Meet the sonic experimentalists bending Asia’s folk traditions into fresh shapes

Churashima Navigator, Temple Rat and more artists tell NME how they blur the lines between past and present, analogue and digital

Just like ‘world music’, terms such as ‘East-meets-West’ and ‘Eastern fusion’ feel outdated. Whether it’s BTS topping Billboard charts or Higher Brothers selling out shows in North America, it’s clear that the East is already in the West and vice-versa.

Inspired by their heritage, electronic artists around Asia are deconstructing traditional folk music using funk, ambient and four-to-the-floor rhythms. But don’t call it fusion – these are shapeshifting sounds that blur the lines between past, present, analogue and digital.

These acts aren’t just sampling cultural material, they’re dissecting centuries-old themes and melodies through unconventional production methods and contemporary messaging. The final results are neither traditional nor futuristic. Instead, these are fluid compositions that live across multiple timelines and styles while still retaining the nuances of old and new ideas.

Folk music may date back centuries but that doesn’t mean it’s stagnant. In Okinawa, an island in southern Japan, folk has transformed over the years due to influences from the U.S. as well as neighbouring China and Southeast Asia, said Churashima Navigator, a trio that incorporates local instruments with dub.

“During the postwar era of U.S. military rule in Okinawa, traditional music was fused with blues, disco, funk, house, hip-hop, soul and psychedelic rock to form the foundation of modern Okinawan music,” explains DJ Sinkichi, who makes up the ensemble alongside DJ Nu-doh and singer/multi-instrumentalist Kanako Horiuchi.

Building on Okinawan folk’s cross-cultural roots, the band go one step further by adding a bass-driven variation of roots reggae and dancehall into the mix. They use folk instruments such as the three-stringed sanshin, the castanets-like sanba and a set of drums called shimataiko – but process them through audio effects to complement dub’s sub-bass frequencies.

“Sometimes, I input the sanshin into a modular synthesiser and the results are always chaotic,” Sinkichi tells NME. The group also incorporate field recordings of contemporary Okinawan sounds, such as fighter jets at local air bases and speeches at political rallies.

No matter how manipulated or modern the samples get or how far their melodic structure deviates from tradition, it’s important for the band to use these instruments. As Sinkichi put it, they represent “the sound of the soul to the Okinawan people”. Churashima Navigator say they’re motivated by the “agony and sadness” of Okinawan history but in reality, they give off an undeniably joyous and festive vibe that bears similarity to Thailand’s morlam music.

Chinese techno DJ/producer Temple Rat also experiments with her instrument of choice: a two-stringed fiddle known as the erhu. Growing up near Chengdu, she started playing at the age of nine even as other children embraced Western instruments such as the piano.

To many Chinese people, “the erhu is an incredibly sad instrument, not only because of its sound but also because the erhu characters in traditional folk music stories live on the streets like beggars,” she explains. Rather than emphasise the wooden instrument’s haunting tone, the Shanghai-based artist incorporates it with minimal, atmospheric techno – a winning combination that brings out the erhu’s warmth.

“I usually use the erhu to construct a scene during live performances,” she describes. “Sometimes I use it to create a natural environment; sometimes it could be a nihilistic mechanical world.”

“I like to fuse different styles and production methods, but each one is not rigid and evolves over time” – Temple Rat

Her cinematic DJ sets typically start out with the erhu and eventually morph into industrial and acid frequencies. Temple Rat, real name Mei Yuxin, plays the instrument in a mostly conventional manner, but experiments in subtle ways. “The sound in the erhu comes from the string’s vibration on a snakeskin. I like to tap the snakeskin lightly with my fingers,” she explains.

Modulating this with her Roland EH-10 device, an amplifier and effect controller specially designed for the erhu, makes this sound like human footsteps, she says. She also likes to pluck the strings with her fingers – erhu are typically played with a bow – because of the sharp attack it produces: “I can also alter the string’s noise and add distortions. When the bow is in a tight position, it can be similar to bird sounds.”

Erhu aside, Temple Rat also loves the gongs and drums from Shanxi province. “As early as the Tang Dynasty, ancient folks used such drums as a signal for dialogue,” she explains. As a DJ communicating with her audience, it’s no surprise she’s drawn to the concept – she sampled various traditional drums at the 2018 Yinyang Music Festival, which is held on the Great Wall of China.

“I like to fuse different styles and production methods, but each one is not rigid and evolves over time,” she tells NME. She’s also studying wooden flutes, whose “long and flying sound reminds me of the beautiful misty moments in bamboo-covered mountains of my home, Sichuan.” Following her debut EP under ADE China Pavilion Records in 2017, Temple Rat is slowly making her mark on Asia’s dance music community: She performed at Boiler Room Shanghai in 2019 and collaborated with Japanese producer Ryogo Yamamori for her EP ‘Spring Dawn’ that same year.

In the 1900s, naam yaam was a popular singing technique that circulated in Hong Kong’s opium dens and brothels. Fast forward to the 21st century, and you have post-punk crew N.Y.P.D. delivering a modern take on the Cantonese oral tradition against a backdrop of psychedelia and progressive rock.

Naam yaam is a version of the “Canton blues”, explain N.Y.P.D., whose initials stand for ‘Drifters of South Asia’ in Cantonese. It was sung by blind singers such as the legendary Dou Wan “as to not reveal the identity of those he and others sang to,” they add. “This is part of our Canton Kowloon roots.”

On their self-titled debut album released under Silk Road Sounds in 2019, the collective chose to channel the genre’s flavour rather than its structure. Naam yaam came from “the dark and seedy underworlds of Hong Kong, so naturally the lyrics were about sex, drugs and other debauchery,” N.Y.P.D. say. “Our lyrics are still steeped in the underworld of Canton, touching on similar topics of romance, one-night stands, drugs and other topics you might overhear at a late-night bar.”

Asia experimental music folk traditions Hong Kong band NYPD
N.Y.P.D. Credit: Arthur Bray

Bringing it all together is lead singer Lau Sze Fung, or Jon, whose conversational style is perfect for this modern version. On ‘18th Floor’, he channels neo-noir moodiness while recounting midnight suppers, and rages about anti-consumerism on the riotous ‘Mee & Gee’.

On the track ‘Indie Ching’, listeners can actually hear the great Dou Wan’s vocals. This song “has a wayward drift to it that’s vintage and reminiscent of the hey-day of Canton pop. Think Teresa Teng,” N.Y.P.D. say. “You can hear the birds chirping at the back, similar to the old people sitting in parks in Hong Kong chatting nonsense with their birds. Sometimes you might overhear them singing and it’s likely they’re singing naam yaam since they’re from that era.”

With hints of surf rock and softcore metal, N.Y.P.D. boast a diverse palette thanks to its members, who specialise in various creative fields. Bassist Chun Chau runs a Kowloon bar called Bound; drummer Leo Su is a graphic designer for streetwear labels, and also produces under the alias DJ Healthy; keyboardist/guitarist Allex Chan is a Chinese herbal doctor who makes lo-fi tunes as ROOM307; and guitarist Jack Ip is a multi-disciplinary artist.

In Mongolia, Davaajargal Tsaschikher, guitarist and vocalist of rock band Mohanik, has also pulled off a modern-day reinterpretation of centuries-old rituals. On his 2020 solo album ‘Re Exist’ via pan-Asian imprint Chinabot, Tsaschikher used an ambient soundscape to explore Mongolian belief systems.

He paired noise, sound art and drone with throat singing, a mouth harp and a bowed stringed instrument known as the horse head fiddle to create a feeling of vastness. This is central to Tengrism, a religion in Central Asia that revolves around an infinite, all-encompassing force called Tengri. “Our ancient rituals are deeply related to nomadic shamanism, Tengrism and natural spirits,” Tsaschikher explains. “Through my sound experiments, I discovered atmospheric elements from traditional nomadic sounds and modern electronic instruments.”

“I believe these sounds are an expression of spiritual inspiration. To me, these elements are more of a ritual compass than a musical instrument” –  Davaajargal Tsaschikher

Each instrument carries a specific purpose, he adds. “The mouth harp is used by shamans to summon spirits and perform rituals, while the horse fiddle is used to praise mountains and rivers and to compose epics. In this sense, I believe these sounds are an expression of spiritual inspiration. To me, these elements are more of a ritual compass than a musical instrument.”

But under Tsaschikher’s innovative eye, these features are entirely reconstructed. “It was very interesting to transform a minimal part of the traditional music or the overtone singing into a completely unimaginable sound,” he says, adding that a short recording of throat singing can mutate through looping and other effects.

Given the continent’s history, Asia’s experimental artists have no shortage of inspiration to draw from. Identifying culturally relevant samples is a treasured practice among certain listeners who consider themselves beat detectives. But determining the provenance of specific sounds could prove more difficult as more producers embrace stylistic fluidity in a bid to achieve sonic hybridity.

A hybrid is a state where cultural techniques are transformed into an entirely different form, Mark Hijleh, provost and music professor at The King’s College in New York, theorises in his 2012 book Towards A Global Music Theory. In hybrids, boundaries get so crossed that the origins of distinctive elements are lost, he says, adding that it’s at this point where “something new is created”.

Any bedroom producer can deconstruct decontextualised recordings of instruments or chants found in sample libraries but to create “something new”, an understanding of the old feels necessary – if only to avoid exoticising the source material or even causing religious offence, as the case of Berlin-based producer Dax J, who played the Muslim call to prayer during a 2017 DJ set in Tunis, shows.

If Tsaschikher, Temple Rat, Churashima Navigator and N.Y.P.D aren’t at the hybrid stage just yet, they’re well on their way. Their engagements with history and heritage mean they aren’t sampling for the sake of cultural exploration of nostalgia. The results are experiments with traditional sounds, augmented with digital technology and modern themes, that are both responsible and compelling.

Not only are their music-making processes deeply personal, they also seem impossible to replicate. Anyone can study context, but the well of knowledge gained from meaningful meditations on identity and culture adds profound meaning to compositions that simply can’t be found in research alone.