Three races in musical harmony

(From left) Ghanavenothan Retnam with his bansuri, Tan Qing Lun with his dizi and Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohamed with his accordion.
(From left) Ghanavenothan Retnam with his bansuri, Tan Qing Lun with his dizi and Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohamed with his accordion.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

In the Temple of Fine Arts' practice space in Havelock Road, flautist Ghanavenothan Retnam improvises a melody on his bansuri. Tan Qing Lun picks up his dizi to join in and Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohamed completes the harmony on his accordion.

Firdaus, 32, says: "No one would think that we can perform together, but listen to us."

This month, the trio heads to the Philippines and then South Korea for the 2017 Asean-Republic of Korea Flute Festival, held from Nov 26 to Dec 9.

Tan, 29, is the festival director for the event, which is held to commemorate ties between Asean nations and the Republic of Korea.

He will not perform, but has programmed representatives from 10 Asean countries as well as South Korea to give individual lecture recitals about their instruments and musical traditions. There will also be combined concerts.

All events will be held first in Makati City and Manila, then move to the Asean Culture House in Busan, which opened in September.

Retnam, 56, represents Singapore and will be accompanied by 32-year-old Firdaus. They are members of yIN Harmony, a multicultural musical group that Tan set up to showcase musical styles unique to Singapore. The name is a pun on "yinyue" or "music" in Chinese.

Tan received his master's degree from the renowned Shanghai Conservatory and is doing his PhD in the dizi from the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He was a member of Chinese chamber music ensemble Ding Yi Music Company when he heard Retnam perform in 2009. He decided he had to learn the Indian flute from the music educator at the Temple of Fine Arts.

He was bowled over during those early lessons. "He gave me my first flute, a venu, and said the first flute has to be given by the teacher. Also, his rehearsals always had chocolates."

In 2014, Tan won second prize in the flute open category of the National Indian Music Competition organised by the National Arts Council. No first or third prizes were awarded.

He and his teacher continued performing together and roped in Firdaus as a kindred spirit who believes that music knows no boundaries. They have individual careers: Tan runs ocarina classes and other ensembles under his House Of Music company and Firdaus is the music director of Malay musical group Orkestra Sri Temasek.

However, all say that playing together is equally important.

Firdaus says: "Having this group perform bonds us. Since we are living in Singapore, we must be inclusive. With what's going on in the world right now, it's very important."

Retnam adds: "We don't stick to our boundaries, musical or otherwise. When we create music together, we go beyond that."

Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'Three races in musical harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe