Longtime collaborators The Observatory and Ujikaji Records reflect on the unique challenges of translating their otherworldly BlackKaji gigs into an immersive radio show.
Text by Leticia Sim
For a number of spirited and chaotic years, BlackKaji has walked a line between the riotous aesthetics of experimentation and the nebulous concept of accessibility. As a series of envelope-pushing live improvisational shows, the unorthodox concept never stopped evolving and responding to the world around it, a world that has only become increasingly bleak and divisive. And yet, the collaborative project devised by The Observatory, the venerable genre-bending Singaporean band, and distinguished avant-garde label Ujikaji Records, has managed to reckon with these challenges through what they know best—opening dialogues in the form of exploratory music collaborations.
So when the pandemic hit, the relentlessly shape-shifting collaborators naturally adapted to a world where social contracts have been ostensibly broken, launching BlackKaji Radio, a four-part show that serves as their response to an urgent need for sonic connection. Spanning four distinct segments, the programme features new and unreleased work both regionally and internationally, conversations with artists, and musical responses paired with interpretive readings. From the psychedelic splatterings of local electronic pioneer George Chua, to Yan Jun’s deconstructed sounds of a rolling Ikea box in Beijing, each episode offers up a varied, immersive auditory soundscape that transcends genres, continents, objects, and even species.
The act of listening is immediate and unifying, and an increasingly important part of sustaining a creative spirit is building a sense of community within the limits of our new environment. While nothing can replace the embodied experience of witnessing an electrifying live performance, BlackKaji Radio sure comes close to a sonic bridge, transporting listeners beyond our borders. Perhaps, now more than ever, BlackKaji’s cryptic tagline of “a study of the unseen, unsound, unsuspecting, unsustainable, unstable” rings particularly true.
In the wake of the radio show’s completion, B-Side speaks to the brains behind the BlackKaji Radio experience: Yuen Chee Wai, Dharma, and Cheryl Ong of The Observatory, and Mark Wong of Ujikaji Records. We discuss the process of curation, and the challenges of translating the spirit of a multisensory live gig into a concise, hour-long programme.
Each episode has such a distinct, yet diverse and sustained texture. When shaping each episode, what did you guys take into consideration when choosing and organising the different artists together?
Cheryl (C): We based our selections on what would be a good fit for each of the 4 segments, with the format of radio in mind. Another important aspect is representation from different communities. Admittedly, we are far from perfect when it comes to this, but this is something that we would like to work towards when it comes to programming. It was a long-drawn process trying to balance all these considerations and still maintain coherence and interest in each episode. Ask our managers who had to bear the brunt of us going back to the drawing board and rearranging the order time and again!
Dharma (D): What we felt about the artists, not just if we related to their works or not, but also their approach and sense of spirit in what they do was one of the main considerations. We especially wanted to support artists who were actively creating, but not necessarily having a vast output while also embodying the “never say die” attitude, constantly soldiering on.
Curating a pre-recorded radio show is so different from organising and playing a live performance (or even a live-streamed one), could you tell us more about the process of organising digitally? Any challenges in particular?
D: One of the main challenges is that improvisation doesn’t really translate well if it is not experienced live. This also holds true for most kinds of experimental music. So, we had to devise a programme that works well with just audio. Through much discussion and exchange of ideas, we arrived at these varied segments, including the interview/discourse section, which we incidentally first tried out during BlackKaji Nusasonic at The Substation in 2019.
Yuen Chee Wai (YCW): It does take a different kind of rigour putting this together. For physical shows, we had to deal with technical challenges during the day of the performance. Once that is dealt with, the show happens. For the pre-recorded show, especially with a series that involves close to 50 artists and musicians, coordination of deadlines, administration, recording the voiceovers, planning the backend, are all time consuming factors. This does, however, allow far more people to be featured, and also way more people to appreciate the music.
Mark (M): An important difference is that our audience expands—having international listeners discover the music of Singapore and the region is very gratifying.
To me, the BlackKaji shows always embody the palpable spirit of collaboration and experimentation. Without the dynamic that comes with physical presence, how was it like translating this energy into hour-long shows?
M: Yes, the energy is definitely different. There are more artists involved and so the show features a greater eclecticism in moods, styles, and approaches. As programmers, we have some latitude over ordering the work after hearing the material, and so there’s a chance to sculpt a particular kind of “soundworld” in a more deliberate way than in programming a live show.
The medium of radio is particularly interesting—compared to a live show where the audience’s collective attention is bound to the visual and sonic experience of the performances, listeners are solitary and could be attending to other activities while listening to this in the background. I’m curious to know if this has influenced any aspect in the creation of the show.
YCW: I think much of it was planned that way. We cannot control how people listen, but we can maybe guide it in some way. Traditionally, the radio serves to just exist in the background, some to alleviate loneliness, and some to inform. I once heard an anecdote from someone of an older generation saying that music “sounds better” when it is played on radio, sometimes because it is unexpected, and other times, maybe because of the static hiss of AM or FM, which I think adds a layer of sfumato to the music. Hence we were conscious about how we approached this, which is why there are some radio show techniques employed in how the show is panned out.
M: I have always been interested in radio and radio art. As a listener, a good radio show opens me up to possibilities, to discovering something new. I make space for the unexpected and allow myself to be surprised. Radio opens my ears and mind to something bigger than what I already know.
Did you play around with the arrangement of the segments a lot or did it take shape organically? I find that closing each episode with interpretive readings matched with sonic arrangement often left me with a lingering feeling; I always found myself wanting more.
D: I often get that feeling with open-ended free improvisation, which I think is a great feeling. It generally means that it was a good set. From what I recall, we always had that segment as the last, probably because it was the collaborative improvisation segment of the program which has been a very big part of our BlackKaji live series. As for the other segments yes, we did consider other orders, but this one felt best.
How did you go about pairing the texts and musicians together?
YCW: The segment “Making Audible” was an idea that came about from revisiting the old Rediffusion radio plays, Foley art, and YMO’s ×∞Multiplies. We found it interesting to involve writers and non-musicians in the act of making something for the ears, something that can retune people’s understanding of music and listening. Hence, we set out shortlisting some texts and people outside of the music circles whom we wanted to work with, and then paired them with musicians who had the vision to understand the concept we were putting forward.
C: Collaborative performances have always been an integral part of BlackKaji and since travelling is not allowed, we thought it would be interesting to have writers, actors and musicians from different parts of the world working together in this format, while keeping in mind that these are people who might not typically cross paths. This is the first time we are attempting something like this and the end result for us was indeed a breath of fresh air!
One track that especially caught my attention was that of Inaya Matahari, the adolescent daughter of artists Ila and Bani Haykal. How did her debut track find her way into the show?
D: For the “Houseworks” segment, we thought of what artists would be doing during the circuit breaker. Then we thought of Haykal and Ila, which eventually led to…why not Inaya then!
M: Some may view a track like that as a sort of novelty, but I think children’s acts of creativity should be taken much more seriously! They teach us something about emotions, intuition, creative flow and other aspects of the human condition that art by adults are not quite able to.
I also find your interview with Derek Debru of Nyege Nyege Tapes in Episode 3 particularly illuminating! He talks about the importance of presenting, rather than representing, in expanding the expressions of Non-Western music genres. Throughout all the episodes, the emphasis on showcasing local and regional artists can be felt—is this intentional?
D: Yes definitely, not just because we are part of the group of “local and regional artists” but also because we were also rather concerned about how they were going to pull through this current climate where touring and doing live gigs are not possible. Most of the artists rely on live shows to present their work. The interview with Derek was much longer and very interesting…but alas had to be edited due to time constraints.
YCW: In the larger context to this, it is also part of forming a network with other practitioners in the region. The BlackKaji Radio series was conceived to bear a stronger local emphasis and we juxtaposed it with parallel practices regionally and internationally. It was with this ethos that this format was then adapted into the larger network, with Nusasonic, which we are also a part of, working this into Nusasonic Radio. This rhizomatic effect then creates a system of radio shows that makes the music network in this region better connected and more diverse.
With live performances slowly being rolled out, and though BlackKaji radio was conceived to be only four episodes, can we expect more from this project, perhaps in different iterations?
YCW: Hopefully this can grow to be a more decentralised activity. With the Nusasonic Radio efforts, the spirit of the radio has been reignited. For BlackKaji, maybe we can also start thinking about how to effectively produce and present work that can constantly challenge the norms.
D: It has been inspiring, the reception has been pretty good. We hope to do more and there will be more later this year.
Lastly, in the spirit of the multimedia, what have you guys been listening to, reading, or consuming lately?
YCW: I am Currently reading William Gibson’s Idoru and Mark Fisher’s K-PUNK. Other recent reads have been Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, William S, Burroughs’ Queer, and Cherian George’s Air-conditioned Nation Revisited.
D: I’ve been listening to Derek Bailey and Anthony Braxton’s First Duo Concert and trying to figure out Albert Camus’s The Fall.
M: I have been listening to a ton of podcasts–60 Songs that Explain the ’90s by The Ringer, Popcast by The New York Times, Saga by AWARE, socialservice.sg by Jin Yao Kwan and many more.
C: I’m currently watching Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a 6 part docuseries. And I’m listening to the live album, Everything, Everything by Underworld, Alkisah by Senyawa and remix albums from all the different labels.