Esplanade's PopLore series explores evolution of Singapore pop music

The artistes highlighted include 1960s musicians (clockwise from top left) The Crescendos, singer-composer Dick Lee, jazz stalwart Jeremy Monteiro and singer-songwriter Charlie Lim. PHOTOS: ESPLANADE

SINGAPORE - The history and trajectory of popular music made in Singapore takes centre stage in PopLore, an ongoing year-long series at the Esplanade.

The line-up includes concerts, a podcast series and an exhibition and they explore the rich variety of musicians and genres that were popular throughout the decades. This is part of the arts centre's 20th-anniversary celebrations.

The artistes highlighted include 1960s musicians The Crescendos, singer-composer Dick Lee, jazz stalwart Jeremy Monteiro and singer-songwriter Charlie Lim. Each plays an important role in the telling of Singapore's story, says Esplanade programmer Melissa Poon.

"This is why we are also featuring genres like jazz and pop yeh yeh, which were the popular music of their times; getai, which is well embraced by a segment of the community; as well as our popular and up-and-coming indie musicians who represent part of today and tomorrow's generations."

Singer Asmah Atan will perform on March 4 in a concert of pop yeh yeh - which merged Malay music with 1960s Western pop - while host and singer Lin Ruping will be part of a getai showcase on March 5.

The series kicked off on Jan 1 with Gemilang, a Malay concert featuring veterans such as Hanafie Warren as well as contemporary pop singers such as Hyrul Anuar. Many of the other shows will also feature different generations of artistes performing together.

Lee, for example, will collaborate with new names, Omnitones and Third Degree, for his concerts at Esplanade Concert Hall on June 18 and 19.

The 65-year-old assembled Omnitones, a band comprised of young musicians he found on Instagram, to help him develop songs he wrote during the circuit breaker in 2020.

He says: "This was a cathartic return to my roots of songwriting and playing in a group, and I also have wanted to encourage and develop young local talent. When the Esplanade presented the opportunity to have a showcase, I immediately decided to use the platform to present some new talent to my audience."

Less prominent names are also given a chance to shine.

The second show under PopLore, XingPop 2.0 on Feb 12, featured not only popular singers such as Nathan Hartono, but also "unsung heroes" of Singapore's Mandopop scene such as Goh Kheng Long, Jim Lim and Ruth Ling.

Music industry veteran Lim Sek, the creative consultant for PopLore, says Singapore's music past plays a crucial role in determining where the scene is today. Knowledge about local music history, presented through the concerts, exhibition as well as the podcast series which he hosts, will help define the future of the scene.

Singapore's music industry suffers from a small audience market size and weak audience support, he notes, citing the 2020 survey by The Sunday Times in which artists were considered "non-essential".

"This will not change if the public does not have an idea that we have talent that can measure up to the best other countries have to offer. And unless we give them the support they deserve, many will just fizzle out when the question of bread and butter comes into play," he says.

Bringing the story of Singapore pop to the forefront and making it easily accessible to the public is just the beginning. "Perhaps one day, the familiarity of local pop among the public can expand beyond the limits of our National Day songs."

Understanding what pop music pioneers had to go through to bring the pop music scene to where it is today can also inspire the succeeding generations of musicians, he adds.

Singer-songwriter Charlie Lim, who will perform at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sept 16, says being exposed to local musicians such as singer Corrinne May and alternative rock band The Observatory influenced his decision to pursue music as a career.

"I was in secondary school when May put out her own record and held her own concerts, and perhaps that also planted some possibilities in my mind, even if it was a bit of wishful thinking. Like, 'Hey, if she can do this, maybe I can give it a shot too,'" says the 33-year-old, who received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2021.

Ms Poon stresses that the artistes in the PopLore line-up are not an exhaustive representation of Singapore popular music. "It would not be possible or right for us to claim that what we have in PopLore is definitive of Singapore popular music.

"However, what we hope to achieve through it is to galvanise the music scene, which has been badly hit by the pandemic, and to renew a sense of community after a prolonged period of being physically apart for many of us."

Some highlights

Dick Lee & Omnitones featuring Third Degree

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: June 18 and 19, 7.30pm
What: Singer-composer Dick Lee will not only perform his songs from previous decades that helped define home-grown pop music, but also new songs that he developed with rising artistes Omnitones and Third Degree.

45 RPM - Jeremy's Jazz Journal

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: July 1 and 2, 7.30pm
What: Home-grown jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro celebrates his 45th year in music with a set list that revisits the pivotal moments of a career that has seen him release multiple albums and garner international acclaim.

Charlie Lim

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: Sept 16, 7.30pm
What: Singer-songwriter Charlie Lim will helm a concert with a yet-to-be-announced collective of fellow home-grown musicians. They will perform rearranged versions of one another's songs.

PopLore: Stories Of Singapore Pop

Where: Spotify and Apple Podcasts
When: Ongoing
What: A seven-episode podcast hosted by music industry veteran Lim Sek featuring interviews with a rich variety of personalities who have helped shape Singapore's music scene, ranging from broadcast veteran Brian Richmond to Mandopop songwriter-producer Billy Koh. The first two episodes, focusing on the origins of Singapore pop and Chinese pop music respectively, are available here.

Home Grooves

Where: Esplanade Concourse
When: From August 2022 to July 2023
What: A year-long exhibition exploring the history and evolution of music venues in Singapore, from the 1960s to the present. Members of the public who have memorabilia relating to live music venues from the past can contribute through a crowdsourcing initiative to be launched in March.

Esplanade Offstage

Where: Online 
When: August
What: An online video series aimed at audiences who are new to Singapore pop will be launched in August. The Esplanade will also launch a separate package of educator resources on Singapore pop for upper-primary and lower-secondary students. These will be available on the arts centre's Esplanade Offstage website.

Go here for more information.

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