That the global live music industry has roared back to life after suffering a complete shutdown during the Covid‐19 pandemic comes as no surprise. Taylor Swift, for one, is poised to make more than US$1 billion (that’s about S$1.36 billion) from her record‐breaking The Eras Tour, while here in Singapore, concerts big and small are selling out despite performers adding extra shows (yes, including Tay Tay) and a general 10 per cent increase in ticket prices, according to a report in The Business Times this May.
“After the pandemic, I was half expecting there to be some sort of loss of momentum, but our parties were immediately more well received than they had ever been before. There’s just so much appetite for people to go out now and experience music in person again – a crazy amount of pent‐up demand,” says Daniel O’Connor, the co‐founder of Ice Cream Sundays (ICS), the seven‐year‐old Singapore collective beloved for its day‐to‐night pop‐up parties. “That fervour is further reflected in the number of new promoters that have been popping up in recent months. Prior to the pandemic, you would see the same sort of parties and promoters, but now, I feel that whenever I refresh my Instagram feed, there’s a new party that I’ve never heard of and it’s usually sold out by then.”
Come month’s end, O’Connor – along with the rest of the ICS crew, comprising music director Nick Bong, digital and experience lead Meltem Acik, marketing and communications officer Jake Camacho, and creative director‐slash‐video artist Clare Chong – aims to hold exactly that. With Florian Melinette – the Hong Kong‐based tastemaker behind DJ‐booking agency FuFu Creative and the co‐founder of the city’s hip alternative dance music festival Shi Fu Miz – as a key collaborator, the collective has masterminded what it has christened the Sunda Festival, a first‐of‐its‐kind affair meant to deliver a live music experience like no other here in Singapore.
Meet the brains behind the Sunda Festival. Singapore music collective Ice Cream Sundays (ICS) – known for its feel-good, day-to-night pop-up parties – and the Hong Kong-based Florian Melinette, who’s behind the Chinese city’s hip alternative dance music festival Shi Fu Miz, all pictured on the opposite page in ICS’s studio. In charge of Sunda’s operations and partnerships is ICS’s Daniel O’Connor (far left), while Melinette (second from far left) acts as management lead, and ICS’s Nick Bong (second from far right), Meltem Acik (far right) and Jake Camacho (seated) handle the music programming, digital content and experiential planning, and marketing and communications for Sunda respectively.
On the line‐up are more than 30 of the region’s most exciting DJs and live acts – Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan and Australia are all represented. Flying the Singapore flag are the psychedelic band Mantravine, ambient composer and artist Kin Leonn, and some of the nation’s finest selectors, including Dean Chew and Kaye of the acclaimed electronic label Darker Than Wax.
Sunda, however, is more than just about the music. Singapore has, of course, hosted other large‐scale outdoor music festivals, but the focus in those instances had always been on live pop and rock bands (who else misses the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival?) over dance and alternative electronic acts. Throw in the novelty of being able to camp on site overnight in the nostalgic if secluded location of Sarimbun Scout Camp (the nearest bus stop is 1.3km away) and Sunda is guaranteed to be the stuff that festival goers reminisce about for years to come – assuming this ambitious endeavour takes off.
Ahead of its dates – Sept 30 to Oct 1 – we visited its core team at the ICS studio in Pearl’s Hill Terrace to find out its thought process and how it intends to pull off this cultural feat.
HI, EVERYONE! FIRST UP, HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE SUNDA FESTIVAL COME ABOUT?
Daniel O’Connor (DOC): “We got to know Florian at Wonderfruit (the free‐spirited arts and music outdoor festival staged annually in thefields of Pattaya, Thailand) in 2017. Things happened and we eventually collaborated with the Shi Fu Miz team on a joint party back in 2019 and it went really well. There was a great synergy between the two collectives and the day after, we started thinking about what we could do together in the longer term … We were supposed to launch the original iteration of Sunda in 2020, but obviously, Covid put a halt to that. Once everything reopened though, we picked up the conversation again … Florian zoomed in on the outskirts of Singapore on Google Maps and found Sarimbun Scout Camp, and that was a light‐bulb moment. We liked the idea of having a clear distinction between Sunda and Ice Cream Sundays, which have usually been held in an urban setting.”
From Sept 30 to Oct 1, Sarimbun Scout Camp in Lim Chu Kang will be transformed into the site of Singapore’s first camping-meets-music shindig, the Sunda Festival.
SO YOU’RE SAYING SUNDA WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO BE STAGED AT A LESS‐SECLUDED VENUE?
DOC: “Yeah. We were originally looking at doing it at Haw Par Villa and a couple of other venues, but it felt a little bit too close to what we were already doing with ICS. In Singapore, many of the bigger festivals tend to be staged in the same few venues and they’ve always been urban in nature … This also means that they don’t quite have the same feeling of escapism as with other regional festivals such as Wonderfruit.”
Florian Melinette (FM): “I run an outdoor festival in Hong Kong, so I suggested this camping option for Singapore because it’s a pretty unique format – something new for audiences here that would probably take a bit more time for people in general to understand or feel attracted to. We eventually found this Sarimbun site, which I understand many locals have visited during their childhood, making it nostalgic. Now when people go back for Sunda, it would also be like going to camp, except with friends whose company you enjoy. And hopefully, Sunda can be not a one‐off, but a recurring event. Many music festivals in Europe have a camping site and in Asia, there are players such as Rainbow Disco Club in Japan and Wonderfruit in Thailand. Why not here?”
WITH THIS CONCEPT, HOW BIG A CROWD ARE YOU EXPECTING TO ACCOMMODATE OVERNIGHT AND HOW DO YOU INTEND TO KEEP THE AUDIENCE ENTERTAINED FOR TWO DAYS?
DOC: “We’re looking at over 200 people staying on site. It’s an additional option that we’re giving people: to come for the day or stay overnight. We have various accommodation options: air‐conditioned huts, and huts and tents with fans … The programme has been designed to be robust and go beyond music, so that there’s always an activity for every demographic. One of our collaborators (and ICS collective member), for example, is filmmaker Clare Chong, who also runs a creative company called Play!. For Sunda, she has created a scavenger hunt in which kids can participate, for instance.”
FM: “We plan to have ambient or jazz music earlier in the day before slowly moving into something more groovy – think funk house sounds in the afternoon. As the day progresses, the sounds will get deeper, with electronic, acid and techno acts.”
Nick Bong (NB): “I think this will really cement the unique experience that only Sunda can offer here: of being able to wake up and chill to ambient music that’s playing at 10am to get one into the mood; have your coffee and do some yoga … We’ve even got the psychedelic Singapore band Mantravine, for instance, to lead a soul expression exercise.”
DID YOU INCORPORATE SUCH A STRONG LIFESTYLE COMPONENT INTO SUNDA TO MAINLY DIFFERENTIATE YOURSELF FROM OTHER FESTIVALS HERE?
DOC: “People expect to come for more than just the music at modern boutique festivals these days. More and more, this is something that promoters have to think about. If we were just running a club night, then it really would be just about the music. For a festival though, people now expect to have much more to do than go to a stage and dance to music. Being able to offer that is how one can reach a wider audience. At the same time, we don’t want it to be just about the music. Even with Ice Cream Sundays, we’ve become much more interested in how to design and build our events from scratch so that we can also appeal to the 50 per cent of people who come more for the atmosphere and experience than the music.”
Jake Camacho (JC): “I think there just hasn’t been a festival in Singapore that’s dedicated to alternative dance music. We’ve had lots of band festivals: your Laneways, Neon Lights and all that. There are also commercially driven dance music festivals such as ZoukOut. More recently, there have been more pop‐up raves where techno dominates, but these are not on the same scale as a festival.”
The distinctive A-shaped huts (along with pre-pitched tents) will provide the accommodation for Sunda Festival-goers who opt to stay overnight.
WHY DO YOU THINK SINGAPORE HAS NEVER HAD A FESTIVAL LIKE SUNDA?
Meltem Acik (MA): “For one, the hot weather is an obvious deterrence and now that we’re in the depths of organising Sunda, I can understand why others have not tried to do something like this. We’re fighting against the relentless pursuit of air conditioning in Singapore – that’s quite a tall order.”
NB: “To add on, other than at specific places like East Coast Park, we don’t really have that much of a camping culture here as compared to, say, Japan, where there’s quite an avid following for such experiences.”
JC: “You can say we have a uniquely Singaporean challenge: convincing people that they should make the drive to what’s often considered a far‐out location here. Overseas, many wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a 30‐minute car ride to get to a festival. In fact, a lot of the attendees make the effort to fly to the host city in the first place. But here, we have a small island where people are used to the convenience of, say, going to the CBD, listening to some nice music, then calling a car home at the end of the night. I hope Sunda can play a part in changing people’s mindsets.”
WHAT OTHER CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING IN ORGANISING SOMETHING LIKE SUNDA?
DOC: “The number of moving parts is just so much more (compared to that of a regular ICS event). ICS parties are typically held in one contained space where one can see everything that’s happening, for example. For Sunda, there are different zones and you don’t have full visibility of everything at one time – this alone makes organising it a much more challenging job … We’re going to have people sleeping and staying on site for 24 hours, and this means that matters concerning security, safety and insurance are more complex. We’re lucky that the Sarimbun site already has showering and toilet facilities, which saves us a lot of money as well as the logistics of hiring enough portable toilets. Our ICS parties usually feature one international guest DJ flying down, but now, there are more than 20 bands and DJs – all of whom have different instruments and requirements. It has been a big learning curve and a whole new world that we’re trying rapidly to learn about.”
SO IS THE SUNDA FESTIVAL MEANT TO BE SINGAPORE’S ANSWER TO WONDERFRUIT OR FUJI ROCK, WHICH IS WHAT MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING ON THE GROUND?
MA: “It’s extremely flattering that people are even comparing us to those big names, but the truth is we’re far from reaching their level in terms of scale and programming. And within the confines of the space that we’re operating in, I’m not sure if it would even be possible to replicate the success that those two festivals enjoy.”
JC: “What we’re focusing on is making our line‐up as representative of the region as possible – that’s a key highlight this year and likely will be for future editions as well.”
DOC: “Even the name of the festival itself was inspired by the Sunda plate, which is the tectonic plate on which most of Southeast Asia sits. We have this great music scene here with all these cool collectives and a lot of our neighbouring cities also have flourishing scenes of their own. We want our festival to be a place where all of these different scenes can hang out and talk to one another. Try to disconnect your expectations of Sunda from what you know of these other more established festivals, I would say. Even within Asia, every festival is going to be different. What we’re trying to build is something that feels unique to Singapore and the conditions that we’re working under.
FM: “This first edition is going to be the most challenging because we have to learn everything from scratch about this unique venue that is Sarimbun and its constraints. It’s also a commercial space, so we don’t have the luxury of taking a few weeks to set up the stages and so on, compared to bigger players such as Wonderfruit, which is staged on land owned by its co‐founder Pranitan Phornprapha’s family. For us, everything has to be set up within five days and what we’re doing now is basically a lot of groundwork for the next editions.”
THAT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF UNIQUE CONSTRAINTS INDEED. SO WHAT’S THE UPSIDE OF ORGANISING SOMETHING LIKE SUNDA?
NB: “Actually, I was just talking about this with a guest DJ at Offtrack (the buzzy restaurant‐meets listening‐bar opened by O’Connor and DJ/spatial designer Dean Chew) last night. One nice thing coming out of all this is the reminder that Singapore has a very strong and supportive community. For example, we have a whole bunch of DJ collectives – more than 10 of us, I think – on one WhatsApp group.
In it, we communicate to make sure we don’t clash with one another’s events and offer support when people need help.”
FM: “I’ve tried to set up the same sort of community in Hong Kong, but it didn’t work … Maybe it’s because the music community in Singapore is relatively small and that works to its advantage. In Berlin, such an arrangement probably wouldn’t work out too, as there are way too many events happening on any one night. This is why I really respect the Singapore market: it makes sense to not cannibalise one another’s events and instead have this collaborative spirit.”
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR CLARITY AND BREVITY
Art Direction Jonathan Chia Photography Lawrence Teo Hair Sarah Tan Makeup Beno Lim, using MAC Cosmetics Photos of campsite Courtesy of Kevin Fardella
This article first appeared in the Sept 2023 Make It Work! Edition of FEMALE