Uniquely Singaporean music?

Written in early 2008 for an undergraduate class on South East Asia.

“I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours.  But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places.  Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.”  -H.A. Overstreet.

On area of interest

A Dutch friend of mine who visited last year asked to be brought to experience ‘local’ music. I had half the mind to sing him our didactic National Day Songs where “It’s home, truly, where I know I must be.”(Kit Chan, 1998) Singaporean music, to me, seems to be a very fluid and transient concept. Unlike the exclusive Kabuki theatre of Japan, or the distinctive Indian carnatic scale, no single concept (although a few have been suggested though the years) has really managed to capture the essence of Singaporean music. I shall discuss this issue, using selected South-east Asian countries as comparative illustrations, in parts – Singaporean music lacking distinctive musical technicalities and National Day songs as Singaporean music. I shall also conclude with a write-up detailing the intentions behind my performance and the connotations embedded within it.

Singaporean music lacking distinctive musical technicalities

Since the Baroque period in the sixteenth century, music has steadily been categorized into various genres depending on the styles or techniques involved in creating the tune. Southeast Asian music falls under the Western-sorted category of ‘World music’. Within this broad spectrum, specific elements determine which culture each piece of music falls under. I shall discuss Indonesian music as an example.

Two popular types of Indonesian folk music are the Javanese Gamelan and the Balinese Gamelan. While the former is usually slower in tempo, and more gentle and delicate in tune, the latter is faster and more rhythmic in nature. Such folk music employs cultural instruments such as the Gong Ageng (hanging metal gongs), theSaron (metal melodic idiophones) and the Rehab (bowed lute). Indonesian popular music is identified by its use of the Bahasah Melayu language, as well as instruments that are “largely Westernized [like] guitars, keyboards and drums… the melodic and rhythmic idiom is also Western.” (Yampolsky, 1989)

Singapore is disadvantaged in this sense because we do not have a language differentiated from everyone else’s that can be claimed to be solely our own (Singlish does not count), whereas Thailand has its Thai, the Philippines has its Tagalog, Myanmar has its Burmese and so on. Each of our four national languages is easily associated to another nation– Mandarin belonging to China, Tamil from Indian, Malay rooted in Malaysia and Indonesia, and English identifying with just about every part of the world.

Singapore also lacks cultural instruments unlike the metallophones, membrane-bound skin drums or gong kettles that mark other Asian cultures. Although composers writing for National Day performances do try to include ethnic instruments like the Indian Mridangam and the Chinese Er Hu in their repertoire,these are still essentially borrowed from other cultures. In fact, these sometimes only serve to complicate the notion of ‘Singaporean music’ because the fusion can be overwhelming; singing English lyrics to an Indian tune played on Chinese orchestral instruments may originally be intended to portray the multi-cultural reality and diversity in Singapore. But to the tourist (my Dutch friend, for example) who wishes to conceptualize our local music in a grasp, nothing much is truly ours to begin with, except the tangible act of mixing and matching. Perhaps the notion of ‘Singaporean music’ is intended to be a mosaic of selected elements borrowed from everywhere, except home, that is.

National Day songs as Singaporean music

I have always thought that one way of identifying Singaporean music is via the content of what is being sung. Moralistic National Day songs and Courtesy Campaign tunes, for example, preach about how “Together, we make a difference” (Dreamz FM and Evelyn Tan, 1999), and how “Courtesy is for you and me” (Unknown). They usually reflect how much the island has grown and progressed through the years, or how important unity in diversity is for the multi-cultural nation.

Considering how each ethic group (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) has its own cultural festivities, favourite haunts, and selection of delicacies (among other differential elements), the ritualistic singing of National Day songs in August every year can be said to be one of the few significant factors physically binding locals in a massive condition of collective effervescence, in celebration of our triumphant similarities in being Singaporean, while in fact, we are all actually very diverse beneath the label of our nationality. That being said, this communal power of National Day songs via didactic lyrics can conceivably be deemed as ‘Singaporean music’, not only because they were written for the National Day celebrations, but also because they are a running commonality among the experiences of every Singaporean – regardless of race, language or religion.

Performance write-up

I shall attempt to play a medley of Singaporean tunes in various styles including popular music and jazz on a piano. The audience will be asked to guess the titles of these familiar songs. This serves to convey two concepts.

Firstly, what defines a song as Singaporean are its lyrics. Playing my medley purely instrumental without any vocal accompaniment takes these tunes out of context. They bear no association to being ‘nationalistic’ songs and give no hint of their origin without the complementary libretto. Hence, unless one is a local who finds these tunes familiar, the organization of sound then is no different from any other tune belonging to any other nation or culture. This shows that without lyrics, Singaporean songs are nearly cultural deserts.

Secondly, Singaporean music has no genre. National Day songs are usually played on contemporary Western popular culture instruments, although ethic instruments are featured occasionally. The style of these songs range from contemporary upbeat to mellow belting, to traditional demure tempos with embellishments from ethic instruments. Clearly, no one genre can ever completely encompass the real meaning of Singaporean music. Perhaps this then is another silently clever ploy by our composers to reflect the diversity in our ever-changing country.

The definition of Singaporean music will always be open to contestation because there exists no yardstick or comparative original to begin with. Unlike the many defining features, such as language, instrumentation, and playing styles, that other Southeast Asian nations may possess, Singaporean music appears to be very fluid in structure. In a way, this allows for our music to constantly improve and reinvent itself continuously, making every possible definition of a truly ‘Singaporean’ fashion of music transient and evolutionary.

Bibliography

Yampolsky, Philip (1989). “Hati Yang Lunka”, an Indonesian Hit. JSTOR Vol. 47, pp. 1-17

Kamien, Roger (2000). Music, an appreciation. Mc Graw Hill Higher Education.

All lyrics of National Day songs were quoted from memory.

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