Folk songs from an island city

The Teng Ensemble comprises (from far left) cellist Gerald Teo, pipa player Samuel Wong, sheng player Yang Ji Wei, countertenor Phua Ee Kia, guitarist James Fernando and sound artist Huang Peh Linde.
The Teng Ensemble comprises (from far left) cellist Gerald Teo, pipa player Samuel Wong, sheng player Yang Ji Wei, countertenor Phua Ee Kia, guitarist James Fernando and sound artist Huang Peh Linde.PHOTO: THE FULLERTON HERITAGE

The Teng Ensemble brings to life familiar tunes of yesteryear with the use of visuals, poetry and dance

The Teng Ensemble dips into the well of Singapore's heritage and musical memory, resurrecting lullabies and folk songs from years gone by for its concert, Stories From An Island City.

The show, which will be held on Aug 12 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, unites music, dance and film under the direction of theatre and film heavyweight Glen Goei.

It features 10 original compositions - all given the ensemble's East-meets-West treatment - infused with the motifs of familiar tunes such as Di Tanjong Katong and Munnaeru Vaalibaa.

"While not all of them originate from Singapore, many of these pieces play an important role in forming and shaping the cultural identity of many Singaporeans, young and old," says the ensemble's pipa player Samuel Wong, 33.

The connection some young Singaporeans have with these songs is fading.

And so, says Wong, "we hope to introduce these songs back to the modern day and to reinvent material from our heritage to make them relevant for contemporary society".

  • BOOK IT / STORIES FROM AN ISLAND CITY

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Aug 12, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $18 to $38 from Sistic, excludes booking fees (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

The six-man ensemble, which was established in 2009, is made up of Wong, sheng player Yang Ji Wei, cellist Gerald Teo, sound artist Huang Peh Linde, James Fernando on guitar and countertenor Phua Ee Kia.

Since its start, it has made its name putting a contemporary spin on traditional music and marrying the sounds of Eastern and Western instruments.

It is, after all, out to "rework, innovate, update and redefine traditional music" and to spark a passion for Singapore music for generations to come, says Wong.

The ensemble got a nod from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who, during the National Day Rally last year, praised it for creating "something uniquely Singapore".

The 10 pieces in the concert were written by the ensemble's composer-in-residence Chow Jun Yi, in collaboration with Huang, who puts the group's contemporary stamp on the works by adding electronic beats and soundscapes.

By merging certain songs, the ensemble was able to spin a variety of stories with each work.

One piece, Departures, is inspired by lost love and lingering memories - themes evoked by the two Malay songs it features, the lullaby Suriram and Osman Ahmad's evergreen Di Tanjong Katong.

Another, titled Childhood, harks back to those carefree days with tunes such as San Lun Che (The Tricycle), Ni Wa Wa (Mud Doll), Burung Kakak Tua (The Cockatoo Bird) and Ikan Kekek (The Silver Belly Bream Fish).

Wong says the ensemble wanted to weave a full story through these 10 pieces - a task that required much coordination, theatrical direction and choreography.

Goei, with his track record in directing film and stage works, was the "natural choice" for storyteller.

He interprets the ensemble's songs along new dimensions - dance, video and poetry - alongside head film-maker Koo Chia Meng and choreographer Aaron Khek.

Goei wanted the concert to weave a seamless narrative of Singapore's heritage, culture and communities.

"What I'm excited about is the use of multi-disciplinary art forms in the concert that showcase some of Singapore's cultural heritage. This allows us to present the greater Singapore story," says the 53-year-old.

"The challenge comes in trying to put together 10 individual pieces harmoniously as the works are all rather different. So the use of visuals, poetry and dance plays an important role in shaping the concert the way I envisioned it."

Singapore's diversity will also be represented by the rich spread of talents that will share the stage with the ensemble.

Among them are contemporary dancer Ix Wong of the now-defunct dance troupe Ah Hock and Peng Yu; Nirmala Seshadri, founder of N Dance and Yoga; and percussionist and co-founder of Nadi Singapura Riduan Zalani.

Ix Wong, who is from Malaysia, will be creating and dancing in the vignettes of dance stories with Nirmala.

"It's natural for us to come together as artists. Multi- disciplinary and multicultural are just labels," says the 42-year-old on how the concert unites different cultures and disciplines. "My existence and work can never be divorced from those ideas as I'm inspired, influenced and use bits and pieces of different genres and tribes.

"I think the beauty of this collaboration with the Teng Ensemble is that it's an organic journey. We come, we play, we dance."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Folk songs from an island city'. Print Edition | Subscribe