He's more than Mr Mari Kita

Theatre group Wild Rice's fund-raising concert pays tribute to Zubir Said by featuring 17 of the late composer's songs

Most people know late composer Zubir Said as the man behind Singapore's national anthem Majulah Singapura. But he was also a prolific composer whose works ranged from evergreen tunes to film soundtracks.

An upcoming fund-raising concert for theatre group Wild Rice, The Rice 'Bowl' 2021 - Don't Call Him Mr Mari Kita, will feature 17 of his songs.

Helmed by music director, composer and educator Julian Wong, 33, it will run at Wild Rice @ Funan on Oct 29 and 30. Audiences are encouraged to follow the "orang Singapura" (people of Singapore) dress code and to attend the concert wearing clothes that represent Singapore.

It is not Wong's first show featuring songs by the composer also known as Pak Zubir. In 2019, he staged a shorter version for the Singapore Bicentennial edition of the Light To Night Festival at National Gallery Singapore. At 80 minutes, the upcoming concert will have about twice as many songs.

Wong has a connection to Pak Zubir, who died in 1987. He was mentored by late musician and Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Ismail, who in turn had Pak Zubir as a music teacher.

The concert's title was something that Pak Zubir said in a speech, says Wong. "He actually said, 'It is wrong to call me Mr Mari Kita, please don't call me that.' And I hope through the concert that people will go, 'Oh, yeah, he really was more than Mr Mari Kita.'"

The set list includes Sayang Di Sayang (Lover Is Loved) from a 1950 film, Rachun Dunia (World Poison), that became a signature song for the late keroncong doyenne Kartina Dahari. There is also Cempaka Biru (Blue Cempaka), sung by Pak Zubir's muse, Cultural Medallion recipient and singer Nona Asiah, 91.

Another number, Suhanna, is based on a score published for the first time in the 2012 biography, Zubir Said, The Composer Of Majulah Singapura, written by his daughter, Dr Rohana Zubir.

In some cases, Wong had to be creative with the arrangement of the songs.

The old lead sheets - musical notations with melodies and lyrics - that he had tracked down through his research were incomplete. "It was a lot of detective work because there were no chords and sometimes the notes did not match the time and key signatures."

For the concert, he will be accompanied by singers Abdul Wafi Abdul Rashid, Hannah Nordin and Rohaniah Sa'id. The live band will include Young Artist Award winner and percussionist Riduan Zalani. The show is directed by Wild Rice's artistic director and Cultural Medallion recipient Ivan Heng.

Their rendition of Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore) will be an instrumental version slightly different from the official one that Singaporeans are familiar with.

"I will talk about what Majulah Singapura meant to Pak Zubir, which I think is something we never learnt in school. For all its 'epic-ness', it was said to be a very personal song to him and he regarded Majulah Singapura as a prayer more than anything," says Wong.

He adds that it is timely to revisit the meaning of the national anthem, given the recent conversations about Singaporeans and foreign-born talent. Pak Zubir was born in Indonesia and moved to Singapore in 1928 at the age of 21.

"The story of Majulah Singapura is so relevant because Zubir Said shows us how to love our country, especially in a time like today, where I think we're just increasingly intolerant and xenophobic.

"But this is a man who said, 'It doesn't matter that I'm from Bukittinggi, my feet touch the ground here, this is where I have to hold up the sky,'" notes Wong, referencing the Malay proverb about adhering to the rules and customs of wherever one is physically.

Another song they are performing, local Children's Day anthem Semoga Bahagia (May You Achieve Happiness), is Wong and Iskandar's favourite song by Pak Zubir. "At the concert, I will explain why this song about moving forward together in search of knowledge means so much to us."


THE RICE 'BOWL' 2021 - DON'T CALL HIM MR MARI KITA

WHERE Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Level 4 Funan mall, 107 North Bridge Road

WHEN Oct 29 and 30, 6 and 9pm

ADMISSION Available tickets start from $500 for two seats in Balcony 2, go to bit.ly/3mHfuJB

INFO All donations will be eligible for 250 per cent tax deduction

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2021, with the headline 'He's more than Mr Mari Kita'. Subscribe