- Semionauts of Tradition: Music, Culture, and Identity in Contemporary Singapore by Juliette Yu-Ming Lizeray and Chee-Hoo Lum
Semionauts of Tradition: Music, Culture and Identity in Contemporary Singapore, by anthropologist Juliette Yu-Ming Lizeray and music education scholar Chee-Hoo Lum, is a timely book that provides an update on the Singaporean music scene. It contributes to "a deeper understanding of the diverse, fluid, interconnected, and constantly evolving assemblages that make up Singaporean musicians' contemporary identities and creative practice" (8). In this ethnographically rich book, the authors seek to mitigate a balance in power relations between researchers and interlocutors, and accordingly they draw heavily on the voices of their interlocutors in their discussions.
In chapter 1, Lizeray and Lum define the theoretical groundings for the book. Borrowing from Nicolas Bourriaud, an art critic and curator, they [End Page 154] interpret their case studies using the notions of semionaut and radicant. According to Lizeray and Lum, "A semionaut … is a person who navigates signs. This entails constructing pathways through a field of signs, and creating new and uncharted connections between hitherto unrelated ones. A semionaut of tradition is one that does so with traditional signs or signs relating to tropes and understandings of tradition" (2). Additionally, Lizeray and Lum use radicant to interpret their interlocutors' efforts to negotiate their musical and ethnical identity in different contexts. Radicant and semionaut act as heuristic tools that help us to interpret the constantly changing identity of a globalized, multicultural city such as Singapore (6).
In chapter 2, Lizeray examines the "Singapore sound" ideology, derived from the official racial categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others, or the CMIO model, which celebrates differences among Singaporeans. Musicians who are engaged in the "Singapore sound" ideology are given incentives and receive more performance opportunities from government agencies. Lizeray notes that most of her interlocuters disdain the Singapore sound ideology. They seek to create music that is genuinely artistic rather than music that adheres to bureaucratic ideology.
In chapter 3, Lum examines the benefits of collaborative creative processes. He notes that collaborative creative processes among musicians from different musical traditions encourage the broadening, deepening, and diversifying of their musical vocabularies. Chapter 4 features NADI Singapura, Singapore's first Malay percussion group that performs on an eclectic collection of percussion instruments from the Malay archipelago. In this chapter, Lizeray discusses how members of NADI Singapura preserve Malay traditional music while actively innovating from it. She observes that the elements that have led to their success include the notion of community as family, charismatic leadership, Malayness as a group ethos, and the ensemble's open-mindedness to innovations.
In chapter 5, Lum examines his interlocutors' perspectives on fusion. Among the perspectives, a few points emerged. First, musicians create fusion music to attract younger audiences and to change audiences' perceptions of their musical tradition. Second, through collaborations, musicians exchange musical ideas and learn new musical languages. Finally, fusion is necessary, but there must be some form of gatekeeping. This ensures that the musical tradition is still recognizable despite the integration of new musical elements.
Lizeray examines three local Chinese music ensembles in chapter 6—Nen (念), MUSA, and SA (仨)—as well as three Singaporean Chinese musicians based in New York City and Melbourne, Australia. Lizeray highlights that contemporary musicians' creative endeavors and personal affinities transcended racial boundaries and assumptions of cultural purity. Lizeray arrives [End Page 155] at her argument by comparing how Singaporean Chinese musicians based in Singapore and overseas express their Chinese identity in idiosyncratic ways through their musical works and performance practices.
In chapter 7, Lum discusses how musicians used nostalgia as "hooks" in their music and performance practices to engage Singaporean audiences. These hooks (145) include the use of familiar rhythmic patterns and folk tunes, the creation of music videos that feature Singapore's landscapes, and the participation in collaborative music projects that revitalize the...