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The Kaleidoscopic Sound of Southeast Asian Psych-Funk

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Cambodia Space Project

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Southeast Asia was home to a wealth of progressive, offbeat funk that was as festive as it was meaningful. Artists like Indonesia’s The Rollies, the Philippines’ Blackbuster, Vietnamese “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Mai Le Huyen, and Thailand’s molam (country-psych) empress Chaweewan Dumnern paired psychedelia’s traditional hallmarks of surreal lyrics, modal melodies, and extended wah-wah guitar solos with groovy pop, jazz, and disco. Some were more influenced by the Santanas and Funkadelics of the Western world, while others bore the influence of the region’s folk music, such as Thailand’s luk thung, incorporating indigenous instruments native to rural heartlands into their songs.

These gems, many of which exist on comprehensive compilations like Soundway’s Sound of Siam and the Cambodian Soul Sounds series, continue to inspire a wave of contemporary musicians from around the region and beyond. “We’ve surfed an astonishing cultural revival coming out of Cambodia, particularly Cambodian Rock, a sound of King Norodom’s 1960’s Phnom Penh,” says Julien Poulson, founder and lead guitarist of The Cambodian Space Project.

The Cambodian Space Project adds a hefty dose of tropical sci-fi and shimmy-shaking to their interpretation of old Khmer pop and soul tracks, inspired by the wealth of go-go, mambo, and big-band artists that flourished before the brutal Khmer Rouge dictatorship. “Cambodia’s pre-war rock ‘n’ roll reverberates and echoes through time and space and are as cosmic as ever,” Poulson, who also plays guitar for Bokor Mountain Magic Band, says. Taking a cue from ‘60s vocalists such as Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, The Cambodian Space Project’s lead singer Kak Channthy says she likes to channel Tina Turner on stage—but wants to make the sound wholly her own.

Today’s artists are doing more than just revisiting Southeast Asia’s golden era of kaleidoscopic groove; they’re reinventing it. Midnight Runners, a Bandung-based duo that crafts head-spinning boogie sampled from ‘70s/’80s Indonesian disco, are all too aware of being categorized as revivalists. “We’re trying to re-modernize the style with today’s digital tools, which includes bass, drums, controllers, and software…That keeps the sound more or less old and modern,” explains Midnight Runners frontman Munir Harry Septiandry. “I hate to compare which is better; both will move your feet to the beat.”

Both the past and present are audible on Midnight Runners’ latest album Rare Essence, released on Spanish label Neon Finger in February, where the group merges a ‘70s library-record sound with slap bass lines and sultry synths. “Seventies and ‘80s stuff was a lot groovier, dirty, and mature… I started listening to those records as a kid, and that childhood made me funky today,” Septiandry says.

The artists listed below may span the entire funky universe, including garage, electro, and jazz, but they all head toward an unbound state in which time flows freely and the body feels light. Listen on for a multi-dimensional perspective of Southeast Asia’s deep relationship with psych-funk.

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The Ten Best House Records of 2017 So Far

Best House

Illustration by Braulio Amado.

House music in 2017 feels like it is, once again, open to all influences. It is soulful and vocal or fucked-up and dark. It’s reduced to perfectly infectious loops, or supersized to abrasive effect. Reissues and classic sounds are still as popular as ever, sure, but new music feels refreshingly free from a single overarching narrative. That’s a welcome change from recent years in which, after the rise of dubstep, new producers took that sound’s low-end heft to make bass-driven house, then garage house, then pseudo-deep house.

After that, house music crossed over into the mainstream once more, and enjoyed a period of chart success akin to the early ‘90s heyday of second-wave pioneers like Masters at Work and Armand Van Helden. Nowadays, mainstream artists like Duke Dumont, Gorgon City, and Bondax might not fit into the underground scene, but they were the big names who—for better or worse—took house out of sweaty basements and into supersize Ibiza clubs via the top of the U.K. charts.

But now, it feels like house music’s moment in the sun has passed: the big, catchy vocals, organ stabs, and polished kicks are gone, and it is back to being the soundtrack to smaller back rooms—raw, and driven by real emotion, rather than simple hooks and obvious basslines. As such, grime has seemingly taken up the mantel as the genre du jour: not only did the hashtag #grime4Corbyn get young voters involved in the 2017 U.K. election—such is the influence of the genre—but artists like Skepta and Giggs have started to make waves Stateside thanks in part to the fact that Drake invited them to collaborate on his latest album.

A look at the names on major festival lineups (from Richie Hawtin and The Belleville Three at Coachella to Seth Troxler at Glastonbury via the continued dominance of Marco Carola’s Music On party in Ibiza) confirms that big room techno, too, has become more popular than ever. Last year, in fact, it overtook tech house as the highest selling genre on Beatport. All this means that house music, if not under siege, is certainly in the back seat.

But 2017 has already served up many highlights from a wide range of producers located all over the world, from lo-fi and fuzzy to jazzed-up and deep, to majestically instrumental. Importantly, nothing really ties them together but for an impossible-to-articulate mix of soul and rhythm that always feels a bit more organic and human than the machine-made, future-facing styles of techno.

With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are the ten best house releases that made it onto Bandcamp in the first half of this year. Continue reading

Album of the Day: Bei Bei & Shawn Lee, “Year of the Funky”

Chinese-American guzheng player Bei Bei and Kansas-bred expatriate producer Shawn Lee keep their East-meets-West synergy simple yet effective on their second album together, Year of the Funky, following 2010’s Into the Wind. Lee provides a series of contrasting backgrounds for Bei Bei’s unlimited variations on the five-foot-long, twenty-one-stringed guzheng—plucking the strings with her right hand while sliding, kneading, shivering, and bending notes with her left. While Lee is a master of digital samples and beats, every note Bei Bei plays enjoys its own life and meaning.

On “Love in Hong Kong” and “Year of the Funky,” Bei Bei improvises inventively over Lee’s dance beats. Her guzheng sounds particularly rich accompanied by mallet instruments, as on “Purple River,” where she deploys tactically precise quavers over Lee’s four-on-the-floor. But her playing displays a different quality entirely on tracks like the traditional Chinese folk song “Water Lotus,” which she performs subtly behind the beat, over Lee’s liquid bass lines and hand percussion.

The duo extend their parameters on “Black Nylon,” a guzheng boogie punctuated with sharp attacks, and “Danxia Disco,” a modern take on happy hour at the Hong Kong Hilton circa 1982. The duo’s elegant minimalism comes together sublimely on closing track “For Your Smile,” in which Bei Bei duets poignantly with herself over Lee’s retro beats. And insofar as the guzheng has been around for longer than two millennia, who’s going to accuse anyone of being behind the times?

Richard Gehr

Discovering the World of Italian Psych Rock

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Italian artists have produced innumerable contributions to culture over the past few millennia—opera comes to mind, Michelangelo and da Vinci too—but the country’s vibrant psychedelic rock scene doesn’t receive quite as much appreciation. Granted, none of it quite lives up to the Sistine Chapel, but even the country’s prog bands have bubbled above the radar, largely thanks to Goblin’s synthesizer-laden horror soundtracks. But there’s just as much goodness to be found in prog’s sister genre.

Of course, Italy has a rich musical tradition that dates back centuries, providing fertile ground for inspiration. Puccini’s operas, Vivaldi’s baroque symphonies, and Verdi’s bombastic classical compositions all feed into Italian rock as much as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Nowhere is that clearer than in the bands that popped up in response to the burgeoning psych rock scene in the ‘60s and their antecedents.

As with the rest of the world, the late 1960s and ‘70s were decades of upheaval in Italy, marked by both violent battles between political extremes as well as great social progress. Art reflected that reality—just look at the nihilistic Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, or the giallos by Dario Argento and Mario Bava that made normal life seem filled with uncanny horrors—to say nothing of the brutal, amoral polizieschi crime films of Enzo G. Castellari and Ruggero Deodato. The psychedelic rock bands of the time may have fought back against the darkness with whimsy instead of cynicism, but they too were touched by the ténèbre.

That approach continues to this day. Modern Italian psych rockers pull from foreign sources like The Flaming Lips, Kyuss, and Earthless, but still remain steeped in the traditions of their home country. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the varied touchstones of the genre for you to check out, as well as a look at the wide variety of groups carrying the torch today.

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Redefining Russian Techno

Пайпер Спрэй

Пайпер Спрэй

In between the dazzle of Russia’s billionaire gangster bling and gritty street reality, in between the nation’s towering intellectual tradition and the proudly flaunted folksy clichés of babushkas and cossacks, individual Russians constantly try and carve out identities for themselves more fitting to the 21st century. For some artists, electronic music is proving to be a medium well suited to find distinctive forms of expression. Techno is now a global form, but there’s something particular about the way Russians do it—within their enclaves and micro-scenes across the 5,500 mile breadth of the nation—that make these music communities some of the most exciting in the world.

Russian techno is stylistically varied—from ultra industrial to sleazy disco, hazy cassette labels to crisp and urbane house. But often there’s a moodiness, an underlying bleakness to the sound that feels like it’s channeling a harsher Soviet past. Certainly, experimentation is rife, and “live”-ness is important—musicians performing live hardware shows seem to be every bit as important as DJs. But most important of all, there’s a freshness, a lack of cynicism, a sheer delight in crazed sounds and textures that can make even the most familiar musical tropes feel like you’re hearing them for the first time.

Like so much of Russia’s history, this music is complicated, sometimes difficult, and always seems to leave questions unanswered. But it is also responsible for some of the best and most paradoxically joyful sounds anyone is making today.

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