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Home Grooves is a journey through the lived histories of Singapore's live music venues from the 1960s to present day. Held at the Esplanade Concourse, the exhibition took approximately a year to research and curate. It opened in August 2022 and will run for a year. We spent many hours on interviews with musicians and venue managers (four of these interview transcripts can be downloaded below), on fact-checking and corroboration, and on poring over newspaper articles and photographic archives across decades to piece together stories and ensure accuracy. Home Grooves opened at a time when live performance venues were gradually reopening after a tumultuous pandemic period. Alongside other recent retrospectives on Singapore’s creative past, such as the documentaries Scene Unseen and Class Acts, Home Grooves aims to recollect memories of live music spaces: their creation, their evolution and their endurance.
The exhibition title was conceived to reflect two significant aspects of the history of live music venues. “Home” is more than just an indicator of the local context; it is also intended to position the evolution of music venues in parallel with the story of a nation finding its place in the world, and of its artists and cultural entrepreneurs seeking spaces of belonging, identity and self-expression in a fast-growing young country. Many of the early live music venues from the ’60s and ’70s were offshoots of, or modelled after colonial clubs and salons, and so the journey also involved navigating the cultural “hangover” to venture towards what a local live music venue could be.
The interview with musician Lawrence Lee of the Checkmates illuminates the era when many of the Singaporean bands of the ’60s would play at hotel bars to crowds of international guests, mostly British and American soldiers, and occasionally at the Singapore Badminton Hall to Singaporean audiences. Wary of Western cultural influence on a newly independent Asian city-state, local authorities clamped down on live music concerts and pop music in general in the late ’60s. The early ’70s saw several live music venues shut down and those that survived had to abide by strict conditions of operation. A handful of restaurant theatres, such as Tropicana and Neptune Theatre, continued to entertain travellers and wealthy, international audiences. However, it wasn’t until 1981 when cultural entrepreneur and live music venue pioneer Dennis Foo successfully established a local live-music-and-dining concept for Singaporeans, with the Europa chain of restaurant lounges as well as the shorter-lived Atlantis and Peppermint Park. In his interviews with us, Dennis shared extensively about the teething troubles of starting a live music business with little precedence, from the constant struggle to secure licences, to making special arrangements just to put on a memorable show (he worked with a friend to hand-make a special cordless microphone, which didn’t exist then, for Anita Sarawak to move amongst diners while singing).
Indeed, musicians active from the ’70s to the early 2000s credit Dennis for giving them a space to make their mark on the local live music scene. One of them was Abdul Talib of the band Tania, which would go on to start the lounge known as Anywhere. In 1988, Anywhere hosted No Surrender, a concert of alternative music organised by the indie music magazine BigO, which would be a precursor to the kind of concerts that would take place in the following years at The Substation. The story of live music venues is woven with these threads that connect the generations, slowly fashioning a tapestry of local spaces for local voices to assert themselves.
A subtle pun on the musical term, “grooves” in the exhibition title also refers to a space that is carved out, such as the small ones carved into a vinyl record. Cultural workers and arts practitioners have worked relentlessly over decades to chisel out grooves for soul, for the unregimented human spirit. In many cases, they didn’t start out with lofty ambitions, nor with the idea of longevity or legacy in mind. Many spaces such as poet and physician Dr Goh Poh Seng’s Rainbow lounge barely survived a few years, and were bedevilled with financial struggles, censorship and proscription. Some of today’s music venues contend with similar struggles, amid rising rental costs and the threat of entertainment licences being revoked. Across the decades, all these home grooves are small, intimate, ephemeral and are often forced to make way for the demands of economic progress and profit.
The transience of spaces, especially of non-commercial cultural and community spaces, is one of the realities that come with living in Singapore, making it challenging to find comprehensive information and physical material to faithfully document the stories of certain iconic venues, especially indie ones. We’re grateful for the generosity of the many musicians, archivists, venue managers, and music lovers that we met along this process, many of whom lived through Singapore's growing years, when times were especially harsh on dreamers. The instruments, costumes, vinyls, cassettes, flyers and posters featured in the exhibition are the remaining items that continue to bear their stories, music, lyrics, dreams. May this be a reminder to treasure the spaces we make for the freedom to dream, as tiny and temporary as they are.
Home Grooves is an exhibition at the Esplanade Concourse. It is free of charge and runs until 18 August 2023.
Akanksha Raja is the co-curator of the Home Grooves exhibition and writer of the exhibition's text. She is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.