You enter the club and it grips you. Not the good-lookers you eye or the brusque bouncers giving you the evil one; even the rank alcoholic stench of huddled bodies is tame in comparison. It’s Rick Astley, ingratiatingly telling you he’ll never give you up or let you down or, heaven forbid, desert you.
Unfortunately, all this is real. And the ginger-haired, baritone-voiced singer is just the beginning of a night haunted with electrified ghosts of radio’s past — and the people who worship them.
It’s called Mambo Jambo, the famous mid-week party at Singapore’s de facto nightlife destination, where each Wednesday, Astley and a pantheon of erstwhile pop superstars are exhumed and brought back to life. As the spectre of Bananarama and Erasure take over the club speakers, the earnest and ironic alike descend upon the dance floor to awkwardly shake their
booties hands, not unlike Astley’s own iconic shimmy.
The whole thing’s not very trendy nor is it as cutting-edge as Zouk’s space-pod architecture would imply, but the event is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon on the island. With a playlist well stocked with pop tchotchkes from the mid- to late-eighties, Mambo Jambo (or “Mambo” for short) has been packing in crowds since 1992. It seems milking the young Singaporean’s thirst for the past sure makes good business sense.
As an event predicated on nostalgia, Mambo couldn’t have picked a better era in music to haul from the dead than the heady eighties. It was a particularly bright spot in human history: Enormous technological advances, booming economies, and a general political stability that culminated in the lifting of the Curtain. Singapore, too, was in good spirits, having shook off a recession in 1986.
A bulk of the popular music then, the kind Astley churned out, was upbeat and optimistic compared to the gritty, joyless post-punk from just a few years before. These were halcyon days, and for those who remember them, Mambo does its best to conjure the period via rose-tinted sound.
But as it turns out, nobody does.
Maybe those who strutted around Zouk back when Mambo started can remember those days (they’d have to be at least 36 or 37 right now), but for everyone else, especially the “virgin clubgoers” the series purportedly appeals to, the eighties ended before they began. And despite the relic status of most of the songs played, the queue snaking into Zouk remains as long as bellies of the cash registers are wide and filled.
Most say it’s the combination of free entry for ladies and horny buzz-cut boys fresh off the boat from Tekong, but there has to be something else behind Mambo’s otherworldly success.
As the event marches on through the years, it starts representing different things to a different set of revelers. The whole affair has moved from being honestly “retro”; to satiating the youth of the fin-de-nineties (myself included) with hallucinations of pre-Jersey Shore MTV and phantasies of childhood radio explorations; to existing as something outside of memory and time altogether.
Its playlist unchanged throughout the years, Mambo has become timeless — or untimely — in every sense of the word: it is resistant to the past, ignorant of the present and immune to the future. Which means to say that to the current crop of partygoers, Mambo doesn’t signify the eighties anymore. It signifies itself.
For the horde of 19-year-olds who frequent the night, Mambo stands for the act of recollection, the process of artificially stitching a never-remembered past to its disconnected present. As Hamlet said to the Ghost, “The time is out of joint”; the lament is as true of 16th Century Denmark as it is of 21st Century Singapore, a nation-state for whom the past is at best overrated.
For a song, our collective histories
Like any other city, Singapore has its tales; buildings have their histories and roads bear the names of characters from lore. Yet for all its storied past, the city-state has a ferocious appetite for all things new and gimmicky. “Renovation” is the operating word here: Shophouses are sacrificed for skyscrapers, residential blocks are constantly being retrofitted with lifts and other middle-class necessities, even cemeteries aren’t spared the merciless barge of the bulldozer.
Blame history. Once independent, the city-state grew up too fast. It jumped straight into adulthood, skipping the formative years during which culture usually percolates; it ignored its past, and by doing so dispelled the oft-held myth, true or not, that old things are sacred. The city’s manifesto was a simple but firm one: Besides the economy, everything else should be buried under the flag of modernity.
But for all its concrete jungle ego, Singapore is in thought and practice a cardboard city with cardboard citizens, us. We were born characters without a backstory, plagued by a short-term memory. We don’t recall what came before ION Orchard, and years after the mall is itself toppled, probably won’t remember it even stood there, proudly throbbing towards the skies, on what was once a picnic grounds for Filipino workers.
Like the physical one, our interior architecture is a perpetual palimpsest, designed to withstand change after protean change but failing when it comes to establishing anything permanent. Perhaps that’s why we snatch so fervently at (faux) ephemera from our pasts, like mama shop candy peddled at savvy independent bookstores — often at thrice the price — and other built-as-vintage tokens of memorabilia: to remind us of ourselves.
We may be hurtling headfirst into speculative futures, yet the past will always continue exerting its force upon us even if ignored, and even if only as Hamlet’s father did upon the prince, in ghostly form.
Fortunately, music is not architecture; the song cannot be demolished the way moldy shopping centers can. This permanence is what loads music with so much nostalgic baggage, and so for Mambo’s sonic specters, song is a powerful drug. When Phil Oakley croons, “We’ll always be together, together in electric dreams”, he might as well be singing of the relationship between the young Zouk crowd and their artificial memories, a nostalgia for the past that never or never-quite happened.
Mambo dangles this promise of unearthing the young crowd’s Singaporean past from under layers of new architectures and archaeologies, but it is a promise impossible to fulfill. What they get instead is a reunion by proxy: Mambo’s reanimated pop stars and their golden age illusion, summoned during the ritual chanting and flailing arms (“Woah-oah-oah square roo-oo-oom”), play substitutes to the real — inadequate ones, but substitutes nonetheless.
Chiefly, the night forges an Arcadian link to a happier and more innocent time; not at all the eighties but a time before experience; childhood or early school days perhaps. Whenever that was, Mambo evokes a hypnagogic state in its devotees, somewhere between an affirmative I-was-there, a yearning I-wish-I-was-still-there, and a remorseful I-wish-I-had-been-there, or all three at once.
Most of the time though, the Mambo mob is ecstatic. You’d only need to look at those on the podium beatifically mouthing the lyrics to “Summer Nights”, accompanied by the period-appropriate hip shuffle, to be sure of how Mambo can delight enormously. Nobody’s trying to be pretentious, or a music aficionado, thankfully.
Outside Arcady they might be the cool kids, perched on railings with cigarettes angling off lipsticked mouths. But inside Zouk’s curved walls, they become children again, the dance floor a replacement for their sandy playground of bygone HDB days, the ageless songs resounding the ecstasy of youth.
And later still, in the taxi ride home with (if they’re lucky) Class 95 FM blaring the same eighties pop and the only thing for company their still-young selves staring back at them from grimy windows, who knows what concoction of longing and bliss passes through their minds?
One thing’s for sure: This would never happen at a dubstep night.
Words Iliyas Ong
Illustrations Nova Halle