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Observing soundscapes: Interview with Bani Haykal

By Patrick ChngEvents - 24 October 2013 12:13 PM | Updated 6:27 PM

Observing soundscapes: Interview with Bani Haykal

The enigmatic poet-musician-artist Bani Haykal, 28, has just received the Young Artist Award at the Istana on 22 October.

Bani, who took the award for the multi-disciplinary category, is best known as the founding member of acclaimed indie band B-Quartet. Last year, he joined the band The Observatory. 

An amazingly talented musician, Bani doesn’t sit still and continues to explore artistic expressions in various disciplines and formats, now working as a “sound artist”, for example, to build on the musical landscape during a performance. 

As part of the recognition, he – like nine other Singaporeans honoured at the awards – is given a grant to further develop his artistic talent and to reach out to a wider audience through his work.

Six others who received the Young Artist Award were multi-disciplinary artist Grace Tan, urban artist Zul Othman, music composer Ruth Ling, conceptual artist Zaki Razak, musician Chua Yew Kok and theatre practitioner Koh Hui Ling.

Theatre practitioner Ivan Heng, prolific Malay writer Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and music director Tsung Yeh received the Cultural Medallion for their commitment to artistic excellence.

InSing caught up with Bani for a chat. 

Bani Haykal

What was your reaction when you were informed about getting the Young Artist Award?

I'm definitely appreciative and grateful to the people who've been of great help in my process and development as a practitioner of the arts. It was a pleasant surprise to have received the call from the National Arts Council.

You came to prominence in the Singapore indie music scene as the creative force behind B-Quartet. How do you think you’ve evolved since your early days with the group?

With B-Quartet, it was a phase of songwriting that includes writing lyrics and fitting narratives into the music we made collectively. 

When national service started pulling us apart, the relatively isolated period drove me into working as an individual.

I think, progressively and gradually, I tried to free myself of songwriting, moving on to focus more on sound, text and performance. I believe it's the need to go deeper and to look into the details, to find ways and means to express ideas from new perspectives.

I must give credit to my partner in crime, Ila, a visual artist, who has been challenging my perspectives and ideas. She's this juggernaut of wisdom, pulling out a thought or a question for you to ponder, from corners you least expect.

When and how did you start moving into the other disciplines, such as visual arts and acting?

It began with film. I have always loved the film medium and when I watch one, I see all these elements of lights, sound, performance all rolled into one and produced on screen.

I’ll have dialogues about film, its philosophy and its production with Darius Shah, who is a film wizard. I believe the prologue of my interest in interdisciplinary work stems from our discussions and interest in film.

But moving away from singing songs or performing them, even as a soloist, started through a collaboration with Daniel K, in his work ‘Vermillion’ for the M1 Fringe Festival.

That project exposed me to a whole other headspace in performance, and I have come to appreciate the visual aesthetics of a performance. I’ve never thought about the visual aspect when I was performing with the band (other than the cardboard signs I've been making).

Another influence is the work of Anthony Braxton. When I came across his work and the relationship his music had with visuals (graphic notation), it opened up a whole other avenue of perceiving sounds or music for me. 

How did you come to join The Observatory?

I think it started with a silent film project (‘Hara-Kiri’) when Vivian Wang and Leslie Low got me to collaborate with them. I also started helping out on their ‘Playfreely’ series of improv performances at Goodman Arts Centre.

Soon after, when they began working on a Gamelan project in Bali, Indoensia, I was offered to work on the project together. That was a very fascinating project, and things just gradually took place after we did a show at The Substation for the launch of (the Observatory’s concert) ‘Catacombs’. 

You seemed more interested in the avant-garde aspects of music and performance, forgoing traditional songwriting and instead exploring soundscape and improvisation. How and when did you move in this direction? 

In my work with The Substation as an associate artist, I was looking at musical formations in America and Singapore, with jazz as the subject of interest.

During this time I uncovered a whole other perspective on jazz that I was ignorant of before and it was at that point in time that I realised the importance or significance of a relevant music landscape and the culture that comes with it. How everything was connected. Leaning towards the unconventional was a response to the cultural landscape of Singapore.

What was the best part about touring with The Observatory?

Meeting people, the dialogues and exchange of social or cultural perspectives and shifts, improving yourself as a musician by being both an audience and a performer, and also understanding and appreciating the realities people are dealing with in comparison to what we are given and have back home. 

You’re on the panel to discuss a topic titled ‘Money is the Root of all Creation’ at the upcoming Singapore Writers’ Festival. What’s your take on crowdfunding? 

Crowdfunding is a strange thing to me. It's a model which, in my reading, basically means everyone plays the executive producer role. Consumers are part of the discourse when it comes to advertising, the selling of (cultural or not) products and how it manipulates objects and consumers. Being fairly sceptical of crowdfunding, I wonder if the boundaries have been pushed a little, and now we have amateur executive producers as the new consumers. 

Cultural products put up on campaigns is a way for artists to get their work running, and it means there is still a product that needs to be made and X amount of money is required if you the consumer want it. So suddenly the marketplace for the artist, audience (or consumer) and producers blows wide open, and this can be a positive or negative thing. 

I'm not sure, but I think the main thing that concerns me is that there is still this concept of a "cultural product" repackaged back onto the shelves.

What projects are you working on now?

Aside from working with The Observatory on new materials and the next instalment of ‘Playfreely’ (an improv concert consisting of musicians from various backgrounds), I am working on two new separate body of works as a soloist. One is a new spoken word project I'm writing in Malay, which looks at various social matters pertaining to Singapore and identity. The other is a work of fiction which looks at mercenary armies, weapons manufacturing and war.


Forever young at heart, Patrick Chng loves going to gigs and checking out Singapore bands. He has also been playing in bands since the late 1980s, writing about music and being an important mover and shaker in the Singapore indie music scene. When he's not checking out or playing gigs, he's at home playing with his guitars and updating his Facebook.