From jazz music to yodelling as Sakura Teng

Joanna Dong moves into other musical genres playing the popular singer from the 1970s in Great World Cabaret

Singer-actress Joanna Dong. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Singer-actress Joanna Dong. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY

Singer-actress Joanna Dong has dabbled in jazz music, theatre and film since entering the local creative fray a decade ago. This year, she is looking to test the waters in television and pop music.

"It's time for me to set aside my fears of failure and relearn how to connect with a wider audience," she says in an e-mail interview.

With a fervent passion for jazz music, the crooner has admitted to sticking to the comfort zone of the genre, performing in English and Mandarin.

"Before, I had been content to make music with only my own aesthetics in mind. Perhaps it was youthful stubbornness or fear of the unknown, but I had purposely avoided making music for the masses," reveals Dong, who got married to an actor and theatre educator in December 2012.

When she entered the Singapore Idol singing competition in 2004 - her first foray into show business - she did not make it past the top 40. That left her questioning her talent and thinking that she "was not meant to be popular".

Since then, Dong, 33, has released her debut EP, Lullaby Nomad, in 2008 and made her feature film debut in the romance comedy Forever (2011). She is set to take on one of her most demanding theatrical roles yet - as Singapore's reigning a-go-go queen Sakura Teng in the upcoming live variety show Great World Cabaret: Let's Bo Bo Cha Cha, which relives the glittery entertainment scene in the swinging 1960s and 1970s.

Premiering on Thursday, the show also stars Seong Hui Xuan as queen of striptease Rose Chan and Aisyah Aziz as iconic Malay folk singer Kartina Dahari, as well as comedians Mark Lee, Hossan Leong and Sebastian Tan.

Dong will showcase her yodelling skills in the show, just like Teng used to do at her shows.

"I've never performed yodelling before, though I have sung The Lonely Goatherd to myself just for fun because I loved all the songs from The Sound Of Music movie," she says.

Beyond Great World Cabaret and plans to release a Mandarin album and hold a concert in the next year or so, she does not have "huge dreams".

"The things I spend my time thinking of are within my reach. I'm quite content because I see my life as a huge collection of many, many small dreams that have already come true."

1 What are the biggest challenges in your role as Sakura Teng in Great World Cabaret?

I've never had to play a non-fictitious role before, so trying to appear as a convincing Sakura to her legion of fans is fairly daunting.

This show is also very demanding in terms of choreography because you couldn't go to a legitimate 1960s cabaret without expecting some fancy cha-cha moves, could you?

2 How tough is it to yodel?

It isn't awfully difficult to yodel. It is essentially a quick switch between vocal registers. However, if one is not used to doing it, the vocal muscles take some time to develop that agility.

3 When did your love affair with jazz music begin?

Actually, I starting dancing to jazz music before singing it. I started doing the Lindy Hop in my freshman year at the National University of Singapore, which is danced to swing music, one form of jazz.

The more I danced, the more I fell in love with the spontaneity, the complex yet groovy rhythms and the lush harmonies.

4 What has been the highest point of your career thus far?

I wrote and recorded a Mandarin translation of the bossa nova hit Summer Samba (So Nice) several years ago, and while I was visiting Brazil last year, I lucked out and happened to be at an open jam session where the composer of the song, Marcos Valle, was also playing.

His expression when he heard his song being sung in Mandarin was priceless. He embraced me later and told me he loved what I did. I was so heady from the experience.

5 You sing fluently in both English and Mandarin. Could you explain your affinity for these languages?

I sing in both languages for the same reasons I speak both. They express ideas differently and connect with different audiences.

English is an academic language for me, so I tend towards more textual analysis of the lyrics when singing in English.

Mandarin is a more personal and emotional language for me. It affects me on a more visceral level, perhaps because for many years, it was a language I used exclusively with my mother.

6 Would you ever pursue a career outside Singapore?

From time to time, I would entertain the thought of working abroad for a year or two. However, it's always been clear to me that I want to live and work here.

I was in Brazil for six weeks last year on a "workcation". It was the World Cup and great fun, yet even then I was pretty homesick.

7 What is something people would not expect of you?

I am a potty-mouth. I frequently use expletives in English and Hokkien, and am often the first to make a dirty joke out of anything.

A personal triumph is having my favourite podcast Radiolab include a clip of me shouting a Hokkien expletive for their mashup of people swearing around the world, which was aired at the end of an episode.

I think it is the result of years of repression. I was squeaky clean and never used a single vulgarity till I reached my early 20s.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

As a dear friend and loving wife.