Introducing Culture Shot! Ethnically Diverse, Musically Intergrated

By Kelvyn Yeang

October 2021 FEATURE
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Staying together is much easier said than done. As Siva puts it, "More giving, less taking." Photo by: Yew Kok Hong

THERE IS SOMETHING inexplicable about Penang and its local communities that is conducive to the free-flow of distinctive artistic expressions. Culture Shot came onto the local music scene in 2014, grooving its way into festivals and even garnering global attention with their unique style and delivery.

Culture Shot balks at what many mainstream labels and publishing companies are seeking: trendy, marketable songs that leave little to no room for creative musical exploration. Lucrative though this may be, “I could not reconcile it with my artistic values,” says founding member Eng Bok, who after two decades in the Mandarin composition scene, grew tired of the allure and promises of commercial success.

“I always believe in being inspired by the things around me and for emotions to fundamentally move an artiste to write and create music, instead of being forced to follow a ‘required form’ that erodes artistic integrity.”

Eng Bok grew up on Lebuh Tek Soon and vividly remembers the festivities organised by the surrounding Buddhist and Taoist temples. Every time there was a festival, a koh tai1 stage would be set up mere steps away from his front door; over time, the family home would become a welcoming space for the performers and temple committee members to rest in-between performances.1

Culture Shot entertaining the crowd of foodies during the Penang International Food Festival. Photo by: Thum Chia Chieh

Eng Bok recalls how from the crowd, a random “uncle” was once invited onstage during a performance. Unfazed, he sang an improvised version of a folk song. So memorable was his rendition that it planted itself strongly onto young Eng Bok’s memory and would later inspire Song of the Streets, penned in ponderance over whether things can be done differently in a music scene so fixated on trends. Eng Bok accompanied the song with a lang ting tang, a lute instrument that came with the early Hokkien settlers.

In 2013, local choreographer and dance personality Aida Redza reached out to Eng Bok. She was scheduled to perform a dance number in the heart of old George Town. “Eng Bok’s music is an intercultural mix that evokes nostalgia, which is important for my artistry. We were attempting to trace our past, yet also sonically renewing it with a more intercultural take,” Aida explains. The performance was an emotional moment for Eng Bok; it was held in front of his childhood home, now dilapidated from long-term neglect.

Also through Aida, Eng Bok was introduced to his future band members: Siva on the gendang (a drum commonly found in Gamelan2 performances), Kasiman on the Rebana drum, Clarence Ewe on percussions, Yean Chang on the er hu, and singer Su Kheng, who is also an accordionist.

United in spirit through music. Photo by: Yew Kok Hong

The chemistry between the six was instant and electric, but even after the band’s debut at the World Music Festival, deciding on the band’s name took a little while longer. In 2014, Culture Shot @ La La Li La Tam Pong was officially formed, with “the six syllables representing us, six members,” says Eng Bok. The name is also part of a chant used by local children to determine turn-taking. “‘Culture Shot’,” adds Siva, “was more for international branding, so it stuck.”

Culture Shot’s music is as intercultural as its members; Indian street rhythms fuse with Chinese and Malaysian folk melodies performed on quasi-traditional instruments. It is sonically festive, familiar but with bold inventiveness; this appealed to international festival directors. In 2015, Culture Shot was invited to play at the acclaimed Rainforest Music Festival, which annually draws a huge turnout. “It felt like an achievement. We got our start on the streets of Penang and now, we’re playing alongside other international acts,” says Eng Bok proudly.

“It was such a great experience to play in the jungle. We even got the crowd singing along to Rasa Sayang with us, and most of them aren’t even locals!” recalls Siva.

The band recently released their debut album Ethnic Sonorities, featuring live performances of original songs and reworked traditional tunes. “Recording the album is a labour of love, fraught with plenty of trials-and-errors,” says Eng Bok. He very quickly discovered that recording ethnic instruments in a live setting requires altogether different skillsets. “Traditional instruments do not behave like electric ones; the sound frequencies produced do not sit in the range of contemporary instruments, and this makes it harder to mix. I lost count of the number of times the album had to be mixed and remixed before I was happy with the outcome. I want for people to immerse themselves, to feel the live experience when listening to our album.”

Ulek Mayang is one of the traditional songs we covered. It’s an entrancing piece that traces its origins back to Terengganu. But Song of the Streets still remains a favourite; it evokes bittersweet nostalgia, describing what Penang used to be like, and hopefully, people will be reminded of this through the song,” says Siva.

Culture Shot's performance at the Padi Music Festival in Sekinchan. Photo by: Yew Kok Hong

The band hopes to work the local festival circuit again when the pandemic’s under control, but finding time to rehearse has been difficult. “Covid-19 has prevented us from getting together to practise; but then again, logistics and recording have always been difficult for us as a six-piece band,” says Siva. Eng Bok laughs in agreement, adding, “When we go live, we cannot amplify our instruments the regular way, and this often leads to a very demanding preparation and setup.”

The band members are determined to stick by one another through the ups and downs. “Our characters are generally giving. We have been able to resolve most issues amicably and have avoided major conflicts. I think we understand our roles. It’s important to know what you don’t know, and this humility is what keeps us grounded and together. In short, more giving and less taking,” says Siva.

Though the band did not deliberately intend for it to be the case, Culture Shot is one of few independent acts today that is genuinely 1Malaysia.

Kelvyn Yeang

Proficient in multiple creative disciplines, Kelvyn Yeang is a musician by night and media content creator by day. When he is not writing, designing, or creating, Kelvyn wanders the streets of George Town in search of a good story and a cup of coffee.