Singapore

It’s always fun to imagine a place you’ve never been, and then go there and see how the two experiences mesh. You read, look at pictures, talk to people. But all of that it someone else’s mind, someone else’s experience.

My prior image of Singapore was that it’s structured, clean, orderly, paranoid, anal, diverse, expensive, and has a lot of great food. It was all of that but not in the way I imagined. And it was definitely not, as I’ve read on more than one occasion, boring. At least my experience wasn’t. But it probably had a lot to do with who I was with. Traveling’s different when you’ve got a native who meets you at your destination. We weren’t so much traveling through as we were being there, and being there in style.

Still, setting aside the knightly treatment, I loved the place. Maybe it’s that I’m older, or maybe it’s that Busan, aside from the well-known touristy areas, lacks a certain aesthetic sensibility. First of all, Singapore is an extremely “green” city. There are signs everywhere almost bragging about its environmental awareness. As busy as it is, the place has done an outstanding job preserving its natural base and making it work with the highly urban superstructure that keeps the whole thing clicking.

It’s a very multicultural place. Coming from Busan, it was wild to see so many sizes, shapes, colors, ethnicities, fashions, and attitudes walking around. The neighborhoods and nightlife are diverse and interesting. One day we did a forest walk along an elevated platform and wound up at a hawker stand, where people sold Indian, Malay, Chinese, Thai, and a bunch of other kinds of food. It was cheap and delicious. Little India was another great place with kickass food, and interesting shops. Then there was the riverside area, where you can walk along the river at night and go past bars and restaurants that open wide to the passing pedestrian traffic. Finally, there was the shopping. I generally hate shopping, especially in Busan where the fashions are either hipster youth or staid golf-playing father of two. But Singapore had so many different kinds of shops, the options were endless.

The best moments are always the unexpected ones, and for me and my troupe, the peak of our Singapore experience came on our final night. We were told of an open mic at the Blue Jazz club, so we made our way down in the hopes of playing. What we found was a tribute to a drummer in the scene who had died a year before on that date. The place was packed with musicians. We didn’t know what to expect, but wow, the calibur of talent was just phenomenal. Throughout the night the stage of this rather humble club cycled through exceptional musician after exceptional musician. I felt like I should have been paying $40 to watch and listen to talent like this. My head was swimming.

Now, I don’t know anything about the Singapore music scene. “Scenes” are kind of nebulous things anyway. Anyone who says the San Francisco scene is this and the Chicago scene is that is speaking from a highly subjective perspective. The value changes depending who’s talking. My scene now is the Busan music scene, which more specifically means the Busan foreigner music scene. At the risk of pissing off any of my friends, the quality of music (from my subjective perspective) is, to use a popular Korean phrase, “so-so.” It really doesn’t matter though, because no one (except one that I know) is trying to make a living out of it. The point is to drink a few beers, gather a crowd, and have a few hours of stupid fun. And in that regard it works. There’s no money involved so there’s no pressure to play particular songs or make the club happy. You can do whatever the fuck you want. I’ve managed to find people I enjoy playing with and play some pretty out-there tunes so I have a good time.

But when I experience something like I did that night at the Blue Jazz, it makes me wonder what it would be like to be a part of something like that. It wasn’t just that they were really, really good. It was that they were all so clearly, visibly enjoying themselves, and seemed to be completely respectful of one another. And there was real diversity: jazz, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, singer-songwriter. I think the diversity of the city was coming through in its musicians. And this might be the other key point. These weren’t foreigners. These were Singaporeans. It felt like the music of a place that has multiculturalism built into its soul. Unlike Busan, there was no attitude, no competitiveness. There was no need. When you’re that good you’re not so sensitive to shit like that.

We did get the chance to play and did three songs. We were the odd set of the night. No one knew us, and we felt a bit like party crashers. But we were also humbled to be a part of it and tried as best we could to live up to the spirit of what was going on that night. After our set, people came up and introduced themselves. We met some of these outstanding players and singers and had a few nice conversations. We were the outsiders and people were being gracious to us, something that I haven’t experienced in quite a while. It was such a great feeling.

Driving back to the house that night, no one said much. But I think we all had the same thought: Yeah, I could live here.

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