Open Borders

A howling cry of excitement is drenched in reverb and pitched up until it resembles a siren, and then it’s looped over anthemic Jersey club triplets and skittering baile funk shuffles. Next, it transitions into unhurried vocal clips and a tropical hand drum polyrhythm. The track is “Not Many” from Australian-Filipino producer Kuya Neil, and it’s a remix of the classic cut of the same name by Samoan rapper Scribe. The edit is emblematic of his approach to music, both in outlook and style. “I feel like the bootleg/edit culture is a really great way to connect with people who wouldn’t normally listen to dance music,” he says. “I’m really conscious of trying to bridge scenes here in Melbourne because it’s so small and we really need to work together and be aware of each other.”

That attempt to connect cultures has been central to Neil’s work since he started producing club music, blending his and his collaborators’ heritage with sounds from other cultures. He began with Chicago footwork remixes of old Filipino music and then made New York ballroom bootlegs of Pacific Islander music. “You have to consciously make an effort not to imitate since these are regional sounds from other countries, and using your family’s culture is a good way to make it more personal,” he says.

Neil’s parents moved from Cebu, an island at the center of the Philippines, to a small, white working-class town a bit south of Melbourne. Growing up there was isolating as a Filipino, so as soon as he turned 18 he left for Melbourne, where he’s been for the last 12 years. He was inspired to make dance music by footwork and the queer New York rap wave from the early 2010s, but it would be a few years before he actually tried producing it. He was experimenting at home with footwork that he wouldn’t release for a couple of years, and in 2018 he got involved with the ballroom scene across the pond in New Zealand. Ballroom started in the Black and Latinx queer communities of Harlem and revolves around vogue dance battles. The music was originally rooted in house and disco and has more recently overlapped with Jersey and Baltimore Club, but it’s most easily identified by its “ha” smash. The issues of identity and community ingrained in the culture resonated with islanders from Oceania and their history of colonialism and subjugation.

Neil was producing for a rap group in New Zealand named Fanau Spa and a few of the members were part of the vogue scene. “They’d throw me samples from like Fujian or Samoan songs from their parents and ask me to turn them into ballroom tracks,” he explains. One of these projects was his EP Femslick which he made in collaboration with Akashi Fisiinaua for her ballroom stage play of the same name. The experience was eye-opening for him, both in terms of culture and how he viewed dance music. He was inspired by how they wanted to make something of their own, not just mimic someone else’s culture. He also learned what worked on a dancefloor. “They really guided me and invited me into their space. Doing music like that in a very intimate setting, I felt like I was trusted with being there even though I wasn’t part of the community.” After this, he adopted the Kuya Neil alias, embracing his own heritage in his music (‘kuya’ means older brother in Filipino).

Around this time in 2018-19, Neil says Melbourne as a whole really started to embrace the idea of representation in the dance music scene and push it consciously, possibly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that had started a few years earlier. “There was a real push by artists of color and queer artists to put their own spaces together.” At the center of this is a forward-thinking club called Miscellanea. “They’re happy to have people run small gigs for their friends, it’s not as profit-driven as some other venues.” In a recent event posting hosting globe-trotting Jersey club DJ Uniiqu3, the organizers made it a point to acknowledge the country’s colonial past, highlighting that “all of the work that we undertake as a crew happens on stolen land.” The party was also free for trans women of color and indigenous peoples.

The city of Melbourne and the Victorian state government even loaned a hand to this movement to diversify the culture. They spent half a million US dollars on 40 projects bringing together local musicians with visual artists, with music being released on Heavy Machinery Records. Neil produced a few tracks released through this program, collaborating with Sri Lankan-Australian experimental rave music producer Papaphilia. The pair recently collaborated again on Chinabot’s compilation celebrating the label’s fifth anniversary.

For all the progress, Neil says the city is still partitioned with people mainly sticking to their respective scenes. “The parties are fairly small and niche,” he says. “But people are feeling more open to collaboration, especially since coming out of the lockdowns.” The lockdowns personally pushed him as well. “I had time to reflect on what I was really interested in and wanted to do. It helped me reassess myself with music and made me want to collaborate with people. I was never completely into one style, I liked things that mixed worlds.”