PopLore: Asmah Atan's children did not know she was a popular singer

Singapore Pop Yeh Yeh singer Asmah Atan. PHOTO: ESPLANADE

SINGAPORE - Even though she had hit songs in the 1960s, Asmah Atan's children did not know their mother used to be a singer.

In 2004, her daughter, then 19, was in a karaoke lounge in Perth when she found out that one of the songs available there was sung by her mother.

"She called me - it was about 10 o'clock in Singapore - and said, 'Hey, ma, what are you doing here?'" she recalls with a laugh in a telephone interview.

"Then she called her father and said, 'Papa, do you know that your wife is a singer?' He said, 'Of course.'"

Asmah, 72, was one of the stars of pop yeh yeh, a genre that merged Malay music with 1960s pop from Western acts such as The Beatles.

She first came into prominence at the age of 16 as a finalist in an inter-school singing competition in 1966. She would later sing for pop yeh yeh bands The Teruna with late singer M. Rahmat and D' Pioneers. Her stage name had a slight difference in the spelling: Asmah Attan.

Because the songs were popular, she did a lot of shows between the ages of 16 and 19, and often shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. Appropriately enough, her most famous song was Muda Remaja (Young Teen) and she also had other hits such as Gelombang Kan Beralun (Undulating Waves).

"That was really a hectic time," the singer, who also has three sons and four grandchildren, recalls. "We'd be playing shows, travelling from one place to another, today in Johor Baru and then to Kelantan and then to Terengganu and then Perlis."

In the early days, she delighted in the constant attention from her fans, but she eventually grew tired of fame. "We were not free to move about, you're being watched by everybody. That's why I decided to retire."

Figuring that she needed to secure more stable employment, she took on an office job as a receptionist. "The first time I worked in the office, I cried because my salary was $180 (a month). I used to make $3,000 to $4,000 as a singer."

She eventually got married and quit working to raise her children when she was 30.

"As you go along in life, working and then getting married, your interests vary and you move away from what you used to like. I liked singing, but at the same time, my priorities changed," she says, adding that she did not even keep any of her old records at home.

Asmah, who spends most of her time these days doing charity and community work, eventually started singing again. It was mostly with musicians who played at the neighbourhood community clubs, as well as brief performances at public and private events.

In 2018, she joined a gathering of pop yeh yeh artistes at a private show in Melaka.

On March 4, she will take the stage for her first proper concert in four decades. She is one of the local pop yeh yeh artistes performing at Malam Pop Yeh Yeh, a gig at the Esplanade Concert Hall alongside Asmuri from The Hornets, June Abdullah and Rudi Salim & The Wismas II.

The concert is part of PopLore, the Esplanade's year-long series that celebrates the evolution of Singapore's popular music.

Asmah intends to sing her signature tune Muda Remaja. The lyrics, which celebrate the teenage years, are a motivation for her to stay active. "It is the reason I am still up and about, running here and there."

Book It/Malam Pop Yeh Yeh

What: A concert featuring Asmuri of The Hornets, Asmah Atan, June Abdullah, Rudi Salim & The Wismas II
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: March 4, 8.30pm
Admission: $30 for standard tickets; concessions available from Sistic (go here or call 6348-5555)

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