Photo by Nicholas Goh.

Photo by Nicholas Goh.

We're with Almira Farid (Music 2014) to talk about her fascinating major in ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is a recipient of the MOE scholarship, a future music educator in Singapore, and also a producer and host on her radio show, "Songs from Southeast Asia" (SFSEA). We chat about what she's been occupied with of late, and what universe of sound is like in her world.

Freshly Pressed: Hi Almira! Who are you and what do you do?  

Almira Farid: Hey there! I was a music student from the SOTA graduating batch of 2014, and now I'm currently finishing my final year of studying Ethnomusicology at SOAS in London. 

FP: What was your progression like studying music from SOTA to SOAS?

AF: I suppose I should start right at the beginning. During my audition for SOTA when I was in Primary 6, I was asked by the then head of music, Dr Joyce Koh, what kind of music I liked; and I promptly replied that "I don't like Classical Music!” After seeing a rather unfavourable response,  I quickly added, "Well, I guess you don't really know until you try". By some miracle, I was accepted into SOTA and everything changed for me. I developed a strong love for aforementioned classical music after six years of rigorous study into Western Classical Music at SOTA, as well as singing with the Singapore Lyric Opera Children's Choir. I'm not exactly sure when I got interested in world music and ethnomusicology, because there was more world music exposure (thanks to Dr Manhart!) after my time at SOTA. I suppose there could be a number of reasons. Taking HL anthropology at SOTA made me very aware of how Western Classical music is just one very small way of understanding the world's music.

Also, when I was very young, my mother used to take me and my sister to stay with the indigenous Orang Asli in the Malaysian forest; so I suppose I have always grown up with the humbling knowledge that there is much we can learn from people from societies and cultures that may seem very different from our own. And perhaps, just always being an ethnic minority in whatever I got involved in, made me set on pursuing a field like ethnomusicology - which recognises that any voice, no matter how small, soft or strange it may seem, is important enough to be listened to. I was also very fortunate to have been awarded an MOE Scholarship to pursue my studies at SOAS, without which I wouldn't be here today. I think this also says a lot about how music education in Singapore schools is changing, which is really very exciting. 

Photo by Sophie Belle.

Photo by Sophie Belle.

FP: So what is ethnomusicology and what drew you to it? 

AF: The standard description of it is that it is the study of music in and as culture. Although I technically study "Music" as a degree, I'm never satisfied with saying that I "study music". I like to say that I study the world through music, which is very much what ethnomusicology is about. When I tell people that I study "ethnomusicology", their eyes often pop out of their heads, mouths slightly open in confusion, and remark that "ethnomusi-whaaat" is a very long name, and assume that it must be specialised, niche and terribly difficult. But ethnomusicology is far from niche. We delve into music from all over the world, linking music to different aspects of society, like history, politics, geography, culture, and often only scratching the surface because the world is so big. Ethnomusicology is really a reminder that the arts does not exist in a vacuum, but is a very real force in our everyday lives. 

I also often like to joke with people that I study ethnomusicology because "I don't want to only study the music of dead white men", and while I joke about it, there is an important truth in there for me, which is to go beyond the official narratives of people in power, and work towards decolonising my knowledge about the world - something SOAS as a university is known for today.   

Talking to members of London's Nigerian Community during His Imperial Majesty, Ooni of Ife's visit to SOAS, as part of Presenting World Music on Radio module. Photo courtesy of   Dr Lucy Duran.

Talking to members of London's Nigerian Community during His Imperial Majesty, Ooni of Ife's visit to SOAS, as part of Presenting World Music on Radio module. Photo courtesy of Dr Lucy Duran.

FP: Can you tell us more about 'Songs from Southeast Asia' and what you do as the producer and host of the show?

AF: SOAS has a really vibrant Radio Station which I'm very fortunate to be able to be a part of. In 2016, I started a radio show with SOAS Radio called 'Songs from Southeast Asia' (SFSEA) together with Thant Sin, a SOAS masters student from Myanmar (Now, I'm joined by Cuong, a British-Vietnamese masters student at SOAS). We felt that Southeast Asia still wasn't very well known to world music enthusiasts, and were also fed up with the great majority of podcasts on Southeast Asian music being done by Westerners, which also tended to have a certain kind of bias and aesthetic preference. 

We started the show with the intention of having Southeast Asian voices on air, speaking about our own music (most of which I'm discovering for the first time while working on the show), and we hoped that it would encourage more people from our region to take it upon themselves to explore their own stories, and put their own experiences out there. I have tons of fun in producing this show, because we try to look at the whole of Southeast Asia (as well as its diasporic communities) and don't limit ourselves to any particular genre, covering a spectrum from 'traditional' to the contemporary. 

I'm also currently one of the two music editors at SOAS Radio, so I help in overseeing the quality of music shows at the station, which lets me meet all sorts of people with interesting ideas for music shows with a diversity that you won't be able to get from other radio stations! While most of our work results in podcasts which you can find on the SOAS Radio website  and Mixcloud, we also occasionally go live on air with SOAS Radio's weekly Wednesday Live Sessions. I have this dream to bring SFSEA back to Singapore and the region, where I think there's still plenty of room for curating online podcasts made locally, exploring our own local experiences. 

SFSEA Radio studio with Cuong. Photo by Maki Toyoda.

SFSEA Radio studio with Cuong. Photo by Maki Toyoda.

FP: Music, culture, and personhood seem so intertwined in the work you do– does your immersion in the world of sound change the way you experience life? 

AF: I’m glad you mentioned sound! I was having a conversation with a fellow Singaporean friend who does Sound Studies and Ethnomusicology and we talked about how unsatisfied we feel with the rather limiting term of 'music', because we see it as falling under the larger umbrella of Sound. We often like to ask - “What is Art? Or, What is Music?” But the question should really be, “When is Art? And When is Music?”, and it's this contextual understanding of music that I've gotten from studying ethnomusicology. What I like about ethnomusicology is how inclusive it is - because it looks at soundscapes as well. 

.... a reminder that the arts does not exist in a vacuum, but is a very real force in our everyday lives.

FP: “When” is Music?

AF: I’m referring to Nelson Goodman's essay "When is Art?" (1977). He basically argues that the question "What is Art?" (a question that often ends in frustration) is perhaps the wrong question to be asking, because a thing of art may present itself as a work of art at some times, and not at others. 

I suppose for me, switching the focus on "when" rather than "what is art?" is a simple reminder that there are as many interpretations and experiences of life as there are people in the world. I came to this realisation with a Soundscape project I did on 'Noisy Neighbours', which looked at how the act of listening and notions of 'noise' are experiences unique to each individual. So the invasive sounds of static and super auto-tuned Afropop that the Nigerian cleaner blasts in my kitchen may seem like unintelligible noise to me, but to him, its an important reminder of home. Listening involves a translation of sound into social, cultural and personal meaning, and its this contextual, socio-cultural factor in the act of listening and music making that makes ethnomusicology so important to me, in understanding other points of view. 

Last day of internship at STAR with Mrs Chew, Dr Tang and Sota alumnus Phoebe Chin . Photo courtesy of Dr Kelly Tang.

Last day of internship at STAR with Mrs Chew, Dr Tang and Sota alumnus Phoebe Chin. Photo courtesy of Dr Kelly Tang.

FP: You worked on a music teaching resource last year, ‘Stories We Sing’ and you’re presenting on it this weekend on a conference on Singapore history at Kings College London soon. Can you tell us more about it?

AF: ’Stories We Sing' is a new pedagogical music resource produced as a collaboration between the Singapore Teachers' Academy for the aRts (STAR) under MOE and NAC. It's the first time that educators and artists have come together like this in the creation of 12 commissioned songs in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, with the aim of enhancing quality music education in schools, while also promoting local artists and exploring the Singapore soundscape. During my internship with STAR in July last year, I was honoured to work with the team at STAR on this project, reuniting with SOTA's founding principal Mrs Rebecca Chew as well as SOTA's former Dean of Arts, Dr Kelly Tang, and I even got to play the harmonium for one of the songs!

I find this resource to be an intriguing cultural artefact of Singapore music. For me, it really opens up a lot of difficult questions about how music is used to carefully curate a sense of Singapore. What are the stories that are included or excluded from the official narrative, and who decides what is Singaporean? What are the consequences of the 'CMIO' racial framework and how does that manifest in music? The resource has definitely come a long way from the rather cringeworthy repertoire of NE and NDP songs, but it still does make me think about the kind of narratives Singapore tells herself in her attempt to find her own voice. I'll be sharing some of these thoughts at the annual Conversations in Singapore History conference at Kings College this weekend!

FP: When you come back to Singapore, do you have any goals or dreams you hope to fulfill in the music education scene here? 

AF: I’m still figuring that bit out! I would love to work on developing a music curriculum with a strong world music pedagogy at its core, but my head's just so full with questions, and I still have a long way to go. But SOTA was really the main reason that drove me into arts education. I owe a lot of who I am, and what I do today to all the people I met at SOTA, who were all a mixture of creative, nurturing and just really different, unorthodox individuals, and going into education is my way of paying homage to the unique learning environment that shaped me growing up. 

And I know that I want to start from young. During an art activity in a relief class I taught, a boy refused to take part, exclaiming "I can't draw! I can't write! I can't do anything!", which is crazy because he was only six years old. I decided then to teach specifically at the Primary School level– because it is an age group with incredible creative potential waiting to be nurtured, but also whose creativity and sense of self can also be crushed if we're not careful. I also find that the greatest of ideas are often found in the smallest of things, and I suppose I hope to be someone who is able to draw out the best in people and remind them of their greatness, especially at times when they might feel small.

SOAS Thai ensemble performance with GOH Princess Anne. Photo courtesy of   Great Lekakul.

SOAS Thai ensemble performance with GOH Princess Anne. Photo courtesy of Great Lekakul.

FP: Do you have any songs or bands to recommend on your current to-go playlist? 

AF: That’s such a difficult question for me, because I'm constantly on the lookout for new music so I tend to hop around. But since International Women's Day is coming up, two strong women who have defined me musically and helped me get over difficult periods of my life would be Jesca Hoop and Nina Simone. I'm a big fan of Jesca Hoop's album 'Memories are Now', top tracks the title track, Pegasi and The Coming and just about anything and everything Nina Simone has ever sung, top albums are, 'At Carnegie Hall', 'Nina Simone & Piano', and 'Forever Young, Gifted and Black'. These are two independent women who have experienced some really difficult times, and they've stuck their ground and become stronger because of it. But if you want musical recommendations from elsewhere in the world, check out the array of SOAS Radio shows we have online

I'm also an avid radio podcast listener, and if I could share some of my top podcasts they'd be Afropop Worldwide, BFM's Night School, On Being, The Curiosity Podcast, NPR Tiny Desk Concerts, TED Radio Hour, To The Best of Our Knowledge, 99% Invisible, Radio Lab and See Something, Say Something. 

FP: Thank you for your time, Almira! Any closing comments?

AF: I like to think of every one of us as being artworks that are constantly in the making, and that whatever experiences good or bad that we go through can help us grow to become stronger. On that note, I really like this poem by Rumi, The Guest House, because it speaks to me about being kind to ourselves, embracing life as it comes:

"Darling, the body is a guesthouse; 
Every morning someone new arrives. 
Don't say, "Oh, another weight around my neck!" 
or your guest will fly back to nothingness. 
Whatever enters your heart is a guest from the invisible world: 
Entertain it well" 


For further listening, here are the links to Songs from Southeast Asia, and Stories we Sing.

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