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Singapore’s veteran DJs reflect on a party scene in flux

These folks haven’t given up all these years. Why start now?

  • Kevin Ho
  • 9 December 2020

The stifling lull in the air remains palpable. The gears of the Singaporean party scene remain jammed in light of the pandemic, ceaselessly hitting a wall while government-imposed restrictions refuse to give way. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom, however, as communities and promoters have found ways to prevent the scene’s spirit from curdling, with a dogged streak of online activity and astute adaptation that’s supplied much-needed optimism.

Digging deeper beneath the surface, how is this new normal affecting the local scene on an individual level, particularly for artistes? While activity does swirl and simmer, there’s no denying that the primary creative outlet – and rice bowl, for some – has been compromised with live DJ performances screeching to a halt. The heartbreak is especially crushing for veteran champions of the scene, those who’ve stuck with it through thick and thin, keeping it alive with their years of experience and collective wisdom. It’s threatening times like these when the perspectives of such loyal troopers are more important than ever, carrying authoritative weight that the community continues to respect.

For over three decades, venerable selector, Brendon P, has never encountered a menace such as COVID-19. Yet, despite experiencing the lashings of the pandemic on his storied career – Brendon has been a resident DJ at institutions like Zouk (for eight years) and CÉ LA VI – he remains stoic. “Since the onset of this pandemic, I’ve always chosen to take the laidback approach,” Brendon affirms. “One of the main principles I always live by is to never fret over things that I cannot control, and focus on the ones that I can, like the few initiatives on Bandcamp, Mixcloud and other music-related initiatives that I can take on to make a little extra cash during this lull, and keep as many people positively mined through music as I can.”

Brendon further expresses his gripes regarding the closure of events when there have been other more hazardous instances in other sectors – such as COVID-19 clusters in malls and churches – that are more dire. He brings up Sunshine Nation’s Garden Beats Festival, the last major music festival in Singapore before the Circuit Breaker hit in April, as a pertinent example that produced no clusters. “Eight months later, with mask-wearing, social distancing and more safety protocols introduced, I’m still a little baffled as to how no one can come up with a working model for an outdoor event with all the necessary safety protocols in place; say a ‘NOON to MOON’ outdoor event ending at 9pm. That would be a better ‘pilot’ exercise than anything indoors as that would be heaps more risky, as science has proven over and over again,” he suggests.

“I also think the powers-that-be need to know that not all DJs play LOUD dance music. There are the ones who play a more chilled-out Balearic set at outdoor beach bars, rooftop bars and restaurants at a much lower volume, where the primary focus is not dancing and singing, but dining and chilling out. And I think they should strongly consider letting a few of these DJs go back to work,” he continues while addressing the nation’s blanket ban.

Furthermore, the staunch ambassador feels that COVID-19 has been a sobering reality check for the scene, and hopes that it can bring the scene closer together once the dust settles. “I was always a tad distressed over the years, about how our nightclub culture here had become so competitive to the point where people make anonymous calls to licensing authorities, reporting their peers for having a better club event than them. If there’s one thing I hope and pray for, post-COVID-19, is a better cohesive spirit among our local nightclub operators to help each other with solutions to this as opposed to the every man, or woman, for themselves approach.”

Other longstanding DJs have taken this monkey wrench as an opportunity to recalibrate and regain their balance. Another eclectic pioneer of the local underground scene who started spinning in the late ’90s, Jean Reiki, too, shares that her musical momentum has been affected by the pandemic. “Prior to C19, I only took on gigs and music projects that did not take a toll on my physical and mental health. When the pandemic hit, all my projects and travel plans were paused indefinitely.”

However, the selector has taken this in her stride, remaining unfazed as she takes on a wave of new projects that fulfills her passions and connects the community. “Instead of lamenting on losses, I keep up with the routine of classical yoga, meditation and preparing plant-based diets at home. Around the same time, I created a virtual space called Moon Lounge and live-streamed my DJ sets to stay in touch with friends who are experiencing a similar downturn in their lives. Now that we are in the next phase of the Circuit Breaker, I am glad that my day job is still around, and able to facilitate soundscape meditation classes fortnightly. Also, I just released an EP entitled THE KI on Bandcamp.”

“I guess as long as I live in the present moment earnestly, let go of the past and any worries about the future, the right people will come along and come together. We shall dance again!” Jean insists positively.

Sharing this optimistic outlook is Ferng, also known in the DJ circuit as Hong, who’s, likewise, enduring a heavy blow as a committed resident DJ of Zouk, an organisation he’s been a part of since 1996. Instead of being down in the dumps, he’s learnt how to pick himself up.

“Coming from one of the hardest-hit industries, I feel extremely fortunate to be making a living despite my drastically modified jobscope,” Ferng shares. “Instead of staying frustrated, I took time to reset and reflect on making the best out of this situation.”

“It's my most productive year yet, having picked up and honing new skills sets. In July, I released Dorscon Orange, a techno EP, and I’m in the works of producing another. I’ve also started creating videos of my monthly Soulfeed vinyl sets. Best of all, my health has improved,” he admits.

Ferng’s point on preserving one’s health exposes a crucial factor in this industry-wide slump. COVID-19 has torn open a gaping hole for many in nightlife, exposing vulnerabilities and fears – and that’s okay. With Ferng’s declaration, he hopes to inspire others to be more open with their emotions and take the necessary measures to recover. Even heavyweight DJs like him are learning to accept change too.

For Aresha, one of Singapore’s perennial icons in the drum 'n' bass circuit, she had to accept change when she couldn’t kick off Kings of Bass, a new brainchild of hers and collaborator, Kane MC. A jungle-favouring series that was supposed to launch earlier in March, Kings of Bass was scraped off the COVID-flattened asphalt and given new life in the digital space with the perseverance of Aresha and co.

“I was definitely gutted to postpone Kings of Bass. But when life gives you lemons, you grab the tequila and salt,” Aresha quips. “I took the lockdown as a chance to adapt to the new normal by learning how to set up and run a simple live-stream rig on Twitch, which I run Fun & Bass Fridays on.”

In addition to using this as an avenue for bettering her abilities and expressing her creativities, Aresha has also led by example by using the platform to help others who are disadvantaged, even those outside of the music industry. “We've since hosted 15-20 local DJs so far, raising more than $3,000 for charity to date which has gone to Food from the Heart and the Migrant Workers Assistance Fund.”

Lastly, just like Aresha, Aldrin is a veteran selector who’s refused to rest on his laurels as nightlife remains on rest mode. As another seasoned guardian of the scene who’s built and preserved it for over 30 years, Aldrin is immune to the adage whereby you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Not only did he utilise the newfound freedom to improve himself creatively, but he found a way to aid others and share his deep-seated know-how.

“With hardly any income apart from some music production projects and a few Zoom parties, these last nine months have been nothing short of challenging, both financially and mentally. As nightlife wasn't going to be reopened anytime soon, I decided to expand my repertoire to teaching, which thankfully, has helped pay some bills,” Aldrin explains.

The industry icon also reveals that while the physical world is experiencing a party drought, it doesn’t mean that his digging of music – a DJ’s go-to pastime – should cease. “One good thing is that pre-COVID daily routines of sifting through promos and scouring the web for future gems never changed, so I'm well up-to-date and ready to rock any party, any time! I'm hoping new music has helped others stay positive as well,” he shares. Other DJs reading this would be wise to take note.

From constructive criticism and calls to unite the scene, to the path of self-recovery and the desire to help others, these diverse perspectives merely emphasise a climate that won’t stay inert, even in the face of a pandemic. These words of wisdom represent undying ambition and dedication, that will no doubt motivate the scene and prevent its structure from collapsing like a house of cards.

These folks haven’t given up all these years. Why start now?

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