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Keeping The Good Times Rolling
If the Singapore story could be told in music, the man for it would be Iskandar Ismail. The musician-composer —one of Singapore’s foremost cultural diplomats — rocked, jived,jammed and composed his way through rough times and good, stamping his mark on the‘70s night club circuit and grew to Cultural Medallion stature in the new millenium.
By Kim Lee
Iskandar Ismail’s life’s work is described as an endeavour “to explain being Singaporean to Singaporeans—and Singapore to a wider world,” by former Chief Executive Officer of the National Arts Council, Benson Puah, in the book, Music Man, launched in July last year, to celebrate Iskandar’s 30-year musical career.
The influence of the music producer and director has been indelibly woven into the tapestry of Singapore’s musical heritage. His distinct style, a unique contribution to the Singapore sound, can be heard in the seven National Day parades in which he served as music director since 1997 and in the 15 Chingay parades in which he served as composer,performer and music arranger. He has put his stamp on theatrical works with performances such as Chang and Eng and Sing to the Dawn, the Arts Festival, local television dramas, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few. And if you include his overseas projects, like commercial Cantopop songs with celebrities Andy Lau, George Lam,Aaron Kwok, Jacky Cheung and Sandy Lam, the list of accomplishments for this 2008 Cultural Medallion winner grows even more illustrious.
“When Iskandar came home from the renowned Berklee College of Music as an educated, professional musician,he elevated the level of this art in Singapore.”
— Louis Soliano, jazz musician
A career in music seems the logical path for young Iskandar.
This giant in Singapore’s music landscape has also been one of the country’s foremost cultural diplomats. His original compositions for the Spotlight Singapore Young Entrepreneurs Series, an initiative of The Old Parliament House, have been performed to acclaim in Tokyo (2006),Moscow (2008), Cape Town (2011) and Bratislava (2012). The performance of his five-movement piece, ‘Living Dreams: A Concert Suite at Dawn’ evoked a standing ovation. Part of Iskandar’s conception of the piece was having a Chinese flute in duet with a Slovakian flute while his finale comprised an alchemy of a Slovak folk song and Malay joget rhythm.
Iskandar, 58, grew up with the Singapore music scene in the early1970s as the young nation was still grappling with how to make its unexpected independence work with a multi-racial population and a mass of social and economic challenges.
Understandably,most parents then advised their children against financially insecure careers in the arts. Yet, where Iskandar was concerned,music was the only option that mattered.
“I decided to pursue music for a very simple reason,”says Iskandar. “It was already there in my life. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do.” He may not have been aware of it, but this single-minded pursuit of what he loved would change not just his life, but the music landscape for Singapore.
His musical family helped cast his conviction. “I was always exposed to different forms of music,” he says. “Back in those days, my mother, Nona Asiah, was a popular singer, and my father, Ismail Kassim, was a brilliant guitarist and saxophonist,and he could sing as well. Emulating my siblings, I formed a bandsimilar to the Jackson 5. My musical education began at eight,when I studied classical piano under Mr Zubir Said (composer of Singapore’s national anthem), who helped hone my skills as a musician.” Iskandar’s relationship with Zubir as mentor inspired him to set his sights on a proper musical education, a rare idea in those times. Education would make a big difference between Iskandar and other music aspirants of his day.
“I believe in sharing. We all work as a team, giving each other inspiration and encouragement to press on.”
– Iskandar Ismail
Recalls jazz musician and friend Louis Soliano, “Most musicians in that era learned music orally with the aid of basic chord charts by listening to songs repeatedly. When Iskandar came home from Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music as an educated, professional musician,he elevated the level of this art in Singapore. From then on, many young Singaporeans sought and pursued this profession with respect. In my opinion, this was a huge improvement — he revolutionised the craft here.”
Spreading the Love
A proper music education is something Iskandar encourages among the many local musical aspirants he meets in his work,something upcoming singer Amni Musfirah, 19, knows. “When I was recording the Asian Youth Games 2009 theme song, we were in the studio listening to the playback when I told him I wanted to go to Berklee. He was very generous in sharing about his alma mater. Mr Iskandar is a very quiet person, so that conversation was very motivating. Now, I am on my way to pursue my degree at Berklee! Who knew that a 15-minuteconversation could have impacted me so much?”
At the opening night of the charity concert Child Aid 2011, at the National University of Singapore Cultural Centre,Iskandar was the artistic director. The concert raised $1.88 million.
Performing as a member of the Louis Tan Trio at Hilton Hotel in the ‘80s. Clockwise: Eddie Jensen, Louis Tan and Iskandar Ismail (with scarf).
Says Iskandar, “As long as they are willing to learn, I’m more than willing to impart my knowledge. I believe in sharing.We all work as a team, giving each other inspiration and encouragement to press on.
“The music scene in Singapore today is very vibrant and promising. There are a lot more musicians who are pursuing music as a professional career rather than as a hobby. This riseis also due to the prevalence of social media as a platform for aspiring musicians.”
Things were very different when Iskandar returned from Berklee. He remembers, “The 1970s was a difficult time to be a musician. There was tough competition in the market. There were already a lot of popular bands and musicians around.”Ironically, he found himself ‘too qualified’ for most jobs in the industry, and his big dreams for a music career seemed up against a wall. Then he met Soliano, from whom he got his his first break playing piano in his band.
Soliano recalls their first meeting in 1974, during the Happy Hour at the Peacock Lounge in The Shangri-la Hotel. “Mytrio, the AJL band was the resident group,” says Soliano.“On that night, Iskandar came with his dad. It was his rebellious image that struck me most — a young lad with long tresses, in blue jeans and a tee-shirt reminiscent of a rock and roll musician. It was a period when music was not favoured by parents and society.”
It would have been easy to abandon his dreams for something easier, but Iskandar saw music as his destiny, and“you cannot run away from your destiny,” says he.
“I love the sense of freedom that music can bring you.There are so many different genres a composer can play with to create an original, vibrant song. With more technological advancements in musical software, more genres are constantly appearing in the music scene, and this unlimited growth of music excites me greatly. Music has no boundaries.”
It certainly held none for Iskandar, who made a reputation for himself as a musical all-rounder, able to work across genres and languages. Performers and audiences have been awed by Iskandar’s ability to weave music into spectacular aural tapestries involving instruments from the piano to the erhu.
The Spotlight Singapore series, a cultural exchange programme that began in 2006 with Hong Kong, allowed Iskandar to explore musical traditions in the countries it took him to — Japan, Russia, South Africa and the Slovak and Czech republics. “I got the freedom to experiment with large scale musical structures and styles as well as work with cultures I would not otherwise have opportunities to. Being able to write for the famous Russian violinist Tatiana Grindenko and perform with her in Spotlight Singapore in Moscow in 2008 remains a highlight for me.”
“I hope all children have the opportunity to learn music and arts whether they are rich, poor or of different cultures and background. Music is for everyone.”
– Iskandar Ismail
His modest description of his music contrasts with what local musicians think of his work. Says Amni, “His music is a true reflection of our culture in Singapore and Asia. He weaves musical elements from different cultures so well that the music is not defined as many musical elements, but as one coherent music that speaks for everyone in our region.”
Performers look up to Iskandar for other reasons. He can, for example, “arrange for an entire orchestra without a keyboard or other instrument — it’s all in his head,” says actor, writer and choreographer Jeremiah Choy. “And the speed at which his pen flies over the score sheet is extraordinary. It is like watching an artist paint.”
Iskandar’s efficiency at work comes from a lifetime of discipline for the self-confessed workaholic. His normal routine begins at six or seven in the morning for two uninterrupted hours of work on the latest or most urgent project. His professionalism is also well known. If there is a deadline to be met, new parts written, or parts re-written, he just gets down to it.
In spite of the high regard of his peers and juniors in the music and entertainment industry, Iskandar lives with humility and remains remarkably temperate in a business where it is all too easy for egos to rise and tempers to flare. Recalls singer songwriter Clement Chow, “I have never heard Iskandar sayone bad thing about anyone.”
Although a man of few words, Iskandar chose to come up with Music Man with the grant he received from the National Arts Council when awarded the Cultural Medallion.
Book of Life
“The idea of the biography came up three years ago when I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer,” he says. Iskandar’s intention is to share the ups and downs of his musical journey to ‘inspire other young budding musicians to persevere and carve their own way in the industry.’ It isn’t a moneymaking venture as “I’m more than happy to donate the proceeds to charity so that more will benefit,” he says. “I have been so blessed, I hope I can be a blessing to others too.”
In spite of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy,Iskandar continues to work. “My illness cannot stand between me and my passion. Therefore I continue to focus on my projects.” What goes unsaid is the realisation that time could be short and how this has sharpened focus and appreciation for the things that really matter to him — family, friends and music.
All three came together at the launch of his book at The Old Parliament House, where the awareness of his illness hung like an elephant in the room. Stronger still, however, were the guests’ genuine affection for the man and concern for his health, particularly with news of his recent relapse.
Yet Iskandar chooses to look forward, such as at the upcoming Child Aid Concert in December, an annual project he has been working on since its inception. “This charity event is part of giving back to society,” says Iskandar. “I hope all children have the opportunity to learn music and arts whether they are rich, poor or of different cultures and background.Music is for everyone.”
Today, Iskandar is pleased to see more diversity in Singapore’s music industry. “There are far more players in the scene,” he observes. “Good music is good music, wherever it is made. What is important is that people like what you do. Singapore musicians these days are far more recognised around the world than when I first started. That’s a good sign.And that’s the way things should be.”
Book cover of the recently launched Music Man by Epigram Books.