The Right Pitch
As with any country that celebrates a community from diverse cultures, Singapore’s music scene is a lyrical tapestry that has found its own voice in the region and beyond.
By Leela Jesudason
ingapore may be small in size but that doesn’t diminish its claim to fame through its dynamic music scene peopled by stalwart pioneers such as jazz great Jeremy Monteiro, music personality Dick Lee or father of rock Datuk Ramli Sarip and a rising generation of young musicians such as Taufik Batisah. These musicians have not only flourished in Singapore but have brought their unique brand of music overseas and made a name for themselves and Singapore.
Singapore jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro, who started out playing the piano and singing in local gigs in the 1980s, is not just a pioneer in the jazz scene here. He has also become a stalwart in the music industry, recognised for his outstanding work in his field.
For his expertise, he has also been invited to sit on numerous boards, such as the Board of Governors of the Asia Academy of Music Arts and Sciences in November 2011 and on the National Arts Council from 2006 to 2010.
Monteiro, who has produced over 700 pieces of music, is the first local jazz musician to receive a Cultural Medallion in Singapore in 2002, the pinnacle award in the arts arena for his contributions to the local jazz scene.
But his fame has spread beyond Singapore. As a composer, he has been awarded a Silver Medal at the 1991 International Radio Festival of New York, as well as finalist awards at the 1990 and 1991 London International Advertising Awards for best original music score (radio, television and cinema). He also stages concerts and has performed in countries like America, China, Canada, Indonesia and Switzerland, among others.
Monteiro talks about his overseas stints: “Being an ambassador of Singapore music has come as part of what I have done over the years through my music. The opportunities I’ve had to perform in global festivals and sharing the stage with jazz legends like Quincy Jones and Incognito have put me in the position of being somewhat representative of Singapore.”
But he is quick to stress: “Musicians generally don’t start out to gain recognition and thinking about going to great places. We just concentrate on making the best music we can. If this translates to success and recognition, that’s great.”
As an ambassador — and pioneer — of the Singapore jazz scene, Monteiro gets to showcase Singapore to the rest of the world. “I’d like to think I have a useful role of encouraging young people and giving insights to aspiring musicians on what to expect,” explains Monteiro. “I’ve had the privilege of having been on the National Arts Council, during which I pushed really hard for financial support to be offered to budding musicians from any genre. I now have the kind of credibility and experience to make a difference.
“I’ve worked at helping young musicians get full scholarships to study and get their master’s degrees in jazz studies. Some are technically already better than me by a long shot,” says Monteiro. “They are in that self-discovery stage, building their own audience and creating interesting and wonderful works. But they also want to exert their own identity so, at this stage, the kindest thing I can do for them is to let them find their own way. They had much more than I ever hoped to get growing up. My wish is that when they finally find their space and establish themselves that they will also think about helping the young ones coming up. I think they will.”
When British R&B became popular in the sixties, it spawned a local Malay genre. Veteran rocker Datuk Ramli Sarip is best known as the frontman and lead vocal of Singapore band, Sweet Charity, which plays Malay rock.
But he is also acknowledged for his role in bringing about the “rock explosion” in Singapore and Malaysia in the mid 1980s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the nascent music scene, influenced by Ramli and Sweet Charity’s hit albums, spawned more local bands.
Music is the common language that bridges Singapore and Malaysia.
The Malaysians loved him just as much; between 2000 and 2005, he performed almost every week in Malaysia at various concert halls and clubs, and was a regular crowd-puller at music festivals. Ramli was also invited to take part in Malaysian events such as the Langkawi International Festival of arts 2002 (LIFA), the biggest arts and world music festival in Malaysia, organised the country’s tourism board.
The rocker and his band also wielded considerable influence over Malaysia’s rock bands, mentoring groups such as Search, Lefthanded and Wings from 1979 to 1985, giving these fledgling bands a helping hand, and at the same time, spreading the Sweet Charity brand of music farther afield.
Aptly given the moniker Papa Rock, Ramli recently celebrated 45 years in the music industry in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with sold-out concerts in both locations in October this year. He has more than 12 solo albums to his name and has garnered more platinum and gold certified recordings than any other English language artist in Singapore.
“When I was in Sweet Charity, we were the first rock band to tour every city in Malaysia; including Sabah, Sarawak, and even Brunei,” recalls Ramli. “The response from our fans during performances was awesome! We knew our music was accepted then for what it was, and it has proven to be a hit until today.”
One of Singapore’s most famous personalities in the music and arts scene is composer-musician Dick Lee, whose compositions incorporate Asian musical elements into pop tunes and whose songs feature Singlish, a Singapore-English creole. His emphasis on seeking identity in his music stems from his personal heritage as a Singaporean Peranakan* and to that end, his first album, Life in the Lion City (1984), received critical mention. Besides introducing a fusion mix of music to Singapore, Lee also ventured abroad and left his imprint in Japan and Hong Kong.
His 1989 album, The Mad Chinaman, shot him to fame in Asia and hit platinum within three months of its release. It was so well received in Japan that Lee moved there in 1990 to further his musical career and also to bring Singapore to a wider Japanese audience.
“During my early days in Tokyo, many that I spoke to didn’t even know exactly where Singapore was,” says Lee. But when he staged his Oriental pop operetta Nagraland there in 1992, the Japanese community sat up and took notice of him. The musical, a blend of various cultures and music genres, aptly defined the cultural metamorphosis of many Asian cultures at the time, and captured the hearts of its Japanese audience, which could identify with the themes and issues that Lee highlighted.
“My mixed heritage meant that I could strongly assert myself as a New Asian,” explains Lee.
He added: “In the 1990s, Japan was considered the cultural leader of music in Asia. The rest of Asia was taking their cues from J-pop and various other Japanese music genres. And many musicians in Singapore and South East Asia saw that I was able to break into the Japanese market and were encouraged.”
Lee’s Singaporean touch through music and drama didn’t stop with Japan. He moved to Hong Kong in 1996, and worked with megastar Jackie Cheung to create the award-winning musical, Wolf.Snow.Lake, Hong Kong’s first musical. He has since composed songs for many Hong Kong pop stars and actors like Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, Anita Mui and Sandy Lam.
The star who is also fondly nicknamed The Mad Chinaman says, “I champion the Singapore identity through pop culture and music. We are all cultural ambassadors for Singapore.”
Following in the footsteps of Singapore’s music pioneers but blazing his own trail is Taufik Batisah, the first winner of singing reality show Singapore Idol, in 2004. Since winning the contest, Taufik has released five solo albums, Blessings in English being his first, in 2005. Fique, his latest album in Malay is his fifth to hit the music stores, and is set to strengthen his fan base in Malaysia and Indonesia.
And in a show of recognition that his achievements are cutting across cultures beyond the Malay community in the region, Taufik also recently bagged three awards at the Anugerah Planet Muzik, a competition that honours Malay-language singers in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. These awards were specifically created to showcase collaborations between artists from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 2012, he performed in Seoul at the ABU TV Song Festival, Asia’s version of the Eurovision Song Contest, bringing his style of music farther afield and showcasing the Singapore name.
Like Monteiro, he discovered that music had no boundaries.
He recalls his first foray as a performer outside Singapore: “My band Bonafide, which played hip-hop and R&B, was invited to perform at a hip-hop festival in Kuala Lumpur. It was then that I realised music has no barriers, and that language and nationality do not matter, which is one of the reasons why I love what I do.
“The scene has changed positively over the years,” explains Taufik. “The sudden influx of talent competitions in 2005 and the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have provided Singapore musicians with a global outlet to showcase their music. The quality of Singapore music has advanced and I’ve witnessed many home-grown talents making their mark overseas, which makes me feel really proud.”
“Music is my passion and I’m grateful and humbled to have been given the opportunity to write and produce my own songs for the past 10 years. I will continue to work on my craft and I can only hope that this will inspire more local musicians to keep doing what they love.”
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