Church songs? She'd rather rock to Santana

Meet two grandmas who are keeping active in their silver years. Mary Ho, 80, plays the electric guitar while Yeo Soon Kim, 85, loves colouring books.
Grandma Mary's first guitar lesson started with Santana's Samba Pa Ti. She now performs pro bono at charity events.
Grandma Mary's first guitar lesson started with Santana's Samba Pa Ti. She now performs pro bono at charity events.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Grandma Mary, 80, was 60 when she learnt to play the guitar

When Madam Mary Ho attended her first guitar class at the age of 60, her baffled instructor asked if she was really the one having lessons.

She recalled with a laugh: "'Who is going to learn?' he asked me. He said that he had never taught anyone my age before."

That was 20 years ago. Madam Ho, more fondly known as Grandma Mary, told him she was there to learn how to play Samba Pa Ti, a song by the legendary jazz-rock guitarist Carlos Santana.

Remembering the encounter, Grandma Mary, now 80, said the instructor refused to take her seriously. "He told me to play church songs and nursery rhymes instead.

"But I said no, it has got to be Santana," she said.

Today, not only does Grandma Mary play Samba Pa Ti effortlessly, she has an ensemble of more than 20 electric and acoustic guitars. The retiree also makes guest appearances at charity events, where she shreds a mean riff.

Grandma Mary said she was surrounded with music in her house growing up. Her father played the guitar and violin, and her mother was a Chinese opera singer.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR OTHERS

My mother always told me to be kind to those who are less fortunate... I like to play for the seniors. Because when they see me play, they think if this grandma can play, they can also learn.

MADAM MARY HO, on why she plays for charity and how she hopes to inspire.

"I listened to music from young and it really got into me," said Grandma Mary. "I liked to play but my father never encouraged me.

"And I loved the guitar, but my mother said the guitar was for boys."

After she was married at 20, she made raising a family of two daughters, and later, seven grandchildren her priority.

When she turned 60, she bought herself an $80 acoustic guitar and an instruction book.

Her family, including her husband, encouraged her. "My family is happy I'm spending time doing what I love," she added.

The journey was filled with blood, sweat and tears, recalled Grandma Mary.

"I practised Samba Pa Ti day and night because I was scared if I didn't, the teacher wouldn't teach me," she laughed.

"While practising, I cut my fingers and they bled because you need a lot of strength with the strings. But I said to myself, 'Never say die.' After a few months, it was okay."

She added: "If you have the passion, you won't feel the pain. You will love it."

Grandma Mary's first performance was in 2005, nine years after her first lesson, at a KK Women's and Children's Hospital event.

Since then, Grandma Mary has performed pro bono at charity events.

She has strummed her guitar for Viva Foundation for Children with Cancer, the Singapore Eye Research Institute and the Singapore National Eye Centre.

"My mother always told me to be kind to those who are less fortunate," she said.

Grandma Mary hopes to inspire other seniors to pick up music or at least a hobby. "I like to play for the seniors," she said.

"Because when they see me play, they think if this grandma can play, they can also learn."

WATCH THE VIDEO

Mary Ho shreds the guitar. http://str.sg/4MrQ.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Church songs? She'd rather rock to Santana'. Print Edition | Subscribe