The inventory: Five songs for Singapore’s fifty years

I crammed this. I’ll admit that I crammed this. I was busy, and I didn’t have the time to do some half-arsed study of a country’s popular music scene, even if it’s Singapore’s, a country that’s both small and one that I am more familiar with than most. So I have a quarter-arsed job instead, which is a shame considering that I’ve been planning this in my head for months, and Singapore is arguably one of my favorite countries, if only because it’s just so organized and walkable. So, with help from friends, Wikipedia and stock knowledge, here are five songs that, well, might not be representative of the Lion City – but since they’re turning 50 years old on Sunday, it’s nice looking at some history. Some. [NB]


“Shigga Morning” by Shigga Shay featuring Inch Chua | What little I know about Singaporean music, I know from Lush 99.5, the indie radio station that I listen to on a semi-regular basis (and, to me, a model for a radio station waving the flag for the music scene it covers – but I digress). That’s where I first heard Shigga Shay, aka 22-year-old Pek Jin Shen. This is one of his newer singles: he’s releasing a new album on Sunday. His rapping is smooth to the point that you wouldn’t believe he’s just 22. And then there’s the chorus, courtesy of Los Angeles based Singaporean Inch Chua, which is an absolute earworm. If you see me and I suddenly sing this, blame Camille.


“Blah Blah Blues” by Charlie Lim | Camille also insisted I include Charlie Lim on this list, and while I planned to write about him some other time, well, maybe I should. “The future,” as she put it. He just released his latest EP, Time/Space, where this song is off of: it’s cute, yes, but it completely masks the astute lyrics underneath. It’s a fun thing to discover when you listen closely. “Itʼs kind of lucrative to write a love song because everybody else just canʼt get enough,” he sings. Spot on, sir.


“Hearts and Souls” by the Observatory | The Observatory is, I think, the closest Singapore has to indie legends. Decidedly experimental and never yielding – and yet, in the songs of theirs I have heard on Lush, not intimidating – the band’s lush, sprawling sounds has made them figureheads of a buzzing, burgeoning music scene. Borne from the ashes of Humpback Oak, one of Singapore’s leading bands in the 1990s, the band has released six albums that are personal, intricate and rewarding, again after multiple listens. It’s the sort of thing you only really get from people who are into it. This song, for instance, is off their debut, 2004’s Time of Rebirth, which took over two years to record. You can see why it took them a while.


“The Girl from Katong” by Serenaide | Serenaide’s another act that saw its heydey in the 2000s, although their sound is very much rooted in the decade before: jangly Britpop, janglier Scottish pop, that sort of thing. This song, arguably their most iconic, is off their 2005 debut The Other End of the Receiver. And then I can’t find much about them. I know they still perform around, but an outsider asks: what are they up to now? Because they’re the sort of band that would appeal to a particular Filipino demographic. I hope they released something else. I don’t know. I’m cramming this, I told you.


“It’s All Over” by Naomi and the Boys | And then we go back. Way back. Singapore, of course, has had popular music for a while now, inspired by the Western music scene brought over by their then British overlords, and coexisting with classical songs from the Chinese, Malays and Indians that call the island home. In the 1960s, a movement called Pop Yeh-Yeh – Malay bands doing English-style pop, often in Malay, but sometimes in English too – emerged. Leading the fore is Naomi and the Boys, led by siblings Naomi (who did the singing) and Robert (who did the writing) Suriya. (Robert, in fact, was quite a prolific songwriter during his time, writing for his band and for others as well.) This song, their first single, was released in 1965 – fifty years ago, yes – and, despite its age, quite captures what Singapore is to me now: this hodgepodge that shouldn’t work, but just does. So, with that, I’d like to greet that little island a happy birthday. I look forward to coming back.

[Many thanks to Rainy Martini for the Singlish lesson, and to Camille Castillo of Bandwagon for the tons of recommendations that I sadly had to toss because I only needed five songs.]


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