Music / Features
Sungai Sounds -
A chat with Isobel D’Cruz
Words by Krishan Meepe
Wednesday 11th August, 2021

For Asian minorities living in the west, identity can be a complex conundrum. We aren’t typically included in anything with an ‘alternative’ tagline, and finding people we can trust to teach us about our own musical histories can be a challenge. Thankfully, Isobel D’Cruz, the bass player of local punk rock outfit HEXDEBT, is doing something about it. Sungai Mix 1, out now through Cease And Desist Records, is a mixtape documenting the alternative music cultures of Asia between ’64 and ’81. Presenting offerings of Malaysian surf rock, Indonesian slow jams, Indian psychedelia, and much more, anyone fascinated by the explosion of counter-culture that began in the 60’s has something to learn from checking this out. Just be sure to leave any colonial interpretations of what that means at the door.

Since the punk rock bassist moonlights as a researcher on racial visibility in Melbourne music scenes, I had a hunch she’d have some interesting thoughts to share on the political importance of representing Asian counter-culture.
TJ: Correct me if I’m wrong – Sungai is a language in the state of Sabah which is a part of Malaysia?

IDC: No, Sungai just means river. So Yasmine (aka Shah Saraffi, founder of Cease & Desist Records) called her original tape the Nile Mix, obviously cos that’s an iconic river, and I just thought, “the iconic rivers in Asia kinda have nothing to do with me.” There’s the Ganges, but it’s too loaded, that’s it’s own thing. So I was thinking of this little river in this really really small town called Kuala Kubu Baru just below Penang in Malaysia. My family got a property there before they migrated to Australia, they basically lived in the jungle neighbouring a Temuan (Orang Asli/Indigenous group in Malaysia) residential area. They built this self-sufficient house near the river, which is called Sungai Ciling - it holds a lot of fond memories.

But I felt that that was too much of a mouthful, and because of the way C is pronounced in Malay it would be confusing for people, so I just called it Sungai. In my mind it relates to Sungai Ciling, this river that I really liked to swim in, in this random little town that nobody outside knows about. But it kinda reinforces what I was thinking about when I made this tape: a lot of information about Southeast Asia is not in the public or general western consciousness in the way that other non-western or non-white places are. So even the fact that I can’t name a river that would mean anything to anyone here, whereas Yasmine can, I think it says something about how much of an afterthought Southeast Asia is compared to other places like China or Japan or India, and that’s something that was very much on my mind when I was making this.

Where’d you get the cover image? It’s really striking, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Yeah yeah, it’s really intense. So my mum had a nanny when she was growing up. She was this woman who ran a café in Kuala Kubu Baru that my Grandpa used to go when he was just like ‘a bachelor’ as he says, and they became friends. She was quite a bit older than him and when he married my grandma she was like, “oh you’re really gonna need a nanny to help with the kids and the cleaning. I’ll help you find someone, in the meantime I’ll help with your household needs.” But then she was like, “I can’t find anyone good enough, so I’m just gonna be working in your house now.” So she and her adopted daughter lived with my grandparents and she had all these photo albums from other families she’d done a similar thing with and gotten close to.

She was an immigrant from China, she’s Cantonese, and she kind of moved to Malaysia in these confusing circumstances but had developed these close relationships with all these families there. And so this photo album that I’d found at my mum’s house was just all of her photos from the 50’s and 60’s before she’d started working for my grandparents and it was just like, these weird intimate pictures of these families that have nothing to do with me, but they were really kind of spooky and cool. I have no idea who the girl in that picture is but it’s like this weird, decrepit kind of debris house with this girl in front of it, in my mums nanny’s personal photo collection that I have no context for. I was like, “Cool.” My other option was this theme park in Singapore that’s now closed, and the theme is the seven circles of hell. So it’s got tortured little figurine people in hell, and these crazy giant carps with freaky eyes, that might go on Sungai Mix 2, but I thought I’d start it with something a bit more chill.

How did this tape come together? What did finding these songs and putting it all together look like for you?

It was funny cos sometime in lockdown last year, I was on a podcast my friend was doing and she asked me to talk about Malaysian music. I found some cool stuff, there was this big surf rock and Beatles revival, but I really hit a wall after the surf rock stuff became less interesting. Indonesia had a way more diverse collection of alternative music, and I was a bit jealous, Malaysia gets seriously uncool after ’60 something. This time around I thought if I included an array of different Asian countries, it would actually illustrate the way we perceive differences between Southeast Asia and East Asia. It’s quite pronounced, but also what can be preserved and manufactured is different.

For example, with Cambodian psych-rock, the Khmer Rouge targeted artists and rock musicians and general left-wing creative people specifically. Cambodia had a really strong rock tradition, but a lot of these artists were killed, and the same risk could be posed in current day Myanmar. There’s a huge punk community, who knows what the hell’s gonna happen with that now. It’s the same with Malaysia; there’s this cool surf rock thing going on in the 60’s, and when the end of colonialism happened, there was a shift towards a more rigid, religious doctrine. The government is very corrupt so people weren’t expressing themselves musically in the way they could have, whereas Japan for example, hasn’t been colonised and has a very strong sense of their own culture. I don’t feel like many other Southeast Asian countries had the ability to do that, not because of the individual artists, but because they were living under oppressive governments.

When I tried to look up Vietnamese rock, all I could find was how American rock musicians were affected by the Vietnam war. I was like, “I wanna read about Vietnamese rock musicians, not Bob Dylan. What, like you think that Asian’s are too heads down that we can’t have our own sense of alternativeness?” It irritates me, so many people in Australia have an idea of Asia, and even in Malaysia it’s just like, beaches, and resorts, and tourism and vacuousness, and no real arts culture and no real, anything. It’s just a big city with lots of fancy hotels. There’s so much more to everywhere than that. No country is just that, take some time to learn about all things behind the scenes you don’t know. Making this tape made me think that people were trying, some people were able to release things, some people weren’t. I was also trying to balance different types of music within the tape to keep it interesting, it’s quite guitar heavy but I also wanted to include some disco stuff. I didn’t want anything too modern cos people can find that themselves, we’re in a global world, so it’s all 64’ to 81’. I think the thing about these mixtapes is people are curious but they wouldn’t think to look.

One thing that really bothered me is, you know that label Sublime Frequencies? They did some really amazing archival work. They put out heaps of compilations of Cambodian, Thai and Malaysian rock music. But to me they represent that classic like, nerdy white guys who thinks, “We discovered this for you so, here you go. Just in case: The Forgotten Gems of Asia.” It’s just like, “You just didn’t care until now. People in Asia remember.” But like, I did listen to all of their tapes y’know, they’re great, I would definitely recommend it. I just want them to shut up. I definitely have a bias where I very much believe in the ‘insider researcher.’ I think that it’s important for people to document their own cultures as much as possible. It can reignite your identification with it with a new sense of agency. I guess it’s a personal thing. I feel resentful when academics who are very distant from something tell me something about myself. Like I’m glad I have this knowledge, I’m not trying to gatekeep who can know what, but it’s frustrating when I can’t access information that’s relevant to me and I have to hear it from another source that actually has no emotional attachment. That’s just an emotional reaction obviously, I guess intellectually I do think that you can have a different and quite important read on something if it’s a personal thing, and that’s why I like being an insider researcher. I think to be reflexive and comment and do that archival work on your own community, will always have wildly different results to outsiders. It’s something that I would like to see more of. I think that archival work is important, and that your interpretation of your own people or group is something that we maybe haven’t seen as much of in the past.

Are you hoping this tape will speak to Asian minorities in Melbourne or Australia? Is there a larger political objective? Does this tie into part of your research?

I think I have a little bit of impostor syndrome - I grew up in Australia, I don’t speak the language and my dad is white. But I was really chuffed because when I posted it on Instagram, heaps of my Malaysian friends commented like, “This looks awesome!” They actually seemed interested and it reminded me why I wanted to do this. So for people my age who grew up there and came here for uni or whatever, to know they appreciated that was really cool. They can hear this from somebody with a vested interest who they can relate to and trust their interpretation. It’s not commodifying it, it’s not turning it into an exotic spectacle, it’s just like, this is important to me and I hope it can be important to you. And also to remind people outside that Asian context that alternative subcultures exist globally, it’s not just that the west imports it everywhere else, people have their own take on these things, and they’re profoundly different from place to place and that’s really cool. I’m glad it speaks to other people. It’s good for members of the diaspora to remind each other what we grew up with, which is a Malaysia that doesn’t really exist anymore, but does exist in our minds and in Australia, which is weird.

How did you get involved with Cease And Desist?

I literally met Yasmine at start of the year at her birthday party that I just happened to be at, gate crashing, and she was like, “You should put out a tape on my label.” We’d been planning it from the start it just took ages. At first, we wanted to donate all the profits to people on the ground protesting in Myanmar, but it was actually impossible to get in contact with anybody, it’s so fucked up right now. I was talking to people from the Myanmar student union at one of the universities in NSW who were promoting a lot of the protests, trying to get international students from Myanmar to have permanent residency and visa rights here. But money wasn’t much help to them, so for ages we were just trying to find something relevant to donate to. I don’t feel like I need to make money off of this, so we’ve decided to donate the profits to Sisters Inside. We had kinda been plotting it for a while and then we were just like, let’s just put it out there.

Sungai Mix 1 is out now on Cease and Desist Records - head to to purchase the mixtape on limited handmade cassette or digitally, with all profits going to Sisters Inside. If you would like to donate to Sisters Inside directly, please head here and give what you can.