The blues: Sweet home Singapore

Synonymous with the travails of the poor, downtrodden and lonely, the music known as the blues has found a firm foothold in modern-day Singapore

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September 21, 2015
The blues: Sweet home Singapore
Rollin’: John Chee’s fingers work the fretboard. Photo: Bernado Salce

With a glass of whiskey in one hand and a fading clove cigarette in the other, Kamal Osnan sat outside the Crazy Elephant bar, relaxing after finishing a two-hour set. It was a cool Sunday night in Singapore, and he was in a genial mood, buying beer and shots for the handful of people sat at his table. When a couple of spectators came up to shake his hand and thank him for the performance, he smiled and said: “You’re welcome… come again next week… thanks for supporting the blues.”

blues, singapore
Wild thing: a mural featuring an image of Jimi Hendrix on the wall of Singapore’s Crazy Elephant bar. Photo: Bernado Salce

Now in his 60s, with thick, black curls of hair that descend down his back and a taut, grey beard, up until a few years ago Osnan worked as a lorry driver – a dead-end job he disliked – but now he is living the dream, playing bass in a band named the Blues Machine. Performing five nights a week, he gets paid SGD150 ($108) per show. “I get to play blues for a living,” he said, still somewhat amazed by his situation, still in appreciation of the man who asked him to join the band: John Chee.

Earlier that night, the Blues Machine had hauled up on stage at the two-roomed bar in the upmarket Clarke Quay area. Chee stood stage left with a black and white Stratocaster gripped in his hands. His eyes closed and his head bent towards the floor, he cut a small, hunched figure.

But something happens to 50-year-old Chee when he plays the blues. As the drummer counted the band in and Osnan carved out a ZZ Top bassline, Chee lifted his head and grinned. As the tune rocketed along, Chee launched into a biting solo. Eyes closed, head still bowed and fingers busy, he produced a sound rich with soul and energy.

A well-dressed man in the front row leaned forward on his chair, almost bent double, pounding his feet to the rhythm. He stiffened his back, slugged a shot of vodka, and then returned to his arched position, rocking his head as the band began a Stevie Ray Vaughan classic. The wail of BB King, Rory Gallagher and John Lee Hooker followed.

Ultra-modern and prosperous Singapore might seem an odd place to listen to the blues, a musical genre that originated in the deep south of the US, predominantly played by former African-American slaves, with lyrics often associated with poverty, hardship and suffering. But according to numerous aficionados, the blues thrives in the city-state.

“The blues scene is still quite small here, but we have a loyal following and it’s growing,” Chee said. “You have to have an ear for it. And you have to look for it here [in Singapore] too; bands aren’t everywhere.”

John Silva, a 60-year-old Singaporean native and drummer for the Blues Express, was there at the beginning. “I started playing the blues when I was 14, so a long time ago,” he said. “In the early 1960s, when we still had the British forces here, there were a lot of guys from the Royal Air Force who were into the blues and would play sessions and gigs.”

blues, singapore
Rollin’: John Chee’s fingers work the fretboard. Photo: Bernado Salce

It was this British influence that kickstarted the scene in Singapore, Silva explained. At the time, British music was changing and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Animals were just some of the bands that were influenced by the blues. Then there were pure blues musicians – John Mayall and Eric Clapton to name a couple – who were rising in popularity. “So the British forces brought the music with them,” said Silva, “and us local musicians got interested in the blues. We formed bands and even played at army bases.”

Raj Segar, also in his 60s, is another veteran of the scene and played in influential local bands such as the Calcutta Blues Experiment and the Bill Holmberg Chicago Blues Band. During the late 1970s, he remembers Singaporean musicians switching from playing British blues to American sub-genres. It was around that time that many British musicians left, to be replaced by American expats, many of whom had arrived to do business, and their bands.

“When I started playing the blues I played the music produced by the Alligator Records label – predominantly black musicians and Chicago-style blues,” said Segar.

Chicago is often dubbed the blues capital of the world and, around the middle of the 20th Century, the city’s musicians developed their own distinctive sound. Out went the acoustic guitar and in came the electric. The bare-boned, traditional southern sound was replaced with a more jazz-influenced, amplified and dynamic urban style. Legendary figures in the blues world, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, popularised this sub-genre.

As both Silva and Segar contend, it was the influence of expats, first British, then American, that initiated the blues music scene in Singapore. Over time, however, things changed. Today, Segar estimates that there is a 70-30 split between Singaporeans and expats in the scene. “I would say, for Singapore’s size, we now have
a large community of fans and musicians,” he said.

One of the reasons for this, he added, is the effort made to promote the genre at a grassroots level. Across Singapore, various community clubs provide spaces for budding musicians and bands to perform. This is essential, Segar notes, as the city-state is not a conducive place for musicians to practice. By and large, most of the population lives in apartments and high-rises, meaning musicians cannot practise at home.

“If you start playing, you’ll have the guy downstairs banging on the ceiling or he might call the police,” Segar says. “Drummers, especially, aren’t as well-rehearsed in Singapore as those who can practice in a garage in the US.”

One centre in particular, the Tanglin Community Club, towards the north of the city, has gone further than others in promoting the blues. Frank Wong, an influential jazz drummer who has travelled across the world with various bands, convinced the centre to set up three music studios on the premises a few years ago.

Using these studios, veterans and newcomers can practise playing blues music together every Saturday, and the Singapore Blues Club, which formed around the community centre, provides a space for like-minded people to socialise and jam.

There are also a growing number of venues in Singapore where the bands can perform. Well-known spots include the Crazy Elephant, the Prince of Wales, Barber Shop and the Blues Jazz Café. Most have a regular blues night, weekly or fortnightly, and offer jam sessions that spectators can participate in.

“It’s been great seeing more bars taking a chance on blues music. I’d say it has expanded by two or three times since five years ago,” says Danny Loong, once the bandleader and guitarist of Ublues – though now disbanded, they were the first Asian band to play the prestigious East Coast Blues & Roots Festival and the Barcelona Blues Festival. He now plays with Raw Earth.

According to Loong, the way forward for Singaporean bands is to produce their own original material, instead of just covering songs, which would give them the best chance of attracting overseas attention. “Also, more cross-cultural collaborations [in the region] where all sides help build a stable touring circuit would help tremendously.”

blues in singapore
Rockin’: the Blues Machine’s frontman lets rip during a show at the Crazy Elephant bar. Photo: Bernado Salce

For Silva, another step in the right direction would be to make sure that blues nights at bars and clubs are not “diluted” by bands playing other genres of music. His aim is to create a “full blues experience”, which he hopes to do with the new, regular blues night at the SingJazz club. “It opened last year but was strictly a jazz club – many of the top bands in the region, and the US, came to play. But the owners – two expats – wanted to start a blues night,” he said.

Silva’s band, the Blues Express, hosted the inaugural session the day before his interview with Southeast Asia Globe. “It was a very successful launch. The club is
a kind of upmarket place, and holds about 120 people – we had almost 80 people show up, which is not bad for the first time,” Silva says. “We’ll make the SingJazz club the home of Singaporean blues.”

Back outside the Crazy Elephant, as gig-goers moved out into the cool Sunday night, Chee joined Osnan for a quick beer at his table. Clinking glasses, the two old friends exchanged stories of how they came to play the blues.

“I started off playing generic music but then I learnt that nearly all modern forms of music, including rock’n’roll, comes from blues,” said Chee.

“With the blues you can improvise,” added Osnan, “you can interpret it and jam the way you want to. And maybe you can express yourself in a way you can’t in the rest of society.”

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