Loved, hated and huge: The surprising dance scenes of Southeast Asia

The rise of massive regional dance music networks reveals fault lines in class and taste, even as those scenes develop and thrive in ways unlike anywhere else in the world.

At clubs in most big cities around the world, regional genres like Jersey club, South African gqom and Brazilian baile funk are combined and enjoyed together on one dance floor. We might think of this as the “global club music circuit” and it consumes genres from across the world, often repackaged for new crowds and reinterpreted by outside artists. Sometimes the results are progressive, interesting and thoughtful. Other times things get exploitative and awkward. Usually, it’s a never-ending learning process that restarts each time a new genre enters the fold. 

Recently, homegrown electronic dance music styles from across Southeast Asia have entered the international spotlight after decades of thriving on their own, unconcerned with any larger conversation happening outside their own worlds. There’s vina house from Vietnam, manyao from the Chinese diaspora, budots from the Philippines, Thai beats from Thailand, and a number of sounds and movements from Indonesia. These genres have years or decades of history, with their own evolutions, social dynamics and superstars. 

Strikingly, the scenes have a number of similarities, even though they developed separately. They largely revolve around remix culture. They feature bright, trance-influenced synths. They can be associated with gangsterism, heavy drinking, or drugs (whether true or not). And they are often heard on public transport in their respective countries. 

The music has been looked down upon by more upwardly mobile sections of the population, colored by classism, bigotry and remnants of colonialism. Marginalized within their own countries, fans of these sounds have been content with their own cultures, allowing things to progress in new and localized ways, and usually creating successful industries as they’ve grown. Some of the sounds dominate the clubs, others are built around roving outdoor parties and giant mobile sound systems. They’re enjoyed on the big streaming sites like YouTube and SoundCloud, but also inside karaoke rooms and, in one case, within jails.

Recent compilations like Redline Legends and Nhạc Gãy Tổng Hợp Số 1 have introduced some of these sounds to a wider audience by reimagining the music and showing love to its origins. Neither claim to be purist renditions of the genres they work with and are both interpretations produced by related artists from outside the scenes themselves. The Saigon underground rave label Nhạc Gãy explores Vietnamese identity through the sound of individual club music producers but touches several times on the grassroots sounds of vina house. And Redline Legends, from the London-based label Eastern Margins, covers several genres, often using them as a starting point to reimagine them in wild new forms. 

For all the discord that social media has caused due to misinformation, hate speech and harassment, it’s also been a boon for creative communities across the world. The decentralized nature of the internet allows Southeast Asian artists to connect and look to each other for inspiration, rather than to the West or to the ruling classes. Instead of admiring far away artists and seeking approval from those who look down on them, they’re able to supercharge their communication directly with each other instead.

Painting a complete portrait of these scenes with one article is impossible. But as they start to gain broader appreciation within their own borders and subsequently pique the interest of the rest of the world, it’s worth starting this discussion, which is very much a game of catch up.

Manyao: The sound of the Chinese diaspora

The most widespread of all these sounds is manyao. The soundtrack of the Chinese diaspora, it can be found all across Asia. Like its people, the music has traveled far and wide. In Southeast Asia, it’s very popular in Malaysia and Singapore—both multi-racial countries composed mainly of Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. But manyao’s roots stretch back to Hong Kong around the turn of the century, before it was even a genre, when the city was still the meeting ground between East and West.

«The pioneer was cantopop using trance and rave elements at the turn of the century to create dance songs, and eventually those songs became popular in local nightclubs like 348 Disco And Karaoke or Cyber 8 Disco,» said Alexmalism, a producer from Hong Kong working on a dissertation about deconstructed club music in East Asia. «There was an influx of people taking music from Hong Kong into Shenzhen, where someone opened a club named 838 Disco in the early 2000s. It only lasted about six years but introduced the style into China, where people then started remixing mandopop with EDM. I think that’s the beginning of manyao, so to speak.»

Alex said that the original cantopop and mandopop remixes started at around 150 BPM but slowed down as the sounds took root in China. Manyao actually translates into «downtempo,» and in those earlier years the tempo was indeed slower. There are still slow manyao tracks today but in general it has returned to the 150 BPM area with 4/4 remixes of pop music. 

About five years ago, manyao became very popular in Malaysian clubs, said DJ Mushroom, a local Chinese-Malaysian DJ from outside Kuala Lumpur. Previously, the sound was relegated to video karaoke lounges but club owners began demanding it from DJs. In the bigger Malaysian clubs, manyao DJs tend to mix the genre with other sounds, but the VIP rooms in Malaysian karaoke bars are legit clubs in themselves. 

«Malaysian and Singaporean manyao DJs pretty much stay in our countries but the same songs are popular in both countries because we’re both looking at what’s popular in China and Taiwan,» Mushroom said. «Chinese people love it because they can sing along. They sing, they cry.» The songs being remixed come in a variety of Chinese languages, as well as popular English and Korean songs— basically whatever hits people are familiar with. The remixes are spread on YouTube and Mixcloud, and now TikTok as well.

Mushroom said that although it’s club music in Malaysia, people don’t really dance to it. «In the club people shake their heads to the music… They’ll do it for six hours,» he laughed. 

While Singapore and Malaysia are neighbors, and were even part of the same country until the 1960s, the cultures are very different, and this extends to manyao. Manyao DJs stay within their respective countries and don’t cross their shared border. Mushroom said Malaysian manyao DJs are more likely to play in a country like Vietnam than Singapore. 

In Singapore, the sound can be divisive. Twitter is a mix of people hating on the sound or showing off their love for it. A common online stereotype is that of the local gangster blasting the music from their e-scooter. But in Malaysia manyao isn’t broadcast in public as widely, perhaps because Chinese people are not the majority there, and so the sound is enjoyed in peace. 

«Malaysian DJs who play EDM and pop used to look down on manyao, but now they respect it because it’s what the customers want. The club comes first,» Mushroom explained. «The big spenders ask for the manyao, so we play it.»

Indonesia: Too many dance styles to count

Indonesia is home to more musical styles than any other country in the region. It had a head start on homegrown electronic dance music, stretching back at least to the ‘90s, when genres like dangdut remix and funkot took root. But these early entries into the electronic sphere have kept evolving over the decades, to the point where, due to the country’s size, diversity and musical history, it’s almost imposible to keep track. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, made up of 17,000 islands, over 700 ethnic groups and languages, and centuries of musical tradition.

Funkot is probably the most famous globally, with a number of local experimental artists exploring new iterations of the grassroots electronic dance music. It got its start as a mix of house and dangdut in Jakarta, which, as the country’s capital, benefits from outsized media attention. Popularized by a group named Barakatak, the name is short for «funky Kota» after the nightlife district Kota, which is still active today. Although the genre’s influence has waned over the years, the sound is still going strong in areas like Bali, where it dominates nightlife for locals, with clubs like New Star counting among the island’s biggest.

Ican Haram, who’s part of experimental dance duo Gabber Modus Operandi, said the sound is still on fire. «They really care about sound quality on the production side and with the soundsystem. They’re really thinking about the whole experience,» he said, ranking Icha Yakuza as one of the biggest funkot DJs he knows of. «But the clubs are too rough for me. It’s associated with guns and drugs, very macho.» In fact, one of the places the sound is thriving is in Bali jails. «It’s been progressing within jails, some of them chop it up with trance and happy hardcore. Inside, funkot is used for celebrations; they use it for aerobics. At night time they have music parties. It’s all illegal, they smuggle in soundsystems and CDJs. The DJs are also inmates.» 

Koplo remix is arguably the most popular style across Indonesia, a fiercely local music with dozens of iterations. Like funkot it’s also a subgenre of dangdut, and began as dangdut remix when it was mixed with house music. It can be difficult to track online but some of the best keywords are «koplo remix» or «contemporary electronic dangdut.» Local producer Y-DRA has been cataloging the sound, and marvels at its diversity. He even tried to map out the range of styles and locations but found it impossible to complete. One regional version he points out is pargoy music from North Sumatra: “This is a new style developed by the very young digital generation, I think it’s a descendant of koplo remix and TikTok remix.”

«There’s a universe of subgenres of koplo, I can’t even categorize them,» he said. «I found 20 subgenres in one city! And different cities will have subgenres with the same name but they’re totally different. Every city has their own songs, their own celebrities, with their own languages, not Bahasa [the country’s official language]. The grassroots music from different cities is really good but doesn’t have national distribution. There’s no TV or radio coverage of the local musics, but there’s YouTube. Some of the producers make $20,000 a month off Youtube.» Koplo is often dismissed by many as unworthy of attention as well, and the name even translates directly as «dumb» or «brainless.» 

Despite all that, the party goes on, especially in East Java. Y-DRA said there are big parties everyday, and even the pandemic couldn’t tame them. «They party outdoors. Sometimes they have a big, big truck with a very big soundsystem. In East Java they drive from village to village like a troubadour. Specifically, Malang City is the king of outsized soundsystem culture. There’s no DJ, the music is just played off Spotify or YouTube.» There are, Y-DRA said, mobile soundsystems in places like Central Java and Bali as well, but there are only a couple. Outside of East Java the music is most prevalent on public transportation and they play it very loud. 

«Since 2010, when video became big on social media, koplo remix has been trending,» Y-DRA said. «They produce the music with a bare bones setup, usually just a laptop and Fruity Loops or Cubase with no controller. But if a song becomes famous, it gets rearranged and played by a live combo band. Oftentimes songs in local languages will cross over into other cities. Remixes of big international songs are popular too. K-pop is probably the biggest influence in the grassroots.»

Budots: The TikTok-friendly sound of the Philippines

Budots, the electronic dance music of the Philippines, is the youngest of all its Southeast Asian counterparts. It was born in the late 2000s in a squatters’ village in Davao City, hundreds of islands south of the country’s capital, Manila. A choreographer named DJ Love is often credited with birthing the sound. He was originally making dance videos, which started going viral as budots before the sound solidified. The «camus boys» and «camus girls» dance teams in the videos are named after the area Love is from. The dance and the music’s trademark hook are inspired by indigenous styles. A fan of techno and house, Love also cites the song «Eiffel 65 – Blue (Da Ba Dee)» as a big influence on budots’ bouncy sonics. 

The sound first went viral locally among grassroots populations before grabbing the attention of the rest of the country. One translation of the word budots is “slacker,” but this didn’t stop its spread. The music is blasted out of jeepneys and tricycles all over the nation and is the focus of raves called diskorals in the central province of Cebu. Politicians and celebrities started including the music and dance in their own videos. Sometimes Love would receive credit and get paid but often he wouldn’t. “I got pissed when they repeatedly played this track [on noontime television shows in the Philippines],” he said of one of his songs during his first-ever interview, in Jay Rosas’s Budots documentary from 2019. “But when I posted just one video I got reported instead. These fuckers.”

«Along the way, the question of who was the originator became unimportant,» Rosas said. «It comes from urban slums but has been appropriated by celebrities and politicians. They’ve mainstreamed it for their own class, their social strata. They get a lot of attention for themselves through it, but it also spreads the sound.» Eventually, budots became associated with drugs, particularly «rugby boys» (rugby is slang for glue that is huffed in a paper bag), who would dance to budots and get high in public. This attracted police attention to the sound; the Philippines is in the middle of a deadly drug war, so Love started a campaign called “Yes To Dance, No To Drugs” in order to distance himself.

Vina House: The club style ruling Vietnam

Local electronic music in Vietnam is also fairly young but it’s a solid club phenomenon at this point. In big clubs across the country, the sound of vina house is king. Although the sound has been evolving recently, it most commonly takes the form of pop remixes with stripped down kicks, a bassline and a top note, blasted at 150 to 155 BPM. 

Before easy-to-use production software was ubiquitous, most Viet DJs played international electronic music, according to DJ Hoàng Anh, the artist often credited for sparking the vina house wave. He began DJing in 2000 while studying in Saigon, and got started early at production compared to most of his peers. In those early years it was hard to play music that was new to crowds, so he started with remixes. He credits iiO’s «Smooth (Bailey’s Cream Mix)« in the beginning of 2006 as the inspiration for vina house in its early form.

«That beat made the crowd go crazy, they loved it,” Hoàng Anh said. “There wasn’t much music with that groove because people didn’t want to make the same beat over and over again. That’s why I made a couple remixes using the same groove. After a while it became a trend that defined vina house.» He pointed to some of his remixes from that year as foundational. «There were only a couple other guys making remixes back then, but I was the only one also DJing in the club.» He said the sound at the time was indistinguishable from international house, and that the term vina house simply referred to house music made by Viet producers. 

By 2012, there were many more DJ/producers and the sound had become widespread, taking the form it’s known for now. Hoàng Anh distanced himself from this style and considers it distinctly different from the vina house of his day. Although it’s become wildly popular and has many devoted fans, with the sound spilling into the street from super clubs, street vendors and rickshaws, it has also developed a stigma. It became associated with drugs and heavy drinking. 

The dance style common in the club, which revolves around a spiralling hand motion, became referred to as múa quạt, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the paper-fan dances of East Asia. «I disliked it as a kid when I started going out and partying, and some of my friends still hate on it, like I can’t play it on a road trip without getting complaints,» said Abi Wasabi, cofounder of the Nhạc Gãy underground rave collective. Her attitude towards the sound changed after a recent club trip for her birthday, and the genre now makes regular appearances at their raves.

Hoàng Anh has high hopes for today’s crop of vina house artists and wants to see them grow and find success: «People tend to make fun of it but that’s not something I encourage. I don’t want Vietnamese people to look down on Vietnamese music.»

In more recent years, Vina house has been changing, and DJs like Abi Wasabi say the quality can be very impressive. TikTok has influenced the sound too, with the «2 Phút Hơn (Make It Hot) [KAIZ Remix]» going viral globally (including a rerelease on Spinnin’ Records) and stamping a slower, more EDM-influenced mood on the genre. There’s also a new branch called vina bounce, which itself is inspired by Korean bounce.

Acceptance, growth and mixing

All of these styles were inspired by old Western electronic music, which was then internalized and incubated locally without much care for what was happening in the rest of the world. But that’s starting to change, and younger, cosmopolitan experimental artists, who once looked down on these styles, are beginning to appreciate them. Some of the grassroots DJs themselves are beginning to realize the wider world of Southeast Asian electronic music, and the styles are getting mixed freely. 

DJ Y-aZ, a Chinese-Malaysian manyao DJ who was taught by DJ Mushroom, is a great example of this new wave. She cultivated her current style by livestreaming sets during the pandemic, and this has given her detailed insights into her fans. Her listeners are mainly Chinese but come from all over the region, primarily from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan. «I play about four songs of each genre before switching, and my fans will change with each genre,» she said. «I look for what’s big in each country. I ask what countries my listeners are from and play songs for them.» One song she singles out for its border-crossing power is a mysterious budots-influenced remix of a popular Cambodian track uploaded to a Malaysian Youtube remix channel and given viral fame by a TikTok clip of a K-pop performance. 

When Gabber Modus first started rising in popularity, Harem said gigs were small and sparse within Indonesia, but that’s starting to change. At first, it was because the duo had garnered international acclaim, which translated into more local attention. But now more people there are starting to look within for inspiration. «Globalization makes everyone want to be a part of the global subculture,» Harem said. «But experimental kids are starting to seek out identity where they’re from. These types of subcultures are the most relevant way to add to the larger, global conversation, rather than centering things on Western electronic music.» He added that new artists are starting to play local music in the bigger cities and that the biggest festivals are also realizing they’re missing out on local styles and are trying to incorporate them. 

Much like the spread of koplo, manyao progressed with very little documentation. «Someone could do a PhD on this topic,» Alexmalism said. «The development of manyao has happened over more than a decade and no one has paid serious attention to what was happening.» Budots and vina house spread in similar fashions. There are years of history to recover, even as the sounds continue to mutate and grow. Hopefully this is just the start. 

Words: Mike Steyels