The Japanese jazz keyboardist and long-time regular on the Singapore indie music scene believes Singaporean artists shouldn't be afraid of becoming someone else.


There are few better placed to talk about the triumphs and tribulations of the local music scene than Aya Sekine. She’s the keyboardist for local jazz band L.A.B—who are touring Japan in May!—she helps bring in off-beat acts from around the world for small shows and she’s an adjunct professor at LASALLE’s music program. Here, she talks about life as an international school student in the ’80s, the backbreaking work of bringing in acts to Singapore and why influence is crucial to forging an artistic identity.

I moved here when I was four. My father was stationed in Singapore for a Japanese construction company. He also owned a cafe called Bon Gout on Robertson Quay, which was famous for its curry.

I had very red cheeks. I would run around trying to escape from everybody telling me “Cute, cute!”

As a teenager here, I listened to a lot of music. Singapore TV back then really had nothing, but that was when VHS first came handy. Our grandparents and friends in Japan would record stuff and send it to us—stuff like MTV, when it first started in Japan.

I went to American school after I was 14. I was in a rock band with American boys, playing Steppenwolf, Van Halen, Poison, Rush.

I was in the school brass band, too, from age 10 until 18. I was also in jazz band. It makes your ears open up quite a lot—it’s complicated music for kids. But my brother and I loved it; we could memorize the drum solo, the bass solo.

I’m very influenced by my brother. He always had a band. He’s now the manager of a pretty big Japanese indie band called Quruli.

My friends and I used to go to Saxophone Bar and The Brannigan’s. So I was quite exposed. We used to go to tea dances, too and Supreme House for the roller skate disco.

When I was 17, my mother recommended I go to Berklee [College of Music, Boston] for summer school, because she saw an ad in the Japanese newspaper.

And that was it. I met so many people that I’m still friends with. I met Japanese jazz musicians who are really big hot shots in Japan now, but at that time they were still learning. I met a lot of Scandinavian guys. It was an eye opener. I finished high school, and I went back.

I didn’t have much money in New York. I worked day jobs at Japanese companies part-time.

It wasn’t like I was a successful musician. I was just experimenting. In a way, it was the best time of my life. I was a kamikaze fighter. I was going for it. I didn’t think. I just did everything.

When I came back from New York, I had a regular gig at Jazz at Southbridge. It was part of the reason I came back. [Owner] Eddie Chan called me and asked if I was interested.

Things in New York were coming to an end. I had been there 13 years, experienced 9/11. My health was not very good. So I decided it was a good opportunity to go back where my parents were.

Singapore is just 50 years old. It’s important to have your identity, but who the hell knows it so fast? I don’t know what my identity is. Identity doesn’t come overnight. You need to grow it. It’s a seed. You water it by getting inspiration.

What I see Singapore inviting in to Singapore is always the same, because there is some kind of sponsorship. But the bands that minority musicians want to see, we have to do it independently. And that is not easy because everything is so expensive.

I do it because I feel the influences we get are very precious, and we need this water to grow.

But I sometimes end up saying no. I do budget calculations and say, “I’m sorry. We’d love to have you, but there’s nobody receiving you guys. And I can’t afford it.”

It has to be live. You need to talk to them. You need to feel it. It’s the air. It’s the silence in the audience. The good stuff I see knocks me out, and I just need to go to the practice room. This is the kind of feeling that we all need.

I think Singapore wants to protect itself, because it’s still young. It’s like a parent trying to raise the kid very safely until he goes out the door.

It’s great to have a local identity among locals. But you need to expand. Don’t be afraid of becoming somebody else. Local musicians need to go outside of Singapore to compare themselves and see how they sound in someone else’s territory.

Bands travel around Singapore, but not many drop by because they’re not for the masses and there’s nowhere to play. But the wealth that the Singapore scene would achieve from having these guests would make local identity even stronger.

I don’t book bands by popularity. For example, at Blu Jaz, I book bands by diversity. Some people complain that they didn’t like this band. I say, “Come back next week.”

I think there’s a mission for me. It’s big, but I don’t know exactly how to put it yet.