Not so many years ago, an Asian band typically meant one of three things: a bunch of guys playing covers in a bar, a group of anonymous session pros backing a teen idol, or an underground group toiling away in obscurity for the sheer love of it. But things are changing. Increasingly sophisticated tastes, the emergence of a pan-Asian market and the ability of the Internet to make YouTube or Myspace sensations of previously unknown performers has led to an explosion of creativity among young Asian musicians. Here are five names to listen out for in 2011.
1. The Trees and the Wild, Jakarta
With sweeping post-rock chops reminiscent of Sigur Ros, song titles like "Berlin" and "Irish Girl," and an autumnal gravitas blowing through their quieter, folkier numbers, the Trees and the Wild sound like they ought to come from a cold climate. In fact, they hail from a sweltering industrial suburb of the Indonesian capital and make a richly poignant music that vocalist Remedy Waloni calls "somber tropical."
Local indie label Lil'Fish Records discovered the Trees and the Wild on Myspace in 2008 and the band released its debut album Rasuk the following year, bagging a host of awards. Rolling Stone Indonesia called the Trees and the Wild one of the year's must-see acts, while the Jakarta Post recognized an "epic quality" to their songs.
Remedy says the band draws their lyrical inspiration from "family, Indonesian life and landscape." While their melodic influences include traditional Indonesian folk music and hymns, their cultural interests stretch beyond music. The band recently collaborated with videographer Dimas Wisnuwardono on a short documentary about a group of villagers from Tana Beru in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, struggling to preserve and restore their antique pinisi boat. Expect that empathy and love for the rhythms of Indonesian life to suffuse their sophomore recording, due later this year.
2. Noughts and Exes, Hong Kong
There's something almost too earnest about this indie folk-pop sextet from Hong Kong, but as folk music and its image enjoy a revival worldwide, it works to their advantage.
The multicultural band, whose members hail from Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and Britain, formed in stages around keyboardist Gideon So and singer-songwriter Joshua Wong. So and Wong made up Noughts and Exes' first incarnation, but relaunched as a group of six in 2010 with second album The Start of Us.
"The first album was a lot of big sound," explains Wong. "At the time I was listening to a lot of Radiohead." But with the current lineup including electric cello, melodica and glockenspiel, the music now comes in delicate tapestries rather than colossal slabs. "We wanted the instruments to dance around each other, instead of layering on top of each other," says Wong. The result is an exquisite album reminiscent of Elliott Smith and Damien Rice, with subtle shades of Arcade Fire.
Although Noughts and Exes have their sights set beyond the city, they are fiercely proud of Hong Kong's independent music scene. "It is on the cusp of something dynamic and exciting," Wong says. "We're like the ugly kid at the back of the bus who suddenly everyone thinks is popular."