A family affair

Veteran Singer Nona Asiah (centre) with her son Indra Shahrir Ismail (left) and protege Najip Ali (right).
Veteran Singer Nona Asiah (centre) with her son Indra Shahrir Ismail (left) and protege Najip Ali (right).PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Host Najip Ali (above).
Host Najip Ali (above).PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Playwright Zizi Azah is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak (above).
Playwright Zizi Azah is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak (above). PHOTO: ST FILE
Playwright Zizi Azah (above) is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak.
Playwright Zizi Azah (above) is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Musician Rudi Salim (above) is the son of singer Salim Ifi.
Musician Rudi Salim (above) is the son of singer Salim Ifi.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Pitahati are made up of the sons of M. Nasir (above) - Yasin, Hidayat and Ilham - as well as Awang Masrin and Zahar Hamdan.
Pitahati are made up of the sons of M. Nasir (above) - Yasin, Hidayat and Ilham - as well as Awang Masrin and Zahar Hamdan.PHOTO: M. SALIHIN SULAIMAN
Bushmen's Hassan Muhammad and his fellow members will take to the stage with his mother, Kamaliah Latif (above).
Bushmen's Hassan Muhammad and his fellow members will take to the stage with his mother, Kamaliah Latif (above).PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN FILE

The line-up at this year's Malay festival of arts features performers who are related to one another

Look out for family reunions this month at the Esplanade's Pesta Raya, an annual festival that celebrates Malay heritage and culture.

Five of the festival's headline acts feature performances by members of the same family or are tributes to senior relatives.

These include a tribute concert to living legend and Malay singer Nona Asiah, with her youngest son Indra Shahrir Ismail as music director; and a play about Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak written by his grandniece, local playwright Zizi Azah.

Pesta Raya, which is held during the month of Hari Raya, is in its 14th year. The four-day festival takes place from Aug 13 to 16 and is sponsored by Singapore Press Holdings under the SPH Gift of Music series. This year's theme for the festival, which celebrates icons and treasures of Malay culture, is An Invitation To Treasure.

I am touched and beyond happy, that even in my sunset years, there are still people who remember me.''

VETERAN SINGER NONA ASIAH, on the Pesta Raya tribute concert helmed by her son Indra Shahrir Ismail and protege Najip Ali

Not all the programmes involve family connections. There is a concert by Indonesian band Noah and free storytelling sessions, music performances and workshops, among others.

But with the occasion being Hari Raya, which is known for its merry gatherings of relatives and friends, it seems apt that the Esplanade is inviting families to take centre stage.

"We wanted to pay tribute to and honour some of Singapore's Malay cultural icons and treasures," says festival programmer Hanie Nadia Hamzah. "Programming icons from the Malay community, especially those in the arts, invariably involves families and was something that came naturally during conceptualisation."

•Go to www.pestaraya.com for more information on all the programmes.


SI CEMPAKA BIRU - CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF NONA ASIAH

Family connection: Nona Asiah's son, Indra Shahrir Ismail, is one of the music directors of the concert; host Najip Ali, one of her many proteges, is the director.

Music has always been in Indra Shahrir Ismail's blood.

Veteran singer Nona Asiah and her son, music arranger Indra Shahrir Ismail (both top); and host Najip Ali (above).
Veteran singer Nona Asiah (left) and her son, music arranger Indra Shahrir Ismail. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

His mother Nona Asiah, 86, was a popular singer during the golden age of Malay cinema from the 1940s to 1970s, while his father, the late Ismail Kassim, was a music veteran.

The youngest of five children, he also grew up with award-winning composer and Cultural Medallion recipient, the late Iskandar Mirza Ismail, who was his older brother.

"While other boys were outside playing with kites, I had to practise my flute and piano at home. It was tough," reminisces Indra who, like his brother, studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States.

Indra is now a prominent name in the music scene, doing arrangements regularly for MediaCorp shows, National Day parades and musicals such as Dick Lee's Hot Pants.

Now 49, he is one of the music directors for Si Cempaka Biru, a concert on Aug 14 which pays tribute to his illustrious mother. Cempaka Biru was a song written for her by national anthem composer Zubir Said.

One of her proteges, host Najip Ali, is directing the show.

He is effusive in his appreciation for how she pushed him to develop his unique persona at 17, during a talent show.

  • BOOK IT / SI CEMPAKA BIRU

    WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: Aug 14, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25, $45 and $65 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

"I was paired with two others, including Indra, but actually, I cannot sing - I am not as talented as them. She pushed me to go solo," says the 50-year-old, a recognisable face in the entertainment scene here.

"I am here because of Mak Nona."

The upcoming 90-minute concert will feature younger singers such as Aisyah Aziz and Rudy Djoharnaen doing their take on Nona's songs, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra.

In between, there will be interviews and video snippets in Malay of her family and proteges talking about how she has influenced them. This includes her grandson, television actor Imam Shah, 26.

Besides Najip, another of Nona's proteges, host and author Rilla Melati, will also be appearing at the concert.

Seeing Nona today, clad in a regal green kebaya, it is easy to picture her in her heyday as a singer during the golden age of Malay cinema.

Indra notes: "She started even before Singapore got her independence, working with the big guns in the industry like P. Ramlee and Saloma."

The living legend is chatty, speaking about her achievements with pride - from being able to buy a house with the royalties of her songs to her collection of signature self-designed vintage kebayas.

Some of these kebayas, along with old photographs and newspaper articles, will be displayed as part of an exhibition on her at the Esplanade's festival corner - a cosy nook outside the concert hall - from Aug 13 to 16.

Due to ill health, she will not sing at the concert, but she seems more excited to be able to see her friends and supporters during the show, calling it "a night that will go down in history".

"I am touched and beyond happy, that even in my sunset years, there are still people who remember me," she says, her face lighting up with a bright smile.


Portrait of a president

YUSOF


It stars (from far left) Erwin Shah Ismail, Najib Soiman, Sani Hussin, Dalifah Shahril, Farah Ong and Siti Khalijah Zainal. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

Family connection: Playwright and director Zizi Azah is the grandniece of Yusof Ishak, Singapore's first President.

Growing up, Zizi Azah did not tell her friends that Mr Yusof Ishak was her granduncle.

"I was convinced no one would believe me. It's a weird thing to say - it doesn't mean you are royalty or anything," says the noted playwright and director. "As I got older and started making the connections, I became more interested."

Zizi, 34, decided to write the script about Mr Yusof for Esplanade's Pesta Raya as she wanted to work on a biopic that would be relevant and timely to celebrate Singapore's jubilee year.

He is the uncle of Zizi's mother and the eldest of nine children. She knows him as "Tok Sulung", which means eldest granduncle.

Yusof will be staged from Aug 13 to 16. The titular character will be played by seasoned Singaporean actor Sani Hussin while actress Siti Khalijah Zainal will play his wife Madam Noor Aishah Salim.

  • BOOK IT / YUSOF

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

    WHEN: Aug 13 to 15, 8pm, and Aug 16, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic

Najib Soiman, Farah Ong, Dalifah Shahril and Erwin Shah Ismail make up the rest of the cast. The play will be performed in Malay with English surtitles.

The two-hour-long play spans the years 1933 to 1970 and will look at both his achievements, such as founding the Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu, as well as the more personal side of him as a father, husband and brother. "He was a key figure in our history. Yet we know very little about him and about who he was," notes Zizi.

She never got to meet Mr Yusof in person as he died in 1970 before she was born. In researching the play, she read his biographies and conducted interviews with family members, including Madam Noor Aishah, in order to uncover stories about him.

She was particularly interested in him and his two brothers Aziz and Abdul Rahim, who were all involved in politics.

Mr Yusof was the head of state of Singapore from 1959 to 1965, when he became the Republic's first President, a post he kept till his death in 1970.

Mr Aziz Ishak was the Minister for Agriculture in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, while Mr Abdul Rahim Ishak was Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I wanted to know what is it about this family that three of the brothers wanted to be politicians. What made them want to contribute to nation-building?" she says.

Her mother told her a story about how the brothers would get riled up when they talked about politics, almost coming to blows over their different opinions.

She also learnt that behind Mr Yusof's apparently stern demeanour was a man who liked to joke.

"The first draft of the play was dead boring," admits Zizi.

"After I spoke to my family members, I filled up the characters with their accounts. These are stories you would hear only if you talked to the family," says the playwright, who is back in Singapore from the United States till the end of this month.

She is based in New Haven in Connecticut, where her husband is doing a postgraduate degree at the Yale School of Drama. They have a five-year-old daughter.

Zizi says she feels immense pressure to represent Mr Yusof Ishak the man fairly. She says somewhat nervously: "My mother told me not to say anything untrue. I really want to do it justice and uphold the family legacy, so to speak."


Reviving dad's pop yeh-yeh legacy

PUJAAN HATIKU - SALIM I TRIBUTE


Musician Rudi Salim is the son of singer Salim Ifi (above).PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

Family connection: Rudi Salim, son of the late pop yeh-yeh singer Salim I, presents this tribute concert.

Musician Rudi Salim remembers going for his father's concerts and recordings when he was in primary school. "I grew up listening to his songs. I felt proud, seeing him onstage doing what he liked," says the 36-year-old.

The late Salim Ifi, better known as Salim I, was a popular Malay pop yeh-yeh singer in the 1960s.

They told me I have my father's husky voice.''

MUSICIAN RUDI SALIM , son of former pop yeh-yeh singer Salim I, on what his aunts said after they heard  him sing his father's songs

The genre was inspired by the upbeat pop beats of The Beatles.

Salim I died in 2008 at the age of 71 from lung cancer.

  • BOOK IT / PUJAAN HATIKU - SALIM I TRIBUTE

    WHERE: Esplanade Concourse

    WHEN: Aug 13, 8.15 to 8.45pm and 9.15 to 9.45pm

    ADMISSION: Free

With the tribute concert on Aug 13, Rudi will sing his father's pop yeh-yeh hits, such as Pujaan Hatiku (Love Of My Life) and Sebentuk Cincin Permata (A Diamond Ring). Some of the slower songs will be made more upbeat but in a traditional Malay music style, such as joget or inang.

Sharing the stage with Rudi will be The Wisma II, named after Salim I's old band The Wisma and put together specially for this performance. The band include Rudi's elder brother, Zainudin.

Besides the usual band instruments such as guitar, drums and keyboard, the band will also play the accordion, violin and an Arab lute called the gambus.

In preparation for the concert, Rudi tried to find his father's songs online, but found only some. He does not have his father's original records.

He says: "Pop yeh-yeh is part of our culture and history. Some people forget that and, instead, they try to play only Western music instruments."

Rudi himself plays multiple percussion instruments, from the African djembe and the Afro-Cuban bongo to the Malay rebana.

He has been active in the music scene for the past five years, mainly as a session percussionist as well as leading percussion groups such as Nadi Singapura.

With this concert, he wants to revive interest in pop yeh-yeh here, especially among the younger generation. But this will be the first time he is singing his father's songs on a public stage.

He says: "I just never thought of doing it before, even though I've memorised the lyrics since young. It's in my blood."

When some of his aunts heard a recording of him singing his father's songs recently, they cried. "They told me I have my father's husky voice."


M. Nasir's rising sons

MERANTAU SANG NUSA (THE NUSANTARA VOYAGE)


Pitahati are made up of the sons of M. Nasir - Yasin, Hidayat (second from right) and Ilham (right) - as well as Awang Masrin (second from left) and Zahar Hamdan (centre).PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

Family connection: Three of the band members of Nusantara rock band Pitahati are sons of Malay music icon M. Nasir.

Hidayat Mohamad Nasir does not want his psychedelic and avant-garde rock band Pitahati to always be known as the band with M. Nasir's sons.

"We want to create our own identity. Of course, we can't reject the fact he is our father," says Hidayat, 24, of his father, who is an icon of Nusantara music, or music of the Malay archipelago.

Of course, we can't reject the fact he is our father. It's up to people to judge us based on our own merits.''

HIDAYAT MOHAMAD NASIR, one of music legend M. Nasir's sons who is in the band Pitahati

  • BOOK IT / MERANTAU SANG NUSA (THE NUSANTARA VOYAGE)

    WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio

    WHEN: Aug 15, 9pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic

"It's up to people to judge us based on our own merits."

Hidayat plays the guitar while his brother Yasin, 27, plays the drums. Eldest brother Ilham, 29, plays guitar and is the lead vocalist of the band. The other band members are Awang Masrin, 29, and Zahar Hamdan, 33.

The three brothers, along with two other siblings, are M. Nasir's children with his wife, singer Junainah Johari, who died in 1998. In 2000, he married actress and art lecturer Marlia Musa with whom he has one daughter, aged 15.

The Singapore-born music legend, now aged 58, moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1984 with his family.

Pitahati, based in Kuala Lumpur, were formed in 2011 and have released one album, with a new one on the way titled Selamat Datang Ke Panggung Sore (Welcome To The Afternoon Stage).

Their 60-minute concert at the Esplanade, Merantau Sang Nusa (The Nusantara Voyage) on Aug 15, will feature a mix of their old and new songs. This is their second concert here after performing at Aliwal Arts Centre last year.

When asked whether their father supports them, Hidayat answers "yes and no".

The band are under the label Luncai Emas, which was founded by M. Nasir in 1990.

"He tells us that being a musician is tough. But we don't really care what he says. We just want to play music," says Hidayat.

But he reveals that their father does come uninvited to some of their shows. "He would criticise us after that. I guess it is the fatherly thing to do."

But while Pitahati strive to create a name of their own, Hidayat says they do love Nusantara music as well, just like their father did.

Hidayat adds: "We have an appreciation for Nusantara sounds and infuse them into our music.

"People look up to Western music, but we have a responsibility to include our own culture into our music as well."


Mum, son and the rest of the band

REGGAE RAYA


Bushmen's Hassan Muhammad (in blue checked shirt) and his fellow members will take to the stage with his mother, Kamaliah Latif.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

Family connection: Bushmen bassist Hassan Muhammad will sing with his mother, Kamaliah Latif, a singer popular in the 1970s.

The first time Kamaliah Latif, 64, heard her son Hassan Muhammad perform at Youth Park in the 1990s, she was shocked. She had not known he was in a band.

"My nephew had invited me. I was watching from afar and thought to myself, 'Since when could he play guitar?' He was very good," she says.

  • BOOK IT / REGGAE RAYA

    WHERE: Esplanade Outdoor Theatre

    WHEN: Aug 15, 7.30 to 8.15pm, 8.45 to 9.30pm and 10 to 10.45pm

    ADMISSION: Free

Hassan, 40, is the bassist of local reggae band Bushmen, which started in 1997. They are still active, performing at Hard Rock Cafe on the first Sunday of the month and working on a new album.

His mother was a singer in the 1970s known for her pop and R&B hits. She is known for songs such as Dollah Kassim (after the legendary local footballer) and Lagu Kasih (Love Song).

She regularly did the club circuit - "I performed for Malay weddings too," she says - and in 1975, she performed in Japan for a few months.

Hassan and his mother will be reuniting onstage on Aug 15, as they perform classic Hari Raya songs such as Satu Hari Di Hari Raya and Suasana Hari Raya done reggae-style, along with the rest of Bushmen.

The last time they performed together was in 2013 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. They were joined by Hassan's grandmother Momo Latif, a veteran Malay singer and actress from the 1950s and 1960s, and the Bushmen.

Mak Momo, as she is known, remains active in the scene, regularly singing at concerts and community events. "Her willpower is very strong. Even if she cannot sing, she will still sing. It's her passion," says Kamaliah.

Now 92, Mak Momo will not be singing this time.

With such a musical family, it is no wonder that Hassan, who has two children aged two and four, followed the same route. "I've been learning from my mother since I was eight years old. We used to live in Marine Parade and we'd go to the beach on the weekends to practise singing. I feel blessed to be able to continue my family legacy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'A family affair'. Print Edition | Subscribe