Baybeats festival 2021 review: Singapore’s music scene, silenced by the pandemic, begins to bounce back

Even under COVID-19 constraints, the music festival made its 20th anniversary a weekend to remember

Is live music back in Singapore? It’s a question that the city-state’s music industry has hardly dared to ask since the Delta variant thwarted a tentative comeback last December and sent the country back into various states of lockdown for most of 2021. But after Baybeats, the annual music festival organised by arts venue the Esplanade from 4-7 November, the answer feels like a hopeful yes.

This year’s Baybeats marked a return to lively in-person performances at various spaces around the Esplanade following a muted, mostly virtual 2020 festival (small groups paying to watch performances be recorded for streaming, hearing the music through headphones, was the extent of the IRL participation last year). This year’s event – running over four days instead of the usual three – also marked the festival’s 20th anniversary, though that didn’t seem to be on most artists’ minds. Instead, they were flush with excitement at ending 20 months of pandemic-induced silence and inactivity with loudly amplified performances to actual audiences.

Singapore music festival Baybeats 2021 review
Caracal at Baybeats 2021. Credit: AlvieAlive/Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

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Artists, delighted to be back onstage, channelled their enthusiasm into upping the quality of their performances – and it showed. Soloists, like the R&B newcomer KEYANA and costumed rapper BGourd, fleshed out their songs with the help of impressive backing bands, while Caracal invited the horn trio Jabacats to the plush Esplanade Theatre to add dimension to their thunderous post-hardcore.

During the throes of the pandemic, homebound musicians around the world tried to fight creative isolation by embracing remote collaborations with bandmates or other artists. Some Baybeats acts revelled in transporting these tie-ups from the digital sphere into real life: Akeem Jahat made a cameo during singer-songwriter Marian Carmel’s set, while BGourd earnestly platformed rappers Mary Sue and Danikiddo, his fellows in Singapore’s underground hip-hop scene. But none embraced this feel-good community spirit like Kribo Brothers, the seven-piece surf/funk/soul band who brought out at least one guest for every song, the most notable being ‘Kalah’ rapper Fariz Jabba.

Singapore music festival Baybeats 2021 review
Kribo Brothers at Baybeats 2021. Credit: AlvieAlive/Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

As part of an official government pilot on live performances, Baybeats was still subject to pandemic constraints. All attendees had to be fully vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Sets were ticketed, with limited audience capacities, while attendees were told to stay seated and to keep their volume down – the latter a particularly difficult rule to follow, especially during Sobs’ performance of perfect indie pop song ‘Telltale Signs’ or when Tiramisu vocalist Rizman Putra dominated the stage while flaunting a Midsommar-esque floral getup.

But audiences also had many opportunities to sit back and drink in new, unreleased material. Veteran rockers Electrico ended an eight-year absence from Baybeats with a set mixing old hits and new songs, while Amateur Takes Control notably played four unreleased tracks in a row, even leaving fan favourite ‘Communication Downbreak’ off their setlist.

Singapore music festival Baybeats 2021 review
Cosmic Child at Baybeats 2021. Credit: AlvieAlive/Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

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Cosmic Child delivered a set that was unexpectedly triumphant for being composed almost entirely of unfamiliar material. The shoegazers’ name on the line-up came as a surprise (as there’d been murmurs that they’d broken up) and at the Esplanade’s Annexe Studio they conjured revelatory walls of sound that would have made Kevin Shields proud.

Over the years, Baybeats has strived to reflect the diversity of the country’s music scene and tastes, booking more rappers as hip-hop surged in popularity while maintaining ska and post-rock presences at the festival. This year was no different: you could hear emotive alternative rock (Cadence, per[sona), pop-punk revival (RENE), Oi! (Generation 69) and bubblegum hyperpop (Cayenne).

Singapore music festival Baybeats 2021 review
deførmed at Baybeats 2021. Credit: Lee Jia Wen/Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Two experimental acts in particular that stood out were Sl_owtalk, the improvisational drums ’n’ dissonance duo, and deførmed, the project of Abdul Hakiim, the chaotic electronic musician who started his set with a song defined by the chant “Piss pee pee poo poo”.

All of this, of course, was available for widespread viewing via the festival’s excellent YouTube livestream, which also hosted remotely recorded performances by regional and international bands. Those sets, by the likes of Indonesian metal trio Voice Of Baceprot and Thai indie pop outfit Gym and Swim, were a little overshadowed by the performances on the ground at the Esplanade, but they can still be appreciated until November 30, when the streams come down.

In spite of the bumps in the road (untimely set cancellations for two bands, one of them because of a positive COVID-19 test) and mandatory social distancing that resulted in a more controlled and restrained festival, Baybeats 2021 was ultimately a strong, uplifting return for an event that has become an institution of Singapore’s music scene. Here’s to another 20 years.

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