Concert review: A Malay Rhythms Extravaganza by Asian Contemporary Ensemble

The Living Room @ The Arts House

Last Friday

The Asian Contemporary Ensemble was formed by young conductor-composer Wong Kah Chun to showcase new music written by young Asian composers reflecting their unique ethnic cultures and heritage. It made its debut several years ago at the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts. Now it even has a season of its own, with this opening concert centred on Malay music.

For most non-Muslims, Singapore's indigenous music is occasionally heard at Malay weddings, the odd multi-cultural event and television variety shows. The traditional concert hall where Beethoven is king might seem as foreign as possible a venue to hear Malay music, but this 90 minute concert, attended by a full house, broke down barriers.

The five works receiving their World Premieres were based on five dance or rhythmic forms encountered in Malay music. Traditional examples of these dances were performed before each piece, and it was left for each of the five composers to meditate, elaborate or leave his or her personal mark on each of the forms. The results were both revealing and enlightening.

Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli's Ala Nar (On Fire) was based on the masri, a festive women's dance with Arabic origins sometimes associated with belly dancing. The vigorous piece was memorable as it demonstrated the far reach of Islamic influences; parts of it sounded like a Spanish dance, notably the malaguena from southern Spain.

A Chinese Raga On An Inang Tala by Jeremiah Li was as eclectic as one could get. All three ethnic groups were represented in this deliberately modernised rojak, with improvisatory sections for dizi, accordion and tabla. Heterophony, where different instruments come together playing the same tune, a device heard in much Asian music, was also employed.

Prize-winning composition The Sisters' Island by Wang Chen Wei, based on a legend from the Riau archipelago, was an example of an asli, a more leisurely and relaxed dance-form that reflected grace and elegance. Adapted from its original form for Chinese instruments, the score used a toy piano with a tinkling timbre that resembled the gamelan.

The joget is a familiar rhythm from the old dancehall, and it was a pique of invention by Tan Wen Bin to transform it into a waltz in his Ruminations. Beginning like an avant-garde number, it cheekily incorporated the familiar Nokia ringtone (itself adapted from a waltz by Spaniard guitarist-composer Tarrega), and Geylang became Grinzing (a district of Vienna).

Finally, Syifiqah Adha Sallehin used the exuberant zapin for her Waves Of Rhythm, a catchy piece with definite popular appeal. Here audience participation was directed by conductor Wong as to how and when to shake and roll their rattles for maximum effect. The concert ended on a cheerful high.

For the record, the performers were Abigail Sin (electronic keyboard and toy piano), Joyce Poh (a bagful of Chinese flutes), Syafiqah (accordion), Govin Tan (tabla and drumset), Ismahairie Putra Ishak (violin and gambus, an Eastern lute) and Shahrul Fadzly Shazuli (rebana, a Malay drum). It is hoped that an encore performance is in the offing.