6 June 2024

Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of many cultures, and within these cultures are numerous musical traditions and styles. Interestingly, most of these age-old musical styles, or at least traces of them, can still be found in some of our current varieties of pop music.

While K-pop has ruled the roost in the region for more than two decades, other Southeast Asian pop groups and bands are slowly but surely catching up. We take a look at some of the region’s current musical flagbearers.

Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries, namely Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Hundreds of ethnic groups are found within this region and together they offer a rich tapestry of musical styles that owe much to the prevalence of the many languages used by each ethnic group. Throughout history, music in this part of the world has generally focused on religion, with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity representing religious beliefs instrumental in forming national cultures.

“Over time, development and progress have helped transcend religious borders and assimilate different practices and musical styles in Southeast Asia. Fortunately, although modernisation has been a significant threat to these distinctive music traditions, most countries in the region have managed to preserve their own unique styles and moods that sum up various periods of development, culture, and belief in each country,” says Aimee Sato, a professor of Music History and Appreciation at one of the prestigious universities in Asia.

Korean Pop

Over in Korea, the so-called Korean Pop penetrated the global music scene in the 1990s and has grown significantly over the years. Thanks to the Korean government’s investment in the industry, K-Pop groups like BTS, Blackpink, and Twice, to name a few, have enjoyed worldwide success. They have become so popular that when people think of popular Asian music, they think of K-Pop. Earlier, Japanese and Taiwanese pop groups were also able to enjoy an almost similar level of worldwide acclaim.

Now that international music fans are discovering K-Pop and making it a part of their daily playlists, it is no surprise that K-Pop has grown into a global industry that many are trying to learn from and explore. However, there is no doubt that Southeast Asia is also full of talent. In fact, there are currently a number of Southeast Asian pop groups that hail from outside Korea but are beginning to develop a huge fan base.

Southeast Asian Beat

In Thailand, the so-called T-Pop (Thai Pop) is on the rise, with groups like TNT (Trinity), Tempt, BNK48, and Daisy Daisy dominating the scene. Says Khun Na, a beauty salon owner in Bangkok and a self-confessed fan of mor lam, “I usually play Thai pop music in the salon because this is what most of our customers prefer, especially the younger ones. I could listen to ‘mor lam’ all day but business is business and customers come first.”

The Thai pop group Trinity, also known as TNT, dish out soft tunes, hard raps, and party music. They are known for their versatility and good looks. Tempt, on the other hand, is known for each member playing a specific musical instrument. Meanwhile, BNK48 is a girl group known for their cool musical style. Another girl group, called Daisy Daisy, captivates the Thai audience with their refreshing style and danceable tunes.

In Vietnam, V-Pop is the thing, popularized by such groups as Monstar, Uni5, and Lip B. Their music videos are fun and playful, and they absolutely kill it with their insane charisma and talent. Indonesia also has its Indo-Pop, courtesy of such groups as Unity and StarBe. Their exceptional talents and dance moves have earned them a ticket to stardom in the country. Neighbouring Laos, meanwhile, boasts of the L-Pop dished out by such groups as Papaya, an all-girl outfit with amazing talents. It consists of four members. Other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, are also home to equally promising bands.

World-class sounds

When it comes to music, the Philippines, which gave the world Lea Salonga, Charice Pempengco, and even Bruno Mars who is half-Filipino, more than merits a mention.

The Filipino P-Pop band SB19 was the first Southeast Asian group in history to be nominated at the Billboard Music Awards (BBMA) alongside BTS, Seventeen, Blackpink, and Ariana Grande. It was a huge milestone, as this was the first time a Filipino act had nominated in the BBMA. It was also the first time any representative from Southeast Asia was nominated for these awards.

SB19

SB19 was also the first act to overtake BTS in the Billboard Hot Trending Songs Chart, which was launched in October 2021. Since its emergence, only BTS had topped the chart with their hit song “Butter”. That all changed six weeks later when SB19 broke BTS’ winning streak with “Bazinga”. This made SB19 officially the second Asian act to top the Billboard HTS chart, and the first Southeast Asian to overtake BTS in the chart’s history.
SB19 is currently heralded as the Kings of P-Pop, and has been joined by equally talented boy groups, such as BGYO, MNL48, Dilaw, and many more. The group has just wrapped up a successful world tour and their latest hit “Gento” has already gained 1.5 billion views on TikTok. Their Gento dance challenge is currently spreading like wildfire globally, with even some of the biggest Korean and Japanese pop groups joining the challenge.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk