Tribute by son and protege to iconic singer

Veteran singer Nona Asiah and her son, music arranger Indra Shahrir Ismail (both top); and host Najip Ali (above).
Veteran singer Nona Asiah (left) and her son, music arranger Indra Shahrir Ismail.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Veteran singer Nona Asiah and her son, music arranger Indra Shahrir Ismail (both top); and host Najip Ali (above).
Host Najip Ali (above).PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Playwright Zizi Azah is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak (above).
Playwright Zizi Azah is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak (above). PHOTO: ST FILE
Playwright Zizi Azah (above) is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak.
Playwright Zizi Azah (above) is writing the play Yusof, about her granduncle and Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Musician Rudi Salim (above) is the son of singer Salim Ifi.
Musician Rudi Salim (above) is the son of singer Salim Ifi.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Pitahati are made up of the sons of M. Nasir - Yasin (above), Hidayat and Ilham - as well as Awang Masrin and Zahar Hamdan.
Pitahati are made up of the sons of M. Nasir - Yasin (above), Hidayat and Ilham - as well as Awang Masrin and Zahar Hamdan.PHOTO: M. SALIHIN SULAIMAN
Bushmen's Hassan Muhammad and his fellow members will take to the stage with his mother, Kamaliah Latif (above).
Bushmen's Hassan Muhammad and his fellow members will take to the stage with his mother, Kamaliah Latif (above).PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN FILE

SI CEMPAKA BIRU - CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF NONA ASIAH

Family connection: Nona Asiah's son, Indra Shahrir Ismail, is one of the music directors of the concert; host Najip Ali, one of her many proteges, is the director.

Music has always been in Indra Shahrir Ismail's blood.

His mother Nona Asiah, 86, was a popular singer during the golden age of Malay cinema from the 1940s to 1970s, while his father, the late Ismail Kassim, was a music veteran.

The youngest of five children, he also grew up with award-winning composer and Cultural Medallion recipient, the late Iskandar Mirza Ismail, who was his older brother.


Veteran Singer Nona Asiah (centre) with her son Indra Shahrir Ismail (left) and protege Najip Ali (right).

"While other boys were outside playing with kites, I had to practise my flute and piano at home. It was tough," reminisces Indra who, like his brother, studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States.

Indra is now a prominent name in the music scene, doing arrangements regularly for MediaCorp shows, National Day parades and musicals such as Dick Lee's Hot Pants.

Now 49, he is one of the music directors for Si Cempaka Biru, a concert on Aug 14 which pays tribute to his illustrious mother. Cempaka Biru was a song written for her by national anthem composer Zubir Said.

One of her proteges, host Najip Ali, is directing the show.

He is effusive in his appreciation for how she pushed him to develop his unique persona at 17, during a talent show.

  • BOOK IT / SI CEMPAKA BIRU

    WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: Aug 14, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25, $45 and $65 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

"I was paired with two others, including Indra, but actually, I cannot sing - I am not as talented as them. She pushed me to go solo," says the 50-year-old, a recognisable face in the entertainment scene here.

"I am here because of Mak Nona."

The upcoming 90-minute concert will feature younger singers such as Aisyah Aziz and Rudy Djoharnaen doing their take on Nona's songs, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra.

In between, there will be interviews and video snippets in Malay of her family and proteges talking about how she has influenced them. This includes her grandson, television actor Imam Shah, 26.

Besides Najip, another of Nona's proteges, host and author Rilla Melati, will also be appearing at the concert.

Seeing Nona today, clad in a regal green kebaya, it is easy to picture her in her heyday as a singer during the golden age of Malay cinema.

Indra notes: "She started even before Singapore got her independence, working with the big guns in the industry like P. Ramlee and Saloma."

The living legend is chatty, speaking about her achievements with pride - from being able to buy a house with the royalties of her songs to her collection of signature self-designed vintage kebayas.

Some of these kebayas, along with old photographs and newspaper articles, will be displayed as part of an exhibition on her at the Esplanade's festival corner - a cosy nook outside the concert hall - from Aug 13 to 16.

Due to ill health, she will not sing at the concert, but she seems more excited to be able to see her friends and supporters during the show, calling it "a night that will go down in history".

"I am touched and beyond happy, that even in my sunset years, there are still people who remember me," she says, her face lighting up with a bright smile.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'Tribute by son and protege to iconic singer'. Print Edition | Subscribe