“The Islander Surge”: Exploring Cultural Uniqueness in Music

By Pan Yi Chieh

April 2024 FOR ART'S SAKE
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Dabangni Band performing at COEX @Kilang Besi during their sharing session.

Photos by UAH Music Culture

AN ISLAND'S cultural traditions and social contexts often render “islanders” with unique yet versatile identities. Hence, they are sometimes described as having an “island mentality”. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In all events, it is a good starting point.

One balmy Saturday afternoon in late December 2023, music lovers gathered at Hin Bus Depot for UAH Music Festival’s “The Islander Surge”. Reclined on the grass and deckchairs, they had the chance to witness a coming-together of islanders from Penang, Borneo and Taiwan. The festival featured five bands and musicians: Culture Shot and Buddha Beat from Penang, Anak Borneo & Alu8 from East Malaysia, and Dabangni Band and Shu-Chan Chiu from Taiwan. 

If music creation is an exploration and a positioning of oneself in society, Malaysian musicians tend to be versatile, using diverse instruments associated with various traditions found within a multicultural society. 

Culture Shot performing during the festival, using traditional instruments such as a moon guitar.

Music and Cultural Roots

Yew Kok Cheong, from the indie band Buddha Beat, is a very experimental musician who loves to combine different music styles, including rock, flutes and electronica. For years, Yew has been integrating his ruminations over the workings of a multicultural society into his music. The result is reflected in the tone of the music he makes—strong, explosive and experimental, yet sometimes sombre.

Anak Borneo (婆罗洲之子) & Alu8 (阿陆八), in turn, are independent songwriters and music producers from East Malaysia. Much of their inspiration comes from their interaction with beautiful landscapes and aboriginal Borneo culture. The use of traditional instruments like the sape (an Orang Ulu stringed instrument) emanates a sense of vastness, expressing their love and affection for their local culture. 

Anak Borneo & Alu8 performing using traditional instruments during the festival.

The music styles of Dabangni Band and of Shu-Chan Chiu—both from Taiwan—are a reflection of their journey of reconnecting with their mother tongue—the Hakka dialect, and the culture associated with it. Their experiences showcase Taiwan’s younger and middle-aged generation of singers, encouraged and supported by the cultural policy started in the 1990s to use their mother tongue when making music. Such music had once been suppressed and overshadowed by mainstream Mandopop. It also included other dialects, such as Taiwanese Hokkien and other aboriginal languages. The importance of this is reflected in the fact that many Taiwanese had left their hometowns to work in the cities, and were gradually disconnected from the social lives supported by their mother tongues and traditions.

In 2011, Dabangni Band (打帮你乐团)[1] was formed, originating from lead singer Jung-Chang Liu’s journey to reconnect with his Hakka roots. Two decades after leaving his hometown, a small Hakka village where his grandparents lived, he decided one day to move back and use Hakka as the primary language to create his music. This process, at first, was pretty challenging; his vocabulary was limited. He described it as “a journey to discover memories learned by my tongue before I was three years old”. Dabangni is a five-person band comprising musicians adept at using a mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments, including the erhusuona, Chinese flute and jazz drums. They experimented by blending traditional Hakka folk songs and music styles with new forms to promote Hakka music's beauty. They perform live regularly at venues such as temples, schools, festivals and even funerals.

Shu-Chan Chiu’s (邱淑蝉) music connects audiences with the emotions she feels for the Hakka language and culture. Clean and gentle, her songs are life snippets of her family and other memories. Chiu has won several awards since her entrance into the music scene four years ago, including “The Best Folk Song” in the 2023 Golden Indie Music Awards.

The “Islander Surge” marked Chiu’s first overseas performance. In fact, this exchange is planned to ignite more of these connections between islands. 

Shuchan Chiu performing during the festival.

Besides music performances, two dialogues were also held at COEX@KilangBesi, where musicians shared stories about their music creation and how it reflects daily life experiences, cultural traditions and identity. These testified to how festivals are crucial platforms for communities to understand and cherish each other’s culture.

Local partner for this festival and UAH Music Culture founder, Ang Eng Bok, has observed how Penang has had many talented and passionate indie musicians: “However, it is hard to accumulate our knowledge and music traditions for younger generations due to its fragmented system”. Feeling the urgency for mutual support and synergy among musicians, he established UAH Music Culture in 2007, which now functions as a platform for local indie musicians and brands. It holds various high-quality performances and festivals, which are especially needed for young singers to access the audience and market.

Sharing on the use of photography in reviving Semai culture.


[1] In traditional Hakka, “Dabangni” means “grateful for having you”, which expresses Liu’s appreciation for the people who have helped and supported him and the band throughout their journey. 

Pan Yi Chieh

is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.