It’s time to get beyond the geographic bubble – without resorting to narrow expectations of “world music” – and really appreciate the wide-open world of music making in which we now live. To take us there, CDM’s Zuzana Friday talks to Cedrik Fermont, who is evangelical when it comes to breaking apart old stereotypes and digging deep into the underground. -Ed.
I met Cedrik Fermont, alias C-drík Kirdec, for the first time about six years ago in Brno, where he performed at a local experimental night I used to work for. We, a group of crazy young creatives behind the event, decided to take the party upstairs with our usual routine of drinks and an improvised snack baked in a roasting pan. (Said roasting pan had a few events earlier served as a musical instrument — my friend played it with a hammer.) Sober Cedrik politely refused a cup of tea with honey, saying that the bees suffer when the honey is taken from them. Distracted by music, party, and friends, I couldn’t entirely process this information. But that was the first time I saw past his chosen appearance (mohawk, tattoos, piercings, and head-to-toe black), to his caring, uncompromising devotion to what’s important to him.
The next day, we took Cedrik to Zbrojovka, an old remote factory complex where guns were produced years ago and a handful of artists were at the timing living on the cheap. He made some field recordings of us, banging some metal junk on a construction of some kind, improvising musical instruments from found materials. In his next gig in Brno, he used these recordings in live set, which added a very personal character to the performance.
Since then, we met several times for interviews or on events, including a visit in a house project, where he resides when in Berlin – which seems to be about only half a year, the remainder spent touring Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Apart from defining himself as an anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-fascist straight-edge vegan, Cedrik is also an artist, show organizer, founder of the Syrphe record label, a member of approximately fifteen bands, a solo producer and field recording enthusiast, and an avid expert on independent, industrial, punk, hardcore, ambient, noise and various electronic music genres, particularly in Asia and Africa. You can explore that musical web in his compilations, in a vast database on Syrphe website, and soon in a book called Not Your World Music which Cedrik co-wrote with his colleague Dimitri della Faille. The book focuses on independent music scenes of Southeast Asia and will be published in September this year together with a CD.
At a time when the line between independent and commercial music is disappearing and the Western world is starting to turn its gaze to places it had previously neglected, Cedrik’s 20-plus years of activity seem more relevant than ever. I spoke to him about his life and work, as well as Western perception of African and Asian music, gender (in)equality in local scenes, and contemporary and historical gems from those landscapes.
Zuzana: Where does your interest in non-Western independent, electronic, punk and extreme music originate?
Cedrik: I suppose that it’s connected to where I come from and where I grew up. My family is partly from the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], where I was born (when it was still called Zaire). I only lived two years in the Congo and then grew up in Belgium. When I was a teenager, I faced the fact that I was one of the only non-white persons in my circle. That was in the 1980s. From the second half of the 80s, I started to trade electronic, industrial, and experimental music cassettes through the mail art network, started my first band Crno Klank in 1989, and then a tape label in 1991 where I published some of my projects and other international artists.
I quickly noticed that I would find a lot of music from North America and Western Europe, and a little from Eastern Europe (partly due to the fact that the world was divided between the capitalist West and the pseudo-communist East), or Australia and Japan. I was convinced that this music existed in many other places and I started to buy some fanzines, write letters to whoever could help, and step by step, I discovered electronic, noise, and experimental music artists mostly in places like Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia… I published a compilation cassette in 1996 which included several artists from South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Japan, and many others from other continents.
The difficulties I had to go through to find artists in let’s say the non-Western circuit were frustrating to me, as well as seeing a mostly white scene. I couldn’t believe that no one would do this kind of music in the non-Western world. I became totally obsessed and told myself that I would discover musicians and composers who do noise, experimental, electroacoustic, and similar genres in as many countries as possible. Many told me they didn’t believe I would find anything in Africa or Asia… But I started performing outside of the traditional circuits: in Turkey in 2003, Thailand in 2004, and a then I had a six month-long tour in far and Southeast Asia in 2005 where I was performing and collecting music and contacts in Singapore, China, South Korea, Malaysia, Laos, etc.
Now I can say that I published several compilations and albums of artists mostly coming from a lot of Asian countries, including the Middle East and to a lesser extent Africa, I wrote several essays, gave plenty of lectures and concerts in more than fifty countries, developed a database dedicated to Asia and Africa and some networks.
Zuzana: Do you think you would be interested in African and Asian music as much as you are if you hadn’t been born in the Congo and faced racism growing up in Belgium? (I remember that once when we talked, you explained that being the only mix-raced kid in the class wasn’t really a piece of cake.)
Cedrik: I cannot really say for sure, but obviously my life would have been different if I hadn’t been part of a sort of minority. But too many factors shape one’s character and paths. I’ve been rebelling all my life at some points, against my parents, schools, society… Not particularly because of my origins. So maybe I would have ended up doing more or less what I do now anyway. I’ll never be able to tell.
Belgium was full of electronic musicians and experimentalists back then. We were bathing in electronic music — whatever it was, from disco to electro-pop, electronic body music, new beat, techno or industrial. You couldn’t escape it.
I didn’t face racism daily. It was more at school with a handful of kids, nothing more, but it could be violent, and I suffered, of course. And there had been some racism inside my family too. I was indeed one of the very few non-white kids at school – something that’s almost impossible to see these days in Belgium. So I would not say that I grew up in a racist environment, but I often had to face racism and intolerance. Now, an adult, brown man wearing skirts, piercings, tattoos and a mohawk, I still am confronted to what I call racism, but not especially in Berlin. All this shaped me and I like most of what I am.
You co-wrote the book with Dimitri della Faille, a Belgian-Canadian sociologist and also musician. Where did you meet and how did he come to share your interest in Asian independent music?
Dimitri and I met when I lived in Brussels or perhaps even a few years before I moved there. He had and still has a music project called Szkieve and started a label, Hushush, where he published some of the projects I was involved in, in the early 2000s: Ambre, Moonsanto, and my first solo CD. Thanks to his work at the university, Dimitri travels quite a lot, across the Americas and also in Asia, sometimes Europe and Africa. He would now and then ask me for contacts in Asia to perform, knowing that I’m very well connected all over the continent.
We have a different approach when we travel there. As you mention it, Dimitri is a sociologist, so not only does he play, but he also analyses the scenes there from a sociological viewpoint. On my side, I above all do research and dig in the past to collect music and information about the local scenes, all of which has unfortunately not been written yet, or which hasn’t been told loudly enough. I try to understand how those scenes and artists are interconnected, how all this is developing, from where, and when.
Which topics and countries will the book cover and how is it structured?
We speak about the noise scene or scenes in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian] countries, so to speak Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. It’s divided in several chapters: history, discography, interviews of local artists or organizers, definitions (of noise music, of a genre), sociological analyses, bibliography of popular music (from traditional to pop, dangdut [Indonesian music genre], noise, metal or electronica and so on), etc.
We try to cover many aspects — also gender issues. The historical part is not only limited to noise per se, as noise music is connected to other genres like electroacoustic music, improvised music or rock, grindcore and punk and politics — we also take account of those topics. The interviewees include women, men and one transgender artists, local artists and organizers but also some who’ve lived in the region for many years.
Do you also provide historical and socio-political context of each country?
We do. The historical chapter is divided by countries and starts with a small introduction about the past and present, the censorship (or freedom) the citizens and artists had to face, some cultural connections via politics. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and somehow Myanmar by way of socialism; Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia due to the culture and languages, for example. I think it would be hard to understand why noise music exists or not somewhere without historical and socio-political and sometimes religious or philosophical context.
For how long have you been working on the book? And do you have any idea of how many hours of listening you’ve spent during your research?
It is hard for me to answer this question. Dimitri proposed that I write this book as I had been touring Southeast [Asia] and a bit the Far East in 2014 — 18 Asian countries. And I was working on a book I never finished, more global, about Asia and Africa, focusing on alternative electronic music such as electronica or breakcore and “experimental” like noise, electroacoustic, etc. But I am terribly slow because I think I never collect enough data, hence I tend to read more than I write and gather more and more information… I had plenty of documentation, some of it already written. Then Dimitri initiated the project which I’m really thankful for.
So we really started to work on that specific book in the summer 2015. As I’m writing this answer, we’re making some updates and corrections. We are reaching the end and it feels good. I don’t know how many hours I spent listening to music, not only to music but to what musicians and composers have to say — their opinions, their feelings, their knowledge. I have been to an incredible amount of concerts too when I didn’t organize them by myself. And I do radio shows… I think it would be easier to calculate how many hours I spent without listening to any music!
The book will also be accompanied by a compilation. In which format will it be and which artists will be featured on it?
There will be a CD and a digital version. The artists on the CD are: Cheryl Ong & Vivian Wang (Singapore), Menstrual Synthdrone (Indonesia), Nguyễn Hong Giang (Vietnam), Sodadosa (Indonesia), Dharma (Sigapore), Sound Awakener (Vietnam), Bergegas Mati (Indonesia), GAMNAD737 (Thailand), Goh Lee Kwang (Malaysia), Yandsen (Malaysia), Teresa Barrozo (the Philippines), Musica Htet (Myanmar).
The name of the book Not Your World Music reminds me something which you pointed out during your lecture at CTM 2016: that usually, Western people expect the music from Asia and Africa to have traditional elements, even when we’re talking about experimental music. How far are they from the truth? Is the book a way to disprove this assumption?
The book — just as my essays and talks — is partly there to disprove this myth. And the title is clear about it. Most noise artists don’t use traditional elements in their music, wherever they live on Earth, so why would Asians or Africans break the rule to fit their ex-colonizers’ expectations? Of course, some experiment with traditional elements such as Senyawa from Indonesia and many improvisers and electroacoustic composers such as Taiwanese pipa player Luo Chao Yun who collaborates with electronic musicians. It is interesting and important, but it should not be a mandatory rule or obvious expectation. We speak about noise (and experimental) music – it has to surprise us, not to fall in some kind of clichés.
Breaking another stereotype, you introduced Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh as one of the electronic music pioneers. I also have to admit that even when studying electroacoustic music history at a university, I have never heard of him. Do you also cover his work in the book, and are there other composers or collaborations between Western and Non-Western artists which happened until the 1970s?
I don’t talk about El-Dabh in this book as we focus on South East Asia only. But I speak about some ASEAN pioneers in the field of experimental, electroacoustic and tape music from the late 1950s until the 1970s, like Filipino artists David Medalla and José Maceda, Indonesian composers Slamet Abdul Sjukur, Yose Haryo Suyoto, Harry Ruesli, Otto Sidharta, Adhi Susanto and so on.
How is the situation with female and queer scene in countries of South East Asia, where does it blossom and female artist play often and where is it still male-dominated?
The scene there is mostly male-dominated and only Vietnam, for several reasons I try to explain in the book, has a scene which is not too uneven, followed by the Singaporean scene.
Nevertheless, some movements are growing and raise awareness – in Indonesia for example, some women, like noise musician Indonesian Rega Ayundya Putri (of the noise duo Mati Gabah Jasus) or Vietnamese musician Nguyễn Nhung (Sound Awakener) are well aware of it. Singapore has got some active queer or non-heteronormative artists such as X’Ho and Tara Transitory. Indonesia and Malaysia, such as Singapore have a huge punk hardcore scene, hence gender issues aren’t put aside there.
In 2014, in Yangon (Myanmar), I attended a discussion panel about women, gay and lesbian and minority rights during a biennial. We were a small group to attend the event but it’s a good step. Recently, Indonesian film maker Hera Maryani made a documentary about women in the punk hardcore scene in Java: Ini Scene Kami Juga! (roughly translated: We are part of this scene too!). It is of course not always easy for women or queer people to openly express themselves in conservative societies but the situation has improved in the past decade.
What about noise music? It’s apparently big in Indonesia, there is Psychomedusa magazine, or video by Noisey documenting it. Why would you say that noise and improvisation found their listeners and creators specifically there?
Indonesia has got the biggest noise scene of Southast Asia. It’s blooming and full of experiments. The punk, metal and grindcore scenes are enormous too, some of the biggest on Earth, I think. There are a lot of netlabels and some publish physical releases. There are many fanzines, too, and an interesting media library in Surabaya (c2o Library), where one can attend concerts, talks, buy fanzines, music, books… Mostly from local underground artists.
Some musicians in Indonesia say they reject the way a part of the punk scene which became too “mainstream”, for example, Balinese punk band Superman Is Dead (S.I.D.) signed years ago to Sony/BMG and it frustrated some. So you find a lot of artists coming from the punk, metal, grindcore scene who do noise now as they want something more radical and free. I’m not sure of the answer I can give about why it is like that, as I still try to understand it myself.
Do you see any breaking points in the evolution of experimental or electronic music of countries of South East Asia? For example the time when synthesizers became more accessible, or later computers, laptops…?
Yes, there are some important events that shaped that landscape: access to the internet, the political changes (fall or change of dictatorship) and of course economic progress, mostly for young urban people. In some countries, smartphones, internet communities and platforms such as MySpace, Soundclick, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Facebook have helped to spread this knowledge. For example, many people in Indonesia cannot afford to have a computer, but they have a cheap smartphone or go to internet cafés where they can surf the net. One can make noise or experimental music without any computer, and many artists in Indonesia build their own instruments, electronic or not.
What are the most valuable or hidden gems of these countries which you found throughout the years? Some artist, collective, cassette or a record, a concert…?
New Music China, a compilation published in 1988. It contains a bit of everything from dull pop to classical and folk but above all a piece by one of the pioneers of Chinese experimental music and musique concrete: Jing Jing Luo. I was looking for her composition Monologue Part 1 (Excerpt) for a while and finally managed to get the tape.
The collective Jogja Noise Bombing, doing harsh noise performances in public spaces, like parks, streets, restaurants. And their concept is spreading across Indonesia.
The first mini-festival for noise, improve, and experimental music in Myanmar in 2014. It was not only great to play there but also meet all the musicians, hear them and see all the people of the neighbourhood attending with their children who were dancing on noise music.
I should stop here… In the past 13 years, I’ve seen so many concerts in Asia and a bit in Africa and collected so many recordings and books, it’s hard to make a short selection.
Since you also dig the African and East-European (as far as I remember) music scene, can we look forward to more books in the future?
I guess so and I wish, but I will need to put some limits and not try to condense everything at once and I will have to face the fact that some information will always be missing, as frustrating as it is. I can’t tell exactly what a next hypothetical book will be about, but it will be connected to Asia and or Africa. There is a lot to be written about sound art, noise, and industrial music in China/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan, electroacoustic and ambient music in Iran (I will write an essay about it to be published in autumn if all goes well), improvised and experimental music in Turkey, electronic music in North Africa, electronica in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh or search deeper in the underground scenes of Indonesia… We first need to publish our book, relax a bit and see what will come next.
And last but not least, how and when will ‘Not Your World Music’ be available for purchase? How many exemplars will you have in the first edition?
We are very late and I have to apologize for that. The book will be out in September; the compilation has already been sent to the pressing plant, there will be 500 copies of the CD, but not all of them will be for sale as we offer many copies to the artists and some cultural centers. As for the book, it will not be a limited edition and for those who prefer or cannot afford it, there will be a free online version.
A version of this interview was originally published in HIS Voice in Czech. Edited for CDM.