SOURCE X Audible Lands: Spotlight on Singapore’s migrant musicians

SOURCE X Audible Lands is a film and music programme done in collaboration by The Observatory and filmmaker Eric Lee. The name “SOURCE” comes from an existing programme organised by The Observatory.

Commissioned for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2020, the initial idea for SOURCE X Audible Lands was to present a short film documentary of migrant music groups in Singapore, accompanied by two nights of live performances, including poetry recitals by the migrant workers.

With SIFA going online due to COVID-19 restrictions, reimagined as SIFA v2.020, SOURCE x Audible Lands takes the form of five vodcasts, or video excerpts of the longer film. Four have been released so far – including the latest featuring the Thai country music of Isan Band, which was released today (6 July).

The interview below, with Dharma and Cheryl Ong from The Observatory, and Eric Lee, has been condensed and edited, and is interspersed with quotes taken from interviews that ArtsEquator conducted with some of the migrant workers featured.


ArtsEquator: How did you go about finding the groups to feature in your project?

Cheryl: Our first contact was through Yeo Siew Hua, the director of A Land Imagined (2018 film which featured Bangladeshi musician Billal Hossain and his band). We got Billal’s contact from him and then we went down to the dormitories. We also started asking other people, and we found that there are actually many communities that were practising music.

Eric: For the Myanmar group, Guitar Hobby Singapore Group, what I did was – every time you go past Peninsula Plaza, you see a huge Burmese community. And sometimes you hear them playing music. For GHSG, actually they don’t practise there, they chose an interesting space – the Civilian War Memorial in front of the Padang. So I went there and I asked if I could sit in for their session.

“Whoever wanna join, can join. Whoever wanna learn, share about guitar, share about music. Everybody is GHSG. Every religion have, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian. Whoever can join. I create just for fun. Whenever I play the guitar, I am so happy. Go away all the stress. Sometimes on my bed, I play. We are happy, somebody appreciate our group like this.”
– Than Naing, 37, founder of Guitar Hobby Singapore Group. He is originally from Paleik, Myanmar. He has been in Singapore for 9 years, and is currently working as a technician specialising in factory repair work. He has not been working for three months due to COVID-19.


Cheryl: Initially we wanted to get the dormitories involved in the project. We wanted to make sure all these workers have support from their bosses, from people who run the dormitories. The whole process was stopped short, because we were waiting for them to get back to us, and then COVID-19 happened. The only person we managed to contact was Malay Ghosh (from Bangladeshi group Probasi Sur). He was introduced to use by the Westlite dorm management – he’s won a lot of competitions and he’s known for his music.

ArtsEquator: How has this project been affected by COVID-19?

Eric: There are still some groups we haven’t interviewed, like this group of domestic workers who play the Indonesian angklung.

For the rest, I’ve been keeping in contact with them. Once every two weeks, I ask how they are. And it varies, because Sumon (from Banglar Kantha-Dibashram Cultural Group), for example, works in construction. Than Naing (from Guitar Hobby Singapore Group) works as a technician. Because you don’t want to homogenise them, like all the migrant workers do the same work, or are the same. We have to address those issues because that’s the reality of the situation. A lot of their families are worried because they hear of the high numbers, especially because the cases are mostly in the dorms, and it’s very scary.


“I am a music master. I play the violin and flute. Also the dhoul, the harmonium. We practise every Saturday… I am very poor. My family is very poor. My house also don’t have–raining time, we cannot sleep. Rain come inside… I really like music.”
– Billal Hossain, 31, originally from Kishoreganj District in Bangladesh. He works as a QC inspector in Keppel Shipyard and first came to Singapore in 2014. At the time of the interview, he was back home with his family in Bangladesh and was looking forward to returning to Singapore.


ArtsEquator: How did you ensure that there wouldn’t be any unintended side effects for them in being involved in this project?

Eric: Every time we did something, we asked if they were comfortable with it first. After we did the short clips, we sent it to them and asked them if they were ok. Just to make sure that they don’t get into trouble. We don’t want to push some agenda on them or use them as figures for some kind of cause. So that was our approach. It also focused on the music.

ArtsEquator: Can you share some of the interesting things about the music these groups played?

Eric: For the Thai Isan Band – it was a bit harder because I don’t speak Thai and most of them are more comfortable speaking in Thai – I read that a lot of the music created by this Morlam music movement talks about leaving home to find work. The lyrics are not all Thai, they’re mixed with Laotian, because it’s close to the Isan region.

Cheryl: The day that Eric filmed Banglar Kantha, that was their Mother Language Day. It’s a day where they fought for the independence of the Bangla language. So the songs they were singing were about that.

Eric: One of the songs they sang (“Teer Hara Ei Dheuer Shagor”) was actually composed by one of the musicians from the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, a free radio broadcast service that had a role in Bangladesh’s battle against Pakistan for liberation. A lot of the songs played were to uplift the spirits (of the freedom fighters).


“We are living here without our family, so sometime we are feeling depression. I mean we sometime feel bored. So we need to do some entertainment event here. If Singaporean people support us, if they encourage us migrant workers, we can make more entertainment and we can share with Singaporean people about our culture.”
– Sumon Mobarak, 30, is from Comilla, Bangladesh. He plays the bamboo flute and keyboard. Banglar Kantha is a Bengali newspaper for the community, started by AKM Mohsin. Dibashram is a space for migrant workers to gather, within the premises of the Banglar Kantha office. They also do other activities such as play football and write poetry.


Eric: For Malay, he has been asked by the local Bangladeshi community to teach their children music. So he’s helping to create cultural awareness – he is passing on his cultural knowledge to the local community. We thought that was quite nice.

ArtsEquator: How has the significance of the project been informed by what’s happening to the migrant workers now?

Dharma: It definitely has influenced our thoughts on it. It has influenced what we can do right now. Eric has plans to do more footage – the documentary is incomplete now.

Eric: It’s reinforced a lot of the ideas have been talking about, like what Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HealthServe have been saying all along. It helps provide us the context, so we are not so ignorant about it. When we talk about the music, we have to also look at what’s happening in the background as well. 


Probasi Sur


“I play all types of instruments. Keyboard, tabla, digital drum. When I was 5 years old, my father buy for me harmonium… I do music from my heart. I like music. I sing sometimes alone. Without music, I cannot.”
– Malay Ghosh, 48, originally from NRI in South Bangladesh. He works as an audio visual technician at the MND building. He has been working in Singapore since 1999. At the time of the interview, he was under quarantine for 21 days. “Probasi Sur” means “Migrants’ Tune” in Bengali. The episode featuring Probasi Sur will be released later in July.


ArtsEquator: What were your fears, and hopes, going into this project?

Eric: The idea of representation for me – another Chinese male making a film about migrant workers – seems quite problematic already. But I just went in trying to see how I can help. The other fear is misrepresenting them. Or not going in-depth enough, just presenting the brighter side without examining the problems or the context, that most of them are exploited, basically. We want to humanise them.

Dharma: At the same time, we don’t see ourselves as being able to emancipate them, or save them. But we want people to reflect upon ourselves, and see them as how they are. They are talented people, they are hardworking people. A lot of them have degrees. They come from difficult situations back home. We thought, in a way, this can show a different side of these workers.

Cheryl: Even after all this, they still want to play music. They still create. They write poetry. They write stories.

Dharma: That energy is very admirable to us. That’s the power of creating music, and of art in general.

Four of the five vodcasts for SOURCE X Audible Lands can be found on SIFA’s YouTube page. For more info on SIFA v2.020, please click here.

This article is sponsored by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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