The classical Chinese musicians from Siong Leng Musical Association might stand out from the rest of the neo-soul acts performing at the Getai Soul music festival this weekend.
But for the group, which has been championing nanyin music in Singapore for 75 years, reaching out to contemporary music fans has been a priority.
With an infusion of young blood – the association’s current principal musicians are in their 20s – they are also adventurous enough to inject outside elements into nanyin, such as keyboard, tabla and a cappella singers.
Nanyin originates in Fujian, China, and dates back to the Han dynasty (206BC to AD220). It is traditional music sung in the south Fujian dialect and uses string and pipe instruments for accompaniment.
Principal artist Cassandra Wang, 25, says the programme at Getai Soul features re-written or re-arranged traditional nanyin songs, or new compositions written for nanyin instruments and instruments of other genres.
“It’s fusion music,” says Wang, who plays the traditional Chinese stringed instruments of pipa and sanxian. She holds a full-time position as an arts administrator in the association.
She adds: “We want to reach out to new audiences who might listen to our set and be intrigued enough to find out more about it.”
The association’s modernising streak can be attributed to its late chairman Teng Mah Seng, a Cultural Medallion recipient.
Wang says: “While traditional nanyin songs are based on stories of life thousands of years ago, Teng Mah Seng and his friends started writing nanyin music with lyrics based on contemporary, modern life.”
To reflect Singapore’s multicultural society, the musicians also brought in traditional Malay and Indian music instruments, such as the kompang and sitar, and added multimedia elements to their concerts.
While Wang has been playing classical Chinese instruments such as the zhongruan and pipa since she was a child, the Lasalle College of the Arts graduate gravitated towards nanyin music only in late 2010, when some friends who were playing with Siong Leng invited her to attend a rehearsal.
She says: “I was enthralled by the music. It’s different from other types of classical Chinese music. It’s very slow, mysterious and calming.”
Besides regular performances at places such as Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer Street and the Esplanade, the association’s musicians also perform overseas – they put on shows in France last year and are going on tour in Japan next month.
The members also conduct nanyin classes and workshops here, in places such as schools and libraries.
Despite their openness to experimentation, Wang emphasises that the association is committed to preserving nanyin in its most traditional form.
She says: “Through fusion, we try to get listeners into pure nanyin music. So even though we do a lot of fusion, when we teach at our workshops, we stress the importance of being grounded in our roots.”