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Asia's forgotten musical gems rediscovered on vinyl

By Nyshka Chandran

image copyrightFariz RM/Hitam Manis Records
image captionFariz RM, a huge star in Indonesia in the 1980s, is enjoying an international revival thanks to vinyl reissues

As the vinyl market experiences booming demand, crate diggers are spending time and money to re-release forgotten musical gems around Asia and beyond.

Fariz Rustam Munaf, a prolific multi-instrumentalist better known as Fariz RM, was a household name in his native Indonesia during the 1980s.

Back then, both teenagers and adults grooved to his signature brand of jazz fusion, which incorporates elements of spacey disco and Brazilian samba.

Today, contemporary record labels are re-releasing his music for a new generation of listeners, with DJs routinely mixing his hit songs with electronic genres, such as Balearic house, at underground parties from Jakarta to Ibiza.

"Being reissued is a great compliment," says the 61 year-old. "It's a new period of my career. I feel like I've been reborn."

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Rescued from obscurity

Around the world, artists such as Fariz RM are enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to the boom in reissues.

Record labels and curators are increasingly devoting significant resources to re-releasing tunes from earlier decades on vinyl, CD, cassette and on digital formats, in the hope of turning them into collectors' items.

image copyrightApple Corps
image captionThe Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road topped vinyl sales last year in the US

Whilst the bulk of reissues tend to be classic albums, such as the Beatles' Abbey Road, a small but growing selection is devoted to obscure cuts of funk, psychedelia and traditional music from the developing world.

One such example is Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa - a compilation of Somali melodies from the 1970s and 1980s. The re-release, from New York-based Ostinato Records, was nominated for a Grammy in 2018.

Several imprints, such as Soundway Records, Habibi Funk, Sofrito and Strut Records, specialise in reissues of African, Caribbean, Latin, Arab and Asian rhythms from the 1950s-1980s.

Good reissues tell a story, explain Dean Chew and Munir Harry Septiandry - two DJs who are working on a compilation of 1960s-1980s jazz, boogie and soul from north and southeast Asia.

The album, called Artifacts, is expected out next year and aims to cast light on a period of immense musical creativity in Asia. But hunting down these historic gems and obtaining copyright licences has been an arduous process.

"In Indonesia, for example, many record labels that released the songs we're looking for are obsolete," explains Septiandry, who produces dance music in the city of Bandung under the moniker Midnight Runners.

image copyrightBBC/Nyshka Chandran
image captionThe forthcoming Artifacts album features Asian jazz and soul hits from 50 years ago

Septiandry recently put together a compilation of Indonesian progressive rock and city pop from 1979-1991 for US label Culture of Soul, an album that he believes will help spread global interest in Indonesia's sonic heritage.

"Poor archiving is also a big problem. Except for the major ones, most labels here don't have master tapes," he adds.

If tracks are unreleased, or the label is defunct - says Septiandry - it can take intensive investigation to locate the source material: "We start hunting down the artist, their friends and families - using contacts from the local music scene."

That was the case for Women Women Women, a moody synth masterpiece by South Korean artist Lee Dong Won, which also features on the Artifacts album.

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"It's becoming extremely tricky to license any song from that region now, so I had to really dig deep and approach producers in Seoul - who possess a deep pool of knowledge and could help me locate the copyright code," says Chew, who co-runs a record label in Singapore called Darker Than Wax.

The exhaustive search to find obscure artists has been documented in films such as Searching for Sugarman and Ata Kak: Time Bomb and requires "hours upon hours," adds Jan Hagenkoetter, of Germany's INFRACom Records.

image copyrightJan Hagenkoetter
image captionJan Hagenkoetter hopes to reintroduce Vietnamese music from the '60s to a contemporary audience

Hagenkoetter has produced two compilations of Vietnamese music from the 1954-1975 era, called Saigon Supersound. The album traces a journey across surf rock, pop ballads and Latin-tinged swing which boasts clear US influences.

Hagenkoetter hopes the project will re-acquaint Vietnamese youth with their culture.

For many young Vietnamese at home and abroad, this type of music is what their parents listened to and it isn't considered cool, says Hagenkoetter, who lived in Ho Chi Minh City for many years.

"I wanted to show that there's good music they can be proud of," he says.

Reissues aren't a new phenomenon, but there's been an undeniable increase in recent years, amid the robust demand for vinyl.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionVinyl records have become hot property among 'superfans'

Last year, for the 14th consecutive year, album sales on wax hit new highs in the US, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

It's a similar story in the UK, where vinyl LP sales have increased for 12 consecutive years, with 2019 marking the highest level of demand since the early 1990s, according to the British Phonographic Industry.

As a result, prices of limited-edition reissues have soared.

Chew describes it as a chicken-and-egg situation: "On one hand, you have dedicated labels that invest a great deal of blood, sweat and tears into reissues.

"But on the other hand, reissues have gotten so trendy that they inevitably pave the way for countless regurgitations that eventually saturate the marketplace and send prices spiking on platforms like Discogs, where records have become commodities in a stock exchange."

Whatever the market's tricky economics, its social impact on artists has been overwhelmingly positive. The chance to be reintroduced to the public in an age of technology is a game-changer, explains Fariz RM.

image copyrightFariz RM/Hitam Manis Records
image captionFariz RM's Hitz album was released in 1989, at the height of his fame

During the 1980s, the pop legend wrote several tracks in English, in the hope of reaching fans beyond Indonesia, but he never knew whether he had succeeded "because there was no social media".

"Back then, Indonesia's music industry never thought about entering international markets because they believed in the strength of local demand," says Fariz.

Now, with two reissues under his belt, Fariz is more visible than ever.

"I hear from DJs that my song Selangkah ke Seberang was popular in Ibiza; people in Peru tell me they're playing my music," he says, with a smile.

"I'm happy - but of course, I wish it happened earlier."

Related Topics

  • Indonesia
  • Vietnam
  • Asia

More on this story

  • 'Superfans' buy more than two-thirds of all vinyl