The soundtrack of Singapore’s history

The soundtrack of Singapore’s history

We learn about history through books and stories that the older generation pass on. But what about music as a storyteller of our past?

The Esplanade does just that with Record: Tracing Singapore History Through Music, an immersive performance that tells the story of Singapore through the changing Malay music landscape in Singapore. It features a live band, on-screen projections of archival material, and actors who narrate the history with a dose of humour. The aim: to cultivate an appreciation for Malay music and culture, and to demonstrate how music can be a vessel for storytelling.

The show is part of the Esplanade’s arts education series for primary and secondary school students, which features performances by established local arts groups. Record brings audiences on a time-travel adventure, with 12 songs that date from Singapore’s colonial past through to its post-war and independence periods, and the late-1980s, when globalisation began to transform Malay music.

The lyrics of the songs reflect the socio-political climate of the time while their rhythms, musical arrangements, and use of technology highlight the characteristics of music from different periods.

Interesting details about Singapore’s history surface in the show, including how well-loved Malay songs were used as propaganda during the Japanese Occupation. For example, the popular folk song Rasa Sayang was sung by Japanese soldiers in a propaganda film to convey warm ties with the Malays.

Record is directed by educator and musician Syed Ahmad, in collaboration with the Esplanade. He teaches music and performance at the LASALLE College of the Arts and he is also the leader of the music collective Bloco Singapura.

The idea for the show came to him after he heard the earliest recorded piece of Malay music, in 1903 – Lagu Nuri Terbang Malam by Malay singer Qasim. “It inspired me to embark on a production that investigates music in its cultural and historical context.”

He adds: “I hope to inspire young people to inject new life and vitality into our shared music heritage and be culture bearers who further push the envelope of modern Malay music.”

For upcoming events at Esplanade, go here.

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