Is there such a thing as Malaysian indie rock? Or indie culture? There is, but you may not have heard of it. Malaysia's music scene usually only makes headlines when conservative Muslims protest against the sexy outfits of visiting R&B singers. Outcries forced Beyonce to cancel concerts in the country in 2007 and 2009, while Rihanna, Avril Lavigne and the Black Eyed Peas have all had to cover up bosom, midriff and legs.
These controversies may be part of the country's cultural growing pains, but there is also a less-publicised transformation taking place in indie music, art, poetry and performance - metropolitan-based creative fields where Malaysia is quietly falling in step with the rest of the world. A festival dedicated to tying these movements together, Urbanscapes, will celebrate its 10th anniversary on November 24-25 in Padang Astaka, a park on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Its headliners include Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros and Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna, who is fast gaining indie cred in North America, where she completed an 11-stop tour last month. There will also be poetry sessions, art installations and four music stages with everything from hardcore to alt-folk to dubstep. Last year 14,000 people came for a single-day event. This year, the festival grows to two days and expects 20,000 or more.
"When the moral police complain, it's usually more to do with religion and sex. But if it's four guys with skinny jeans on stage, people don't really care," says Adrian Yap, Urbanscapes' founder and organiser.
Ten years ago, Yap was editor of KLue, a culture and entertainment magazine for Kuala Lumpur. "When we started the festival, the idea was to feature as many creative talents as possible," he says. "I personally had a lot of interest in all these creative fields. It was a natural progression from the magazine. We said, 'If we're already featuring all these interesting people and events, why don't we have a one-day festival where we put everything together?'"
The first festival, in 2002, attracted about 1,000 people, but was a comparatively amateur affair and experienced problems with funding and general organisation. The second Urbanscapes came in 2004, but then it was not held again until 2008, when it finally gained a firmer organisational footing and managed to become an annual event.
By that time, Yap had visited Glastonbury, the summer music festival in the British countryside. He was deeply impressed, but still felt he should limit his focus to Malaysian talent. Yap says his aim is to give visitors "a really good snapshot of what's happening creatively in Malaysia at a given time". As such, Urbanscapes developed as a major platform for Malaysian talents. One of them was Yuna, a waifish female singer-songwriter with a haunting, lovely voice that reminds one of Norah Jones.
Yuna, whose real name is Yunalis Zarai, performed at Urbanscapes in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, she also won Malaysia's national music industry award for best pop song, and the following year broke into the North American market, signing on to the label of hipster bellwether mag The Fader.
Though the 25-year-old has produced hits in Malay, the national language, she sings mostly in English, and the way she wears her Muslim head scarves gives her a stylish, bohemian look. With The Fader's support, last year she tore her way into the hearts of hipster central at America's indie mecca, the SXSW music festival. Hip hop producer Pharrell Williams has since come in to produce her first US single, Live Your Life, and North American tours have followed.
"In the last year, her career just skyrocketed," says Yap. "But since she broke in America, she has not been back. So it's really nice, as it's a homecoming of sorts both to our festival and to Malaysia."
Outside of Urbanscapes, Yap also runs a coffee shop called The Bee, which has a performance space that can hold about 400 people. It has hosted international acts including Grimes, The Vaccines and 65 Days of Static. As Yap has seen local demand for indie music grow, he has also sensed it is time to diversify his festival. "We realised last year that there's only so much you can do if you have a Malaysian-centric programming policy," he says. "Also, this is our 10th anniversary, so we want to do something special."
So for 2012, Urbanscapes has invited Sigur Ros along with a handful of acts from Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Sigur Ros may be known for slow compositions but in recent gigs have been stepping up the pace. In an online interview with Malaysian fans, bass player Georg Holm says that this year, in order to meet the high energy demanded by big festival stages, "we chose a set list that rocks and rolls from beginning to end".
"Definitely, we do enjoy playing around with it a little and going quiet," Holm says. "I would say our set this year has had lots of rocking moments. It's pretty full on, and it's a good mix of songs from all the records. I think this year, this is the best show we have done ever."
If Sigur Ros prove a major draw, Yap believes it may be a milestone for Malaysian indie music, and also a sign of how much has changed. "The government has gotten much more proactive about attracting so-called lifestyle events to Malaysia," says Yap.
"There's the general realisation that Singapore is taking in a lot of tourism dollars through concerts and festivals. So now there's a concerted effort to right the perception that Malaysia doesn't really have concerts or these kinds of pop culture events."
Corporate sponsors have also been attracted by growing audiences, and in the process, genres that were once underground - such as electronic dance music or rock - are now finding mainstream support. "If [the DJs] Tiesto or David Guetta come to town, the shows are very often being funded by large corporations," says Yap, whose 8,000-capacity main stage at this year's Urbanscapes is funded by Volkswagen.
On many cultural fronts, things are changing. Last month, when superstar DJ Guetta performed for 25,000 people in Kuala Lumpur, it excited little controversy. And when Jennifer Lopez performs in December the concert is being endorsed by Malaysia's national tourism bureau. Yap finds these changes encouraging, but at the same time he is not particularly interested in becoming a broker in international pop.
"What we'd like to create is a festival that on a very basic level has to maintain its Malaysian identity. For me, Urbanscapes has to be a festival that would look out of place if it wasn't in Malaysia. It needs to have a Malaysian voice," he says.
He also believes his event should aspire to impact fans in a way that's much deeper than the list of bands in the line-up. "The things that really excite me tend to be the things that are not programmed. It's key that people walk away from the festival with a sense that they've discovered something new."
Urbanscapes, Nov 24-25, Padang Astaka, Kuala Lumpur. For more details, go to urbanscapes.com.my