Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Pak Zubir Said and Majulah Singapura

Pak Zubir Said and Majulah Singapura

The National Anthem of Singapore

"It is not a film song. It is not a romantic song……It is a special kind of song….I had to consider the content of the lyrics. It should be in simple language, easy enough to sing and easy enough to understand by all races……know the policy of the government, the social life in Singapore and the wish of the people and how to progress to prosperity.                                                                      Zubir Said quoted His Songs published in 1990 by The Singapore Cultural Foundation. 
This statement is not just the ethos for a nation's anthem but a formula for musical creativity and inclusivity of musical cultures within any independent nation. A nation coming out ,ore than a century of colonialism and trying to unify itself with a diverse tapestry of cultural, political, historical and social identities. 

The story of Singapore's national anthem is one that resulted from collective action but based on one man's creative energy and professional sincerity. When Zubir Said wrote Majulah Singapura he was not a citizen of Singapore. He was rising in the world of film music and was already acknowledged as a song writer. Underlying all this, he had no formal musical training. He was a self-made entity that grew from conviction, resolute purpose to the point of breaking traditional ties with his father in particular, because Zubir heard a call that transcended his Minangkabao homeland in Sumatra. He followed the path of the perineal itinerant musicians who flowed with the developments of the 20th century along the Asian Sea Trade Route. Singapore was an important part of that trade route and it was also a special attraction for such musicians.

(I will be writing two more blogs on the music of Zubir Said to talk about his songs and his music for films)

The First Version of the Singapore Anthem

Majulah Singapura was first written in 1958 for the re-opening of Victoria Theatre after it went though upgrading. Then when Singapore obtained self-government in 1959 it was refined again and made the country's national anthem. This was how it looked in cipta notation in 1959 - the notation of the solmisasi system in music in most of Asia at that time.

There were floppy single based vinyl recordings of that first version using R.M.P 331/3. These old floppies were usually testing single recordings on the market before they were pressed into vinyl records. I suppose some copies were made for the event in 1959. I happened to know someone who had that but who did not want to part with the recording. But I was allowed to make a copy.

The Early Majulah Singapura Recordings

Timeline Music Annotation is a new way of writing text and manipulating graphics to sound. I use this in my teaching and archiving. To know more, see the my earlier blog entry:

The Annotated Line Score of the Original Majulah Singapura

When the anthem for Singapore as a Republic was established, Majulah Singapura went though a review which finally ended up in eight bars being removed. Musically that was a good move. Culturally, those eight bars also contained musical motifs that leaned on Malay music fundamentals - I explain this in the short video that follow the score below:

Video Excerpts on the removal of the 8 bars

Dr Joe Peters Comments on Singapore National Anthem

The Line Score of the National Anthem of Singapore

This line score is a staff notation version of the cipta notation above. It has been annotated to show the 8 bars that were removed.

Many Versions of Majulah Singapura

There were many different musical groups that performed this Singapore Nationa Anthem. Here are 10 such versions complied into a Timeline Music Annotation format and made into a video. In this format text and graphics can be used to make notes and explanations directly to the sound timeline of any piece opt music. To learn more, refer to the earlier blog on TMAL at this sonic environment blog. TMAL is a music education project of Sonic Asia Music Consultants in Singapore. Currently, a server based operation is being tested.

If you have made versions of the Singapore Anthem, please share when with me as I would like to make a study of musical aspirations in our anthem. There have been calls for change or re-arrangements of the anthem. I have always stood for no change in the anthem = but we can do with different arrangements. You can contact me at the following sites:
Or at this blog right here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Freddie Aguilar in Singapore

Anak - The Untold Story: Illustrated Lecture at the Singapore Management University under the Lien Fung's Colloquim!

 Freddie Aguilar with his Taylor Guitar                                                                                                                                                                                        

Kirpal Singh and I met Freddie at his new club Ka Freddie at Quezon City to convince him to come to Singapore and talk about the many untold details of his illustrious music career.

Anak is still the single most successful Asian song that went viral in 1978 and maintained its place till now. You can hear the original version here:

Many versions came about since then. In Singapore, Ramli Sarip did a Malay version:

I met Freddie in 1978 while I was studying at the College of Music, University of the Philippines. My trio played in his club Bodega. 

Joe Peters and his East West Trio in Quezon City in 1978


 Freddie Aguilar, the extraordinary Filipino musician who created the song Anak, a timeless folk song that sustained as an international hit since 1978, gave his illustrated talk on Anak- The Untold Story. on 18 April 2015 at SMU. Freddie charmed the audience with his humour. With his Taylor guitar strapped to his body, as he told his story to an attentive and responsive audience. He ended his talk with a performance of Anak, accompanied by his son Jeriko and the Singapore Tremolo Rondalla. There are 15 segments (on UTube) that covers the entire talk and performance. Anak is still a good music business model for your professional musicians who are trying to make their way in the industry.
If you are in Manila and want to say hello to Freddie and his son Jeriko, you can visit Ka Freddie Restruant and Bar, where Freddie performs. He has other musicians there too - it like a re-creation of his old University Belt club BODEGA - some forty years ago. Ka Freddie is at 120 Tomas Morato Avenue, Quezon City. 


1 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Early Life at Isabela LRe

2 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Growing Up in Manila

3 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Leaving Home

4 Freddie Aguilar Talk at SMU: Trying to Make It in Manila

5 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Olongapo City

6 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Olongapo City Making it Finally!

7 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Olongapo The Making of Anak

8 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Anak Brings Father and Son Together LRes

9 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: 1st Metro Manila Music Festival

10 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Loosing and Winning

11 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Performance Preamble

12 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Performance of Anak

13 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Truth about the English version of Anak

14 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: MABUHAY Performed by Singapore Tremolo Rondalla

15 Freddie Aguilar's Talk at SMU: Question and Answer Session

Sunday, September 14, 2014

LORD OF THE RINGS - Performance and Study of the Score

Johan De Meij
In the 1980s I met Johan De Meij (, then an up and coming symphonic band composer and conductor, on one of my visits to WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles). He was riding high because of an exceptional music work for band: LORD of the RINGS! It won the top award in 1989 for the Sudler International Prize for Wind Bands and was published by Amstel.
The Amstel Publication of the Score

The First Movement "Gandalf" opening page of the score
I was then encouraging the NUS (National University of Singapore) Symphonic Band to play these types of works in the band literature in their Intempo concert series. They did  that in 1992 and the performance was audio recorded by the EML (Electronic Music Lab). This work was a challenge for the NUS Band because they never performed such a long work that covered the entire first half of the concert.
EML Recording Jacket

Programme Notes
NUS Symphonic Band conducted by Joe Peters

Johan is today a role model for band conductors, entrepreneurs and developers all rolled into one. If you follow his Facebook page, he is still active and central to the high quality in the performances and score publication of European band music. As a tribute to him, I like to present that performance of the work LORD of the RINGs according to the score that was published by Amstel (see above).

Go to this site to listen to the performance of Lord of the Rings By Johan De Meij by the NUS Symphonic Band:

Lord of the Rings and Timeline Music Commentary at SMU (Singapore Management University)

Between 2000 - 2007 I taught a music elective at the newly established SMU - Music East and West. I had a chance to test some of my music pedagogy ideas within a music laboratory that focused on students deconstructing music works like the Lord of the Rings and doing objective lay-persons commentary directly to the music timeline. Back then much technology had to be configured to enable this. A team of students took up the challenge to do their analysis and timeline music commentary on Johan Di Meij's Lord of the Rings.

Timeline Music Commentary is part of a pedagogy I pursued since the early 1980s because I thought that text, graphics and audio commentary had a role to play in conveying information (by experts or ordinary people) directly at the timeline of the sound. Much of this consolidated during the period I taught at SMU because I was able to build a laboratory to enable this. Today there is TMAL which is software based - refer to my blog article "Timeline Music Annotation Library: 

The SMU students who did this timeline music commentary put in tremendous effort in learning the concepts and techniques of data gathering using the study tracks technology, the sonic orders listening technique and understanding audio editing and studio operations. This is their work which served as their term paper:

Go to this site to listen to the SMU Student's Timeline Music Commentary on LORD of the RINGS:

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Desh Raga for Sitar and Tabla with Western String Orchestra

Title of Work: "Desh" for Sitar, Tabla and String Orchestra Composer: Dr. Joe Peters
Solo Performers: M S Maniam (Tabla) and S Anbarasan (Sitar) Duration: 15 minutes
(Performed by the New Music Forum in SIngapore in 1987)

A second performance was done in 2006 by the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra in Hue City. Lazar Sebastian played the Indian violin. M. S. Maniam played tabla again.

See below for an audio recording of the work:

This work is dedicated to Ustad Zia Ul Hassan who was my sitar teacher as well as teacher and mentor to the two performers: M. S. Maniam and S. Anbarasan. Ustad Zia resided in Singapore between 1972-1984 during which he performed widely. He died in India in 1986, but he left the strong musicality of the Vilayat Khan school of Indian music performance among many of his students. 

"Desh" is one of the 16 ragas under the Asawari Thata (North Indian Music) and is sometimes referred to as "Desi." The third and the sixth of its scale are omitted in ascent. In descent, these notes are included, but their approach has a specific routine from the note below, and which gives the raga its special aesthetic. Likewise, the approach to the tonic on descent is always preceded by the major seventh. However, it is also important to understand that these theoretical descriptions are done in terms of Western music, and would be an approximation to the real truth. Unfortunately, there is no other way of describing "Desh" to a lay Indian music audience, but one that may be steeped in the understanding of other musics.

This is a morning raga, mystic in character and pinned on heavy melodies. The work is in one movement and done in quasi concertino style. The Contra Basses and Cellos open the work in the Western tonality of D minor and establishes the alap. It is then developed by the sitarist accompanied by muted strings, simulating the characteristic drone in Indian music, that usually accompanies an opening alap. A short interlude follows introducing the tabla, after which the sitar and tabla, and the orchestra, take turns to lead each other into a developmental middle section that has a lively melody moving between 2/4 and 6/8 meters. There is no change in key as in Indian music, pitch changes require a change of instrument. Rather it is thematic changes than matter. 

The middle section ends with a tutti for orchestra and here there is a pitch change to A major in the style of Western music. At the end of this tutti, Maniam performs his characteristic tabla style with some sequences (e.g., glissandi on the tabla) for which he is well known. 

(The sitarist may join in the improvisation, if the musicians feel that is appropriate — in true style of an Indian music performance.) 

If such East-West scores are used more regularly by Western orchestras then a true culture of East-West musical concepts and skills can be shared and developed into a new performance practice.

After the cadenza there is a re-capitulation of the alap — this time with a solo violin (leader of the orchestra) playing, while the sitarist improvises around the raga. The violinist is also encouraged to improvise in tandem with the sitarist. In this recording this did not happen. Likewise the sitarist, in this recording, did not do any extended improvisation. 

The score was read as it was written. The original intention was to make this the very heart of the East-West dialogue. 

The finale follows and it is again in a dialogue form between the tabla, sitar and orchestra. The tempo is presto and the music is vigorous and forward moving. The ending Coda is in full tutti and it is based on a basic ending formula used in many ragas, including Desh.

The raga-tala formula which is the tag name for the Indian musical system, has been used in may East-West compositions. There is enormous room for growth of musical expression by conducting musical dialogue though deep learning of musical systems. The tendency today seems to be to take frills from such diverse musical systems and add them to very simple Western based music. There is no objection to this, but concerted work in this direction can only lead to the total levelling down of musical expression in the world. 

This work was written as a culmination of my early work on the study of East-West musical phenomenon. I was exposed to a number of such formulae at the University of the Philippines where I studied for a Masters in Music (1978-1981). From 1982, my friends and I formed the Folk Jazz Ensemble which explored fusion between Indian and Western musical systems. Oh particular importance to me was how we could make such dialogue equitable. Our discovery was that we could make the soundscape change with dialogue on the elements of timbre, form, rhythm and to some extent aesthetics. But we could not perform equitably in the area of pitch. It required deep and long bi-musical training, in this case.

These men in the Folk Jazz Ensemble were exceptional people, talented to the core and friendly to the end of the earth. They were Alex Abisheganaden (guitar), Zia Ul Hassan (sitar), MS Maniam (tabla), and Joe Peters (Double Bass). When Zia returned to India in 1984, his students S. Anbarasan took his place. Jibby Jacob (violin) joined us in the 90s. Victor Savage (vocal) is the latest member of the group. You can see some clips of this group in the video.

Ustad Zia for whose memory I wrote this work was an enigma. His story will take another blog in the neat future. His contributions to the foundation of Indian music studies in Singapore was immense and unknown because his cause in life was music and he kept that private and very personal. 

He came from the Viliat Khan school of sitar music and styles. Desh Raga was one his favourites and I followed his trend of musical thought on this Raga for some years. 

My quest is to understand musical trajectories and how such trajectories affect growth, change, and the rise and decline of musical systems and cultures. All branches of music are important for such a study. My unusual musical career began very young and was totally applied and investigative from the age of twelve. So this subject of musical fusion and musical trajectories was a magnet for me. The 1980s was a decade of fusion exposure for me with the various ASEAN projects I was involved in, the international discourse on this subject, and the Folk Jazz Ensemble as a personal laboratory.

Finally, I must confess that  Desh Raga for Sitar, Table and Western String Orchestra was written to test the Western trained orchestral musicians in a dialogue with Indian trained musicians to see if they could "pitch migrate" as well as the Indian musician. Sadly, I must say that they have failed and badly. It is not their fault. It is the conservatories that have failed them. The challenge for the 21st century for  any music conservatory to develop and succeed in a pedagogy that can create skilled bi-musicality or even tri-musicality in their wards.

Both performances (in Singapore and Vietnam) showed that the Western musician is intransigent to the principles that he/she was taught, particularly the conductors, and so the Indian musics make the compromise and adapt. The hard fact is that the Indian musician is trained much better for pitch flexibility and therefore has something to offer to Western conservatories in terms of bi-musicality or even tri-musicality principles.

The video that accompanies this article is for the purpose of listening to the music. The full conductor's score is in this article (as you can see). If you want to perform this work, let me know and I will send you the parts. 

The audio in the video is the recording done in 1987 in Singapore of the New Music Forum Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau. However, I do not have pictures or video of that concert. So the pictures and videos that are in this version are those of the performance in Vietnam in 2006. They are there for information and are not in sync with the audio. There are also video scenes of the performers in both concerts. In Vietnam, because Anbarasan was not able to go, Lazer Sebastian, a local Indian music guru, played the violin.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Tribute to the late Mr. K.P. Bhaskar

This was a man who had an unspoken vision for relevance and sustainability of the traditional arts in Singapore. And in doing this he saw the richness of the bestowed cultural heritage of Singapore, linking us directly to the great centres of civilization and culture spanning Asia and the world. Nobody in the right frame of mind and at the incubating juncture of Singapore itself would ever dare to breathe out aloud such a vision. Words alone would not be that magic wand to making real such a vision. He like Brother McNally who founded Lasalle College for the Arts and my teacher Professor Jose Maceda at the University of the Philippines, all gone now, but they have left a beacon light for others to carry on.

Mr. Bhaskar was a good friend to me. We came from the same community but we are poles apart. He never once referred to any difference between us. It is the way of the pioneering Singaporean – one who came from a foreign land and saw great potential for this island to play a rightful role bridging so many gaps in modern times - cultures, languages, points of view and priorities.

He liked to talk and we did talk much at unplanned meetings, sometimes at concerts, while waiting at rehearsal sites and even at supermarkets. His engaging ways makes any age difference diluted. In fact I can say I have learned much from him on this front because now the gap between my current students and myself is much more that it ever was between Mr. Bhaskar and me.

Like Bro. McNally and Prof. Maceda, he laid the foundation for others. Mr. Bhaskar founded not one, but two successful and inter-related arts institutions: The Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Association, blending beautifully the two interrelated components of Indian music and dance arts.

He was a great believer in education - always ready to participate in anything that would help the progress of new knowledge. This is where I will tell you of his special help to me when I designed a new timeline music annotation laboratory at the Singapore Management University where I taught the Music East and West elective between 2000-2007. I needed challenging local traditional repertoire for my students to apply the musical deconstruction technique they were taught. He staged a special performance of Kuchipudi and Kathakali, which he pioneered in Singapore. He patiently followed all the laboratory operations including a live commentary over an in-ear wireless system to my students. All this was new and foreign to him. Yes he went out of his way to do what was required. The result surprised me when the students came up with their very well done deconstruction presentations on the music – music totally new to them. Three examples are shown below as well as a short video showing the excerpts of the opening and end of the performance and some concluding comments he made.

That fledgling effort has now grown into a major teaching exercise I am doing in the Mekong Basin known as Timeline Music Education - with dedicated software and AV-IT systems configurations - developing graduate students in the art and science of musical deconstruction across cultures and systems. I owe Mr. Bhaskar much for his trust in what I was then trying to think my way through.

May you rest in peace Mr. Bhaskar and sing and dance beautifully forever in the presence of God.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tribute to Dr. Toh Chin Chye

Dr. Toh Chin Chye, as we have discovered recently, in many unusually long and sustained news reports of his life and times, is a man of the people. These copious reports are a direct contrast to the deafening silence about him since the 1980s. What nobody spoke or wrote about was his cultural hopes for the nation, and this was manifested at the University of Singapore where he was Vice-Chancellor (1968-1975). In 1968 he launched the University of Singapore Military Band (USMB). It led to the birth of an extensive extra-curricular music and dance programme in the 1970s and beyond. But lurking behind his mind was the need for a cultural renaissance from the ground.

I first met Dr. Toh in person in 1967 when he came to St. Joseph’s Institution to preside over the Founders Day celebrations. He presented to me the highest award in the school that year for my activities in music. Upon entering the University of Singapore in 1968, I discovered that he had remembered meeting me, and he wanted me to work with Mr. Gerry Soliano, the legendary bandleader at Raffles Hotel, whom he employed to set-up the first formal music activity at SU.

In the process of working on the band, I discovered he had other plans, foremost of which was to set up a Music Department under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Two legendary musicians, Dr. Lucrecia Kasilag from the Philippines and Professor Frank Callaway from the University of Western Australia, were invited to advise and write a report for this. Both these persons became my mentors.

It was an exciting time personally for me as a student leader in musical activities on campus. I took Dr. Toh’s offer of a job and stayed on at SU after graduation to further assist with the development the extra-curricular programme, and also to help with the administration of the pending Music Department. It was established in 1972. Very sadly things did not develop according to plan. Dr. Toh left SU in 1975. The Music Department was closed by 1978. I left in the same year for higher musical study at the College of Music at the University of the Philippines. It was my choice to go there and not to USA or UK. I was in pursuit of knowledge that Euro-American did not have. How could they when a place like the Philippines was struggling to create this knowledge.

Dr. Toh had a profound effect on me because he taught me, through his deep nationalism, that the route to becoming a multicultural nation is not easy. If it was difficult for other disciplines then it must be doubly hard for music. I majored in Political Science, which ironically again, was closed down in my final year. Culture was an important component of nation building. It was Dr. Toh’s legacy in initiating the Music Department, so that music and musicians could have a professional platform to study musical phenomenon and respond to nation building.

His choice of Kasilag and Callaway from this side of the world, and not the default tendency to reach out to Euro-America, was innate wisdom as a statesman of a multicultural state like Singapore. Dr. Toh’s vision for music was to first understand the local needs and then work out to the peripheries of the abstract. Not to start with the abstract and always stay irrelevant. The report recommended balance between East and West - but there was no blue print to achieve it. This is where the fault lines were. This was the confluence where knowledge had to be created.

Professional musical experience of Singapore at that time was narrow. The method and accreditation of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music was the only formula that people could and would understand. The aggrandizement of music as a profession was neither the policy nor the principle. Singapore did not have an abundant manpower base then, so it was not something that was up front in discussions. It was meant to be small but focused.

The lecturers employed for the Music Department were all Asian but trained in Britain and USA. It was a middle point to start and which Dr. Toh agreed. But, it turned out to be a shadow dance of mismatched ideas and personalities. Many times I was caught in the middle of diplomatic discords between the music staff and him. It was unfortunate that all sides saw this not as a set of developmental problems that needed deep methods and a time frame to solve, but as a zero-sum football game, where the musical football had no design, no designer, and the referee and the lines-persons had no reference point to make crucial decisions. No effort was put into this. The department had 12 students and they did music as a minor subject – and that was all that was produced.

Running parallel to the department was an ever growing and popular extra-curricular progamme that worked entirely on enthusiasm, and fully funded by the university. Thus, the closing of the Music Department did not generally make any impact. But it did to me.

The Kasiliag-Callaway Report was and still is one of the finest that was done, but incomprehensible as a document if it had produce results immediately. Copy and follow was (and still is) the only method we know for music. To maintain the balance between East and West, there was no place we could go to copy and follow. So, the report lay there as a document that was gradually forgotten. I decided that I would follow a private path to try and understand the dynamics of the East-West divide in music. It seemed to be the sacred spot where things could fall out of balance. Someone has to work on this patch.

I continued with the extracurricular music and dance programme, but launched a parallel (silent) track for my professional music research and training. I planned to follow the precepts of that Kasilag-Callaway Report. I read for a Masters in Music at the famed College of Music at the University of the Philippines, and wrote a PhD thesis at the University of Western Australia where Callaway played a central role in developing the curricula. I consciously decided to stay away from Euro-American music colleges. The total span of time it took me to do this by myself was 21 years.

I did this because I knew that Dr Toh had something in his mind but could not paint the full picture then – I know now how much time and effort is needed to be able to even express in words the true nature of the East-West problem in music, before working on the issues and solutions of sustainability, relevance, and comprehension of the fundamentally different musical systems in Singapore. Musical culture must define national territories. If people ask me why I did this at the expense of a career somewhere else, I say it was due to the after effects of a scolding I got from Dr. Toh.

Dr. Toh saw music as something that came from within a society. Music cannot be done in void. It had to have a following. There is a systemic principle in music like in all other aspects of life and work, and it was his hope that the professionals would find that equilibrium. He scolded me, in front of my administrative colleagues at a staff function, when I tried to get him to see the Music Department’s point of view. What he said in that scolding actually marked a turning point in my thoughts about music and its future: “Joe, don’t let these foreigners come and stuff things down your throat”.

He was a politician by instinct and nature. No musician would have seen the study of music, in that day and time, as something other than what Euro-America was doing. I pondered long and deeply on why he would say such a thing when he employed these foreigners. When I went to the Philippines for studies, instead of USA or UK, where I discovered that this struggle for relevance and independence, within a rapidly globalizing and homogenizing sonic environment, was a colossal problem. There were serious efforts by students, staff and the followers of music battling this East-West issue. I saw shades and layers of many other problems in the search of the East-West equilibrium in musical culture and expression. I realized that the effort to prevent erosion and extinction of musical systems had to be scientific, collegiate and generational.

I explored the Philippines for what it was worth, their traditional and tribal musical cultures, and their high capability in the expression of Western music. Most of all I had the honor and luck to meet and work with the legendary ethnomusicologist, the late Emeritus Professor Jose Maceda.

I returned to Singapore in 1981. SU became NUS and the music extra-curricular programme was institutionalized as the only sanctioned musical activity on campus - but still without credit. At the same time, I saw other local tertiary institutions going ahead with professional music programmes, albeit on the lines of the old “tried and tested” formula. It was disheartening, but my job became a platform to perform a new juggling routine as I marched privately towards a PhD – in further pursuit of the issues raised in the Kassilag-Callaway Report calling for balance in local and foreign course elements.

I found comrades in the growing ASEAN network where quite fortunately I became a regular representative for Singapore. One of the projects that made me see the “wedge in the door” for a PhD topic was the ASEAN Composers Forum on Traditional Music. It was the brainchild of Dr. Ramon Santos, the Dean of the College of Music, a student of Professor Maceda, and my teacher in the “Music of the Philippines”. In 1993 that project came to Singapore and for the first time I was able to bring together the major traditional music groups representing the fundamentally different musical systems in Singapore for ethnomusicology scrutiny.

By 1993 I had a topic based on a new concept “sonic orders” - which I invented to solve a minor musical diplomatic tussle between the Philippines and Malaysia on some overlap in objectives in two ASEAN composers projects. In 1998 I got a bonus when the ASEAN Sonic Orders was approved and funded. This project went parallel with my my PhD in 1999, where "sonic orders" became the test bed for my ideas on how to prevent “things being stuffed down my throat”. I said a silent "Eureka" when I received the PhD. The Vice Chancellor of UWA came hunting for me during the garden party, quite incredulous how I could have written a thesis on a subject like that. I reminded him that Prof. Frank Callaway was there at UWA.

Then, by a sheer coincidence, SMU invited me to teach a course called “Music East and West”. For eight years (2000-2007) that course provided me a way to test my timeline music education principles based on "sonic orders", some allied laboratory applications and procedures, and the sonic environment measuring and analysis techniques and software. The fundamental thesis in my PhD was that we could develop the right pedagogies to sustain and make relevant our musical culture through a process of understanding music, by a measuring principle and tool, music is emitted from radio, television, recordings and performances. Until we have a systemic mentality in music education and a systematic approach to research and training, I think we will be caught in a “hentak kaki” syndrome - changing and adapting, but staying rooted to one spot with only the background moving and changing.

This long and winding career I had, is my response to Dr. Toh’s scolding. No “foreigner” could or can stuff anything down my throat now. As he is laid to rest, I am at a point where I am going to apply these ideas within some Asian countries. I will always be grateful to Dr. Toh Chin Chye.


Joe Peters

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

GESANG - The Man and His Music

GESANG and His Music

In 1995 while I was in Solo for an ASEAN Composer’s Forum, I met Gesang through the good fellowship of my dear friend DR. Rahayu Suppaangah, another legend from the same little town of Solo. I wanted to meet Gesang because I saw in him some of the same qualities and aspirations as our own Zubir Said, who came from Padang, many miles to the north in Sumatra. I had many conversations with Zubir Said in the 1980’s while I was on a Cultural Foundation project to document some of his music.

The world was not talking much about Gesang then, although his famous song “Bengawan Solo” had encircled the world, and received so many interpretations, that the original style langgam in which it was written, had all but been forgotten. There were burning questions in me as a musicologist, and great curiosity as a composer, to ask him, similar questions I had asked Zubir Said, who both came to fascinate so many of us, placing an indelible imprint on the East-West confluence of music in the mid-20th Century.

I thought I would meet an old man, in retirement mode, who was bemused by yet another academic trying to understand something that was best left alone. Instead, I met a robust man in his mid-70s, soft-spoken, casual and extremely polite, like a true Soloanese, and who had an active performing and teaching schedule, which I thought was much more than my fulltime one.

With a sparkle in his eye he also told me that he had just re-married – as if it was the most casual thing on earth – and proceeded to ask questions about me, which I knew was to place me in a list of others, who had come on similar missions. His humble home was as traditional as it could get in Solo, a blend of nature and humanity literally, and all the walls spoke of what others spoke of him – photographs, citations, and unique souvenirs, given to him in appreciation, from many parts of the world. The link with Japan was particularly strong.

Jokingly, he told me that his surroundings were good for his music compositions. What he could not understand was the world’s obsession with just that one song he wrote – Bengawan Solo. I was suddenly reminded of Freddie Aguilar in the Philippines, whom I also know, and who thrived on just one song “Anak”, after which his creative life seemed to have thinned off. Yet, there was a marked difference in the wealth between these two.

After much prodding, Gesang reluctantly revealed that it was difficult to get royalties from Bengawn Solo, and many of his other equally famous compositions like “Sapu Tangan” and Jambatan Merah”. He was aware that there was no infrastructure to ensure this. What sadden him more, was that many others were claiming to have composed these songs. Like Zubir Said, he just wanted to be a peaceful and happy musician, and not be bothered by these worldly things. They were complicated, and sounded dangerous, especially when legal jargon was thrown around.

Lately, the Indonesian government did set up a body to deal with these copyright and royalty issues. He obtained some compensation, but it was a pittance. It is the rest of the world that needs to make up for the injustice done to Gesang, and all others like him!

It was a joy talking to him. I learnt that the original “Bengawan Solo” was in the langgam jawa style of Central Java. It was not mundane popular music, as I and many others thought it was. Langgam has no time measure. It is based on pantun (poetic quartrains), and the musical accompaniment is colotomic, as in gemelan music. Langgam Bengawan Solo is the gentle flow of the Solo River, and the deep thoughts of love and gratitude that the people of Solo have for their life-sustaining river.

Gesang always paused in our conversation to remind me that he was not an academic, and that he did not study music formally. This was exactly what Zubir Said also did in our conversations. Both men made me reflect, not on their “inadequacies” but on mine, as well as, the entire discipline of ethnomusicology. From him I gleened an understanding of the other kroncong forms (stanbul, morescu, togu and other derivatives).

And, he still claimed he was not a musicologist! One understands in conversation with men like Gesang and Zubir Said, how they are aware of musical topography, geography, and history, in a deeply imbibed manner, that makes them able to produce works that define new musical forms that endure, and yet they are humble and defensive.

Gesang is a national hero. He was buried with full military honors on Friday 22 May. On Monday 24th May, the ASEAN Korea Traditional Orchestra (AKTO) performed, for the delegates at the 2nd UNESCO World Conference of Arts Education at Seoul, and in it’s repertoire was Bengawan Solo, sung by one of Solo’s establised langgam jawa singers, Surti Respati. This arrangement by Soloanese composer, Franciscus Purwa Askanta, is a difficult and challenging one to the orchestra and conductor as the art of langgam has to be imbibed. My good friend, Dr. Supanggah was there in Seoul to supervise the performance of this work.

The legacy of Gesang is alive just like that of Zubir Said, and will pose a challenge to those of us trying to work through the East-West confluence in music.

To watch a performance of Bengawan Solo by AKTO:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Music of the Great Depression

Brother, Can you Spare me a Dime? Vinyl Record: New World Record - Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc. NW 270, LP, 33 1/3 Mono.

I have a huge vinyl record collection, and a few days ago, I came across this very rare album in my collection - American Songs during the Great Depression. By any standards, this was a mammoth production by New World Records, made possible through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The production drew from many sources - CBS, RCA, MCA, Twentieth Century Fox, Folkways, Library of Congress and even Robert Altshuler, a private collector. It is an album that has pathos and humor all rolled into an absorbing commentary, not just about the depression, but also about the important juncture song-writing in USA reached during the Depression years.

Song-writing in America, as we know it, grew out of it's stratified social settings in pre-twentieth century communities. By the early twentieth, century song-writing fed into the business machines of New York, Chicago and many other major cities. Music performance and recordings were money spinners, typified best by Tin Pan Alley, the musicals of Broadway and the large movie studios. In the ten years of the Great Depression, creativity and song production reached it's height, although purchasing power was at its lowest. What a paradox! Just imagine, George Gershwin did much of his best work during this period!

The very first track of this recording, "Brother. Can you spare me a dime?" (1932), is the defining song, not just for the production, but the Depression itself - speaking directly and plainly, in Tin Pan Ally ragtime style, about the effect of the cash-drought at ground zero. Written by Jay Gorney ("Stand Up" and "Cheer" musicals), and with lyrics by E.Y Harburgh ("Wizard of Oz", "Finian's Rainbow", "April in Paris" and more), it became an international hit with Bring Crosby and the Lennie Hayton Orchestra. Other "tongue-in-the-cheek' songs in this album include the anonymous "Unemployment Stomp", the "NRA Blues" by Bill Cox (surprisingly not a protest song, but a song of praise for the agency that sought to create more jobs), and "All In Down and Out Blues" by David Macon - a hilly-billy contribution to the niggling cash problem - "I've got no silver/I've got no gold/ I am almost naked/ and it done turn cold".

In the same vein, is the song "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore" written and performed by Woody Guthrie. In true wandering minstrel style he sings, in a very prophetic way, of the sorry state of ordinary Americans in the Great Dust Bowl: " Rich Man took my home/ and drove me from my door/ And I ain't got no home/ in this world any more". There was no Fanny Mae or Freddy Mac then - to help, needles to say, to bail out!!

Shirley Temple too (she must have been five at that time) has a band (the old term for tracks) called "On the Good Ship Lollypop" by Sidney Clare and Richard Whiting. Apparently, going to any of her movies back then was a great relief from the woes of the day because her songs, and demeanor, invoked innocence and hope - the other side of Wall! Perhaps, she should re-appear on the screens today! On the flip-side of Shirley Temple, is the song "The Death of Mother Jones", anonymously written on the life and contributions of Mary Jones, a historic figure in early American unionism in mid-nineteenth century. And so this song goes: "May the miners all work together/ To carry out her plan/ And bring back better conditions/ For every laboring man". Would Obama be a re-incarnation of her?

One of the most definitive songs in this album is from the movie Moulin Rouge: "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams". written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, who are acknowledged as one of the best song-writing teams of the thirties (Tiptoe through the Tulips", Lullaby of Broadway", "Jeepers Creepers" and more). The song was first performed by Deane Janis and the Hal Kemp Orchestra. Bye the way, this Moulin Rouge is not the same as what appeared in the 1950's (about Toulouse-Loutrec) and which we know more about today. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" had a life of it's own, out performing the original movie, and recorded by many illustrious singers and bands including Benny Goodman and Helen Ward.

Another definitive song, by the same team (Dubin and Warren), but this time in an anecdotal way, is the "The Gold Diggers' Song" on Band 8. The story goes that when the song was in rehearsal, the Depression broke out, and the show had to be cancelled - for the same familiar reasons: foreclosures and unemployment. In true "Upturning the Downturn" style, the show organisers re-named it as a show about the Depression. So much for creativity!

George Gershwin's song "Love Walked in", with lyrics, as usual, by his brother Ira, appears on Band 5. Gershwin is really the odd man out as he was not a product of Tin Pan Alley. However, his style, and sense of timing of his compositions (producing most of his great work from 1929 till he died in 1938) just made him one of the most emblematic composers of the Depression. "Porgy and Bess" written in 1935 is, perhaps, a binding definition of being black during the Depression. Surprisingly, none of the songs in this musical appears in this album. Nevertheless, "Love Walked In" is on par with other songs like "Embraceable You" and "Can't Take That Away from Me" - it gave Americans, and others around the world too, a feeling of fantasy and release.

The last song in the album is "The White Cliffs of Dover" - a song that brings back images of World War Two. The Depression ended with America's entry into the war - how ironic! If this could only have been a parallel for USA today, with the recession and the two wars it is fighting. Written by Nat Burton and Walter Kent, and based on the the poem (and subsequent film) of the same name by Akice Duer Miller, the song touched an emphatic chord in Americans - they held in high esteem, England's steadfast stand against the the bombing by Nazi Germany - Churchill versus Hiltler to Obama verses Osama. History does repeat itself.