Events & News


World, Folk or Local? Musics in Singapore & Europe

Dr Tan Shzr Ee, Lecturer, Department of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London and Assoc Prof Barnard Turner, Senior Fellow, EU Centre in Singapore / Academic Convenor, European Studies, National University of Singapore

20 Dec 2011

Open Stage, library@esplanade The Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay



EUC-NLB Series on the European Union & Singapore: Culture & Identity

TSE 2 

In this final EU Centre event for the year, the theme of cultural and identity was examined through folk, world and local music, as perceived in Europe and Singapore.

Ethnomusicologist Dr Tan Shzr Ee (Royal Holloway, University of London) revisited often-used labels in the music industry such as folk music and world music, finding that the former has its roots in the late-romantic era in Germany, while the popularised use of the latter can be traced to a precise moment in the year 1987 to a meeting of record company executives in London.  With the aid of music samples ranging from traditional Bulgarian folk music to the ‘Buddha Bar’ series of lounge music-type albums, Dr Tan questioned the usefulness of music labels like ‘world music’ or ‘local music’ where they defy geographical logic – who is defining the ‘world’, and from what perspective? How ‘local’ can music be if it is in fact a product of cultural mélange?  Singaporean audiences are probably more accustomed to Anglo-American popular music than to the traditional folk music of Southeast Asia, despite the greater geographical proximity of the latter genre.

Turning to issues of musical preferences and cultural identity, Dr Tan addressed the age-old question of what Singaporean music is. The reality is perhaps that there are Singaporean ‘musics’ corresponding to the cultural diversity to be found on the island. If one were to insist on finding an identifiably Singaporean genre of music (whether defined as folk or local), then it would have to be the National Day songs produced since the 1980s – detested by some for being kitsch, but is nonetheless music that Singaporeans can easily identify with by virtue of having ‘grown up with it’.

Continuing the probe into musical labels, Assoc Prof Barnard Turner (EU Centre; National University of Singapore) traced the evolution of ‘folk music’ to popular music in Europe. Many characteristics commonly cited of folk music (simple harmonic and melodic structures for example) can be largely applied to popular music, and they are both defined against ‘art music’, but it is the socio-cultural factors of the 20th century relating to consumerism and globalization that have shaped popular music. When thinking in terms of a continent such as Europe, the social evolution that has given rise to the popular music phenomenon has also helped to engender glocalisation with ‘unity in diversity’, to use the European Union motto.  Using the example of Jacques Brel songs which were produced in French and Dutch versions, and then exported to North America in English renditions fro wider global dissemination,  Prof Turner showed how ‘inter-EU’ and ‘extra-EU’  exports of popular music still betray signs of localism beyond mere language difference.

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