Long Form

Modern Folk

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9th of July got people talking. Not only the literati, philosophers, newsmakers, and journalists but the common man wiling office hours away on Facebook and the everyday woman tweeting on her phone while stuck in the deadlock of a rush-hour traffic jam. We all had a say. We all took our sides. We all watched, formed thoughts and opined. And maybe for once the politically apathetic decided it was time to care.

Musically speaking, if there were a time for a folk revival, it would be now. America in the 1960’s writhed through a period of political dissent and gave birth to iconic figures like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – singer-songwriters that wore their political leanings on their sleeves with unadorned narrative songs about oppressive governments, oppressed people and oppressing social issues.

This brand of activist folk music was played at rallies, coffee houses and the college circuit. It meant something more than just entertainment to the people that listened to it. Fast forward 50 years and we are confronted with the question of whether the folk genre would be of relevance anymore today. Here. In the pulsing capital of KL where radios blast heavily synthesized pop all the way from Korea to Gagaland. Would someone armed with a guitar and harmonica with 4 chords and nasal vocals attract the youth of today?

No doubt, there are stalwarts that have been slugging it out faithfully at this particular brand of music like Azmyl Yunor. And who could forget the verbose voice of Pete Teo that burst on to the scene back in 2003? But if we were to be perfectly honest with our mile-a-minute minds, we would struggle to recount how much of our attention was really captured by these traditional type folk artists? When was the last time you attended a socially-conscious singer-songwriter gig and felt that you could make a change in some little part of your life?

So perhaps it is time for local music-lovers and makers to think of ‘folk’ music in a different manner; steering our vision away from style of delivery and towards content. Feminist intents need not spew forth exclusively from the likes of Ani DiFranco and working class heroes need not be guitar touting troubadours that sing understated melodies. Songs that aim to change or challenge the masses in current times should be able to access that mass in the first place. And the mass has no time for musings and rants that do not entertain in the first place.

I’ve stood amongst large crowds of people watching the following acts play numerous times and felt something in me stir; acknowledging the truth in their lyrics and wanting to make a personal change in that political/social/moral situation and none of them fit the Dylan mould in the slightest in terms of look or sound.

When bands like Kyoto Protocol wind tight rhythms around phrases that provocatively jab at young adults who “suckle on breast til you’re 18/ go to university and get your degree/ exit a product of the big machine”, we sit up and listen because it hits a raw nerve. When frontman Fuad Alhabshi maniacally screeches “are you this tame all the time” on the mockingly titled but incredulously catchy ode to the trappings of modernity “Pussycat”, you feel like you owe it to him to be ballsy and stop blindly following that pied piper of a leader. It grabs our attention, it holds it and it replays itself long after the ring in our ears from blasting speakers dies out.

Shinji Moriwaki aka Figure of Speech would probably never call himself a folk artist but you know that he wishes to do what American folk artists back in the 60’s desired to do and that is to stir up winds of changes amongst the youth. Taking the rhyming flow of poetry and clocking it to the strong fisted rhythms of rap, he ploughs through religion, the war on Iraq and media manipulation in a single piece lasting no longer than 2 minutes – “God as a Weapon”. Completely engaging and most importantly, packs a punch within the attention span of a post-MTV generation.

That’s the future of socially-conscious songwriting. There’s no shame in it. It’s called moving with the times; using different means to get to the same end. A tough message to swallow has to be paired with infectious hooks, rockstar provocation, precise nail-on-the-head lyrics and lots of conviction. Therein is born modern folk for modern folk.

By Adeline Chua