Chinese immigrant music given a fresh take

What do immigrants from China do when they transplant themselves thousands of miles from their homeland to settle in South-east Asia?

They bring along their musical cultures, mostly through oral tradition, create their own instruments and pass these down to succeeding generations. That is how musical heritage survives or risks being forgotten altogether.

Over the course of four years, The Teng Ensemble has interviewed and recorded musical practitioners whose forebears arrived by sea from southern China - from Fujian (Hokkien), Chaozhou (Teochew) and Guangdong (Canton). Heirlooms is the 70-minute concert of music derived from these traditions, produced by Bang Wenfu and Joel Nah, and accompanied by a documentary film directed by Koo Chia Meng.

Imagine the metamorphosis of music, through displacements in time and space, with the imbibing of modern popular culture, and one gets an idea of the music heard.

Eight short works by New York-based, Malaysia-born composer Chow JunYi were presented, each with roots in pre-existing music but transformed into something fresh from the 21 st century.

The original creators will not recognise these slicked-up efforts, but hopefully, some of the creators' spirit remains.

It was only appropriate that The Teng Ensemble founder Samuel Wong gave a short preamble before opening the first piece, Tracing, with his pipa solo. Lovebirds Singing In Harmony by Zhuo Shengxiang and late Cultural Medallion recipient Tang Mah Seng was the basis for this flight of fantasy. One interviewee on film quipped that Nanyin music initially felt like Chinese funeral dirges, but this updated take and Xin Zao Beh, a reimagination of Nanyin classic Eight Horses, would completely change the script.

  • REVIEW / CONCERT

  • HEIRLOOMS

    The Teng Ensemble

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

With the house lights dimmed to near darkness, and stage lights taking over to illuminate soloists, the romp began. Allying Wong were eight players, equally spiffy in their designer suits, plying traditional Chinese (erhu, sheng, pipa, ruan and guzheng) and modern instruments (gehu or cello, keyboard, electric guitar and electronics).

Localised versions of certain instruments were also employed, including Cantonese gaohu and qinqin, Teochew zheng and pipa, with the intent that some authenticity was being preserved. The music was amplified and with projected visuals and strobe lights, everything took on a psychedelic edge.

Lovers of Cantonese music will recognise Chen Peixun's Autumn Moon Over The Calm Lake and Yan Laolie's Han Tian Lei (Thunder In Drought) in the mash-up titled Hang Gai. There was also a nod to film music with the melody from Once Upon A Time In China incorporated into Contemporary. Here, a recording of drums and temple gongs from the Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe was included into the mix.

There was also a tribute to the late Yeo How Jiang, a master of Waijiang (scholar music) and Teochew music, who was recorded and immortalised in Memoir.

With the final work Far From Home, using four Teochew melodies, The Teng Ensemble showed that the past is still relevant, if anything, to inform the future.


Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2019, with the headline 'Chinese immigrant music given a fresh take'. Print Edition | Subscribe