recognising the importance of preserving and evolving each individual culture that makes up the whole.
However, has such cultural appreciation and interaction really taken place in Singapore? In its relatively short history (53 years as of 2018), Singaporeans have been inculcated a strong sense of pride in their country’s multiculturalism and multiracial harmony, deeply entrenched in the nation’s struggle during its formative years. This determination and vision to unite its people across all cultural backgrounds has gradually permeated the lifestyle of Singaporeans in numerous ways. We have already seen the blending of cultures take place in food such as the local favourite ‘chilli crab’, a blend of Malay and Chinese cuisine, and the colloquial language of Singlish, a mixture of over seven languages and dialects spoken in Singapore. In the realm of music, cross-cultural interactions are indeed taking place in many forms throughout the island. However, such hybridised music has yet to be forged as a manifestation accepted and known to the majority of the population as distinctly ‘Singaporean’.
My research aims to discover and document hybrid music in Singapore, furthering this phenomenon through the development of a method to actively blend musical cultures. It is my hope that Singapore can find a distinct musical characteristic, founded on the principles of multiculturalism and hybridity.
Music in Singapore
Living in Singapore, I have found Japanese flamenco dancers accompanied by the Chinese guzheng and dizi, jazz and Carnatic musicians demonstrating their ongoing collaborations at the Western classical-centered Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and on local television network Channel News Asia, a programme documents a performance of traditional Nanyin music with Malay kompang and Hindustani sitar and tabla, described as having a ‘local’ flavour. As an ethnic Chinese musician living in Singapore, I find myself learning Carnatic music on the mridangam from my South Indian guru instructed in English, Andalusian flamenco vocal technique from a Taiwanese singer instructed in Mandarin, South African mbira from my American world-music professor, jazz guitar from a Malay teacher from neighbouring Malaysia, and Andean panflute from a Chilean musician based in Paris. These experiences illustrate some of the many cross-cultural musical interactions taking place in Singapore.
Singapore is not unique in having such musical collaborations; they are undeniably happening all over the world today. However, my frequent encounters suggest that Singaporean culture, shaped by a mixture of government policy, history, and the diversity of the population, has already permeated the musical activity on the island. Many local musicians have already begun blending cultures to intentionally invoke a Singaporean identity.
Research Aim 1
Discovering Hybrid Music: Surveying Singapore
This research will provide an in-depth documentation of the blending of musical cultures taking place in Singapore. This will take place in the form of field recording, followed by musical analysis and notation if possible. Musicians will also be interviewed to understand the creative process and the intentions and inspirations behind the blending of cultures. This documentation will be essential for archival purposes, enabling a larger audience to access such material. Comparative analysis between these different practices will also help us understand the factors that led to such hybridisation processes.
Taking my research one step further, I intend to participate as a practitioner as much as possible. My goal is not to master these musics, but to experience first-hand the mental processes behind the performance. Practise, performance, interaction with musicians, notation, and field recording will enable me to understand the intricacies of each genre to a considerable extent, sufficient to conduct an effective comparative analysis between them. This knowledge will allow me to achieve the second aim of my research.
Research Aim 2
Developing a Method: Creating Hybrid Music
In order to develop this method, it is first critical for me to identify in concrete terms the extent to which musical hybridisation takes place. Two factors can be considered to evaluate the degree of blending, that of quantity and quality. While the former simply refers to the frequency of such interactions taking place, the latter refers to how in-depth each party in an interaction goes to understand and apply the technical and theoretical intricacies of all the musical cultures involved. In his book Facing the Music: Shaping Musical Education from a Global Perspective, Huib Schippers (2010) identifies four terms used in a spectrum to define various approaches to cultural diversity in musical education. These include, from lowest to highest degrees of blending, monocultural, multicultural, intercultural, and transcultural. I want to focus on the last two categories, defining and distinguishing these terms in a more concrete manner.
Intercultural music, as defined by Schippers, ‘represents loose contacts and exchange between cultures and includes simple forms of fusion’ while transcultural music ‘refers to an in-depth exchange of approaches and ideas… featured on an equal footing…’. I want to find out where this distinction lies when practically applied to music performance, looking at specific musical content and technique when blending of cultures takes place. For example, playing the South Indian mridangam along to a twelve-beat flamenco rhythmic cycle would lean more towards intercultural music. On the other hand, understanding the fundamental qualities of the Carnatic tala and flamenco compás cycles, acknowledging their differences and capitalising on their similarities, contextualising each elements’ cultural and philosophical significance, and then performing a meaningful blend of the two concepts would lean towards transcultural music. Through my survey of hybrid music in Singapore, I hope to identify various parameters and metrics to which such blending can be set against. This way, the various degrees of cross-cultural musical interaction can more easily find their place within the spectrum that Schippers has described. If possible, I also hope to find more precise terms to denote these degrees of musical hybridity.
With the parameters of each degree of musical hybridity more clearly defined, I will be able to structure my method toward creating transcultural music, the highest level of musical blending. It is important to identify universals in music and the commonalities between each musical culture. Elements such as tuning systems, melodic and rhythmic structure, instrumental and vocal timbre, and the use of harmony will be explored. Alongside these technical elements, there must also be an anthropological understanding of the context of each musical system, such that they can be employed sensitively and appropriately in the new hybridised style. It is my hope that this method will allow a more seamless process in the blending of musical cultures in Singapore and if possible, anywhere else that prolonged cultural interaction has taken place.
Breaking out of the Cycle
Brian Stross (1999) examines the process of what he calls a hybridity cycle, where an entity (cultural or biological) shifts in form from “hybrid” to “pure” and then to “hybrid” again. Stross uses the example of jazz, which many used to consider a hybrid form created from European and African musical traditions through their close proximity interaction in the United States. Today, jazz is considered a “pure” form, and has itself begun creating new hybrid forms through crossing with other styles. A blend of jazz and Western classical music has created a hybrid form known as “third-stream” music, and similarly jazz crossed with rhythm and blues has created “fusion” music. In order for an entity to shift from “hybrid” form to “pure” form, Stross describes three stages which he calls “birth of the hybrid”, “naming of the hybrid” and “refinement of hybrid”. When a hybrid is first created, it progressively becomes more homogeneous through processes such as adapting to environmental conditions, formulation of rules, and creating traditions. Ascribing a name to the hybrid is also a critical step in its journey towards “purity”, as it allows it to be defined as an entity in itself rather than through a description. For example, naming it “jazz” as opposed to “a blend of European and African music” (Stross 1999:265).
In creating a Singaporean musical identity, one that is distinctly hybrid in nature, we intentionally choose to break out of this cycle. An assumption that Stross makes in his description of hybridity cycles is that new cultural hybrids are striving toward the goal of being recognised as “pure”, through going through the three stages identified. However, in light of Singapore’s nature and pride as a multicultural nation, the very identity we are striving to achieve should be hybrid in nature and not aspiring towards a “pure” form. Singapore’s music, again reiterating Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s point, should have “…distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share…” (Lee 2017). That is to say, after naming the hybrid “Singaporean”, we refine it by simultaneously embracing the clear distinction between Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultures and the ongoing growth and development through each cultures’ interactions with each other. A “pure” Singaporean culture is in itself “hybrid”, and we have broken out of the cycle and set on a new trajectory of “refining the hybrid identity”.
By Neil Chan
Lee, Hsien Loong. Prime Minister’s Office. Accessed 7 July 2017 <>.
Schippers, Huib. Facing the Music: Shaping Musical Education from a Global Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Stross, Brian. ‘The Hybrid Metaphor: From Biology to Culture.’ The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 112, No. 445, Theorizing the Hybrid (Summer, 1999), pp 254-267.
Weiss, Sarah. ‘Permeable Boundaries: Hybridity, Music, and the Reception of Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo.’ Ethnomusicology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring/Summer, 2008), pp 203-238. Accessed 11 September 2012.