Imitation, mutual influence, and new connections in the Communal Space of Inter-Asia


Imitation, mutual influence, and new connections
in the Communal Space of Inter-Asia
[Trends] Asian Music


To close out Festival Bo:M this past April 19, the Asian Music Party (organized by Park Daham) lit up the streets of Itaewon and showcased the two DJs known as Soi48. I guess you could say something of an "incident" occurred. I certainly think it qualifies as an incident, regardless of how many people were present. This is because a complicated translation mechanism went into effect during the event.

First off, the two DJs came from Japan. Obviously, that means they’re Japanese. The music they played, however, was largely Thai. If you’re unfamiliar with the genres of Luk Thung and Mor Lam, then I’ll vaguely describe them as the origins of Thai funk, for now. Now we can get onto the meaning of "Soi." Even if you’ve never been to Thailand, you may have heard the word if you know a good Thai restaurant. It means "avenue" or "street."

When I met with the two DJs after the festivities, I greeted them in my clumsy Japanese, "Great show, Soi48!" They seemed pleased to hear their name in their native language. We then discussed so-called "mainstream music" in Asian countries, including our own Korea and Japan, as well as Thailand, India, and Turkey, using a combination of broken English and an acquaintance who acted as our Japanese interpreter.

Some readers will think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Whether they do or not, I stand by my claim: It would be difficult for Asian nations to communicate, share, and exchange with one another without the type of cultural and linguistic translation just described. This isbecause I believe the domination of a single culture or language to be wrong, and that the chances of such hegemony developing into a medium of genuine communication are low. While the dominanceof American-British culture and the English language have planted them as the "global culture," the so-called "regional cultures" of Asian nations are decentralized and scattered—in other words, chaotic. Could this be viewed as an advantage, as opposed to a fault?

Imagine another example. The music documentary Bising was screened at another event in Festival Bo:M. What young director Aditya Utama examines in this film is Indonesian noise music. Those who wondered, "Thailand has funk music?" earlier will probably now think, "Indonesia has noise music?" However, if Korea can harbor a reggae scene, then there is no reason why Thailand can’t have funk, or why Indonesia can’t have a noise genre. There is no need to cover the entire documentary here. What I found most interesting was that the film chose to focus on the influence of Japanese artists Merzbow and Masonna, or “Japanoise,” on young Indonesian noise artists, as opposed to that of Western noise. If music doesn’t need a nationality, especially if it doesn’t have any lyrics, then this becomes all the more fascinating. Thus, if people aren’t drawn to Japanoise because of its national identity, then I can only guess that it is due to some other, unexplainable emotional factor.

The Asian Music Party  ⓒPark Swan The music documentary Bising ⓒAditya Utama


Based on experiences described above, as well as other previous experiences, I wish to raise and discuss the following issues.

First of all, there are numerous styles and genres of mainstream music throughout Asia, with more forming as we speak. Such styles or genres are no longer required to represent a single nation. If someone asked me if Korea’s music scene wasexclusively made up of K-pop idols, as a Korean, I would be very displeased. To think that a nation’s music is a single exclusive trait or unchangeable quality is to view that country and its people as simpletons.

Second, we need tostop stressing "tradition" or "roots" in mainstream Asian music. Mainstream music is a contemporary phenomenon, produced, circulated, and consumed according to the needs of people living in modern society. Some contemporary mainstream music has imitated Western—more accurately, American-British—genres (pop, for instance), while some varieties have blended unique cultural elements from other countries.

Third, there is no need to discover a universal commonalityamong all mainstream Asian music, whether it is audio or aesthetic. Two music varieties can sound similar but stand for different things, or sound completely different while representing something similar. More importantly, "different" or "similar" are usually concepts that revolveon one’s own country; people often evaluate other countries using their own as a standard making it difficultto call this a constructive demeanor.

My final point is that, when listening to any sort of mainstream music from Asia, it is necessary to question whether or not an element of cultural exchange amid Asian nations is in effect. Modern Asians have grown accustomed to the paradigm of My Country vs. The West. A closer look, however, reveals this to be a flawed construction. In Korea, for example, K-pop would have been impossible without the initial model of J-pop, and it would have been difficult for artists like Son Ji-chang and Kim Won-jun to thrive without the influence of pop stars from Hong Kong.

Further examination reveals that Asia’s mainstream music has witnessed very active currents of intercultural exchange, and continues to do so today. The Korean scene in the 1990s, for instance, took after Japan and Hong Kong, but now looks to other countries for influence. Such dynamic cultural exchange flows according to the currents of market demand. Certain policies and regulations attempt to exercise a level of control, though their influence is limited. But is that all?


In the realm of performing arts, festivals are a surefire way to facilitate exchange and communication among Asian cultures. After all, it is doubtful whether people would actually purchase Indonesian noise or Thai funk albums even if Korean record stores offered them. Record sales are already drooping for domestic artists, so it would be difficult for a foreign artist—and an obscure one from Asia, at that—to enter the current market. This becomes even more apparent when you consider that Japanese artists, who form Asia’s strongest music industry, have produced almost no major hits in Korea. Thus, we need another system that doesn’t just rely on market principles to facilitate intercultural currents.

Festivals also serve as a way to encourage intercultural exchange that doesn’t need to adhere to market principles. This is because most participants find a way in through some type of promotion or sponsorship. Such festivals allow individual nations’ mainstream cultures to blend into a shared international one. It perhaps seems reasonable, then, to devise a term that encompasses the concept of "international" while acting within the confines of Asia—something like "Asianational." If that sounds too forced, let us instead try the term "inter-Asia." As such, the sphere of Asia, or inter-Asia, is one where intercultural traffic currently flows in a space without national boundaries, which continues to grow at this very moment. This communal space is an environment where the intricate translation mechanism mentioned earlier goes into effect. In the case of artists, this is a space where they influence and imitate one another, eventually forming new connections. To be honest, the terms "mutual influence," "imitation," and "new connections"—part of this essay’s subtitle—were actually words I borrowed from a book written by an Asian scholar which was originally composed in English. In this communal international space, I believe that any artist who is creative enough can initiate unique transformations.

Such a communal space yields a cultural format that is not a direct commercial product, and continues to grow in both quality and quantity as the era progresses. After participating in a festival, the next phase is to form a sustainable network. Numerous performers may have already started to consolidate various contacts, setting new networks into operation as we speak. Within such a network, there is no need for artists and performers to represent any single nation, which is a very contemporary phenomenon. Rather, the cultural processes of contemporary exchange have shifted the focus of musical interaction from proving the superiority of one’s nation to an atmosphere of communal creation. In Asia, things always go better in harmony with something else. This isbecause there is no purely "Asian" identity; Asia is essentially "impure," so to speak, which makes it all the more dynamic.

Looking back to the Asian Music Party I described at the beginning of this article, it is worth reviewing the sentiments of Japanese guitarist and honorary Korean Yohei Hasegawa (a.k.a. Kim Yang-pyeong). One of the festival’s artists, Hasegawa described Korean rock music in the 1960s and 70s as "out of tune," an attempt to grasp the identity of Asian mainstream music. Artists back then unavoidably turned to the British-American paradigm as a reference. However, the stage has since widened to allow a more diverse artistic range, one that is now closer to home. That physical and cultural closeness is something we’ve come to know as "Asia."


                                                                                                                                                              Shin hyunjoon



Shin Hyunjoon_Sungkonghoe University
Shin Hyunjoon_Sungkonghoe University

Professor at Sungkonghoe University. After receiving a PhD in cultural industry from the Department of Economics at Seoul National University, Dr. Shinhas worked as both a researcher and critic of mainstream culture. He has shown great interest in the historical evolution of mainstream culture in Korea and Asia, as well as in the progression of cultural phenomena that transcend national boundaries, and has recently expanded his research scopeto include migrant culture and urban studies.