Pesta Raya back with the best of Malay pop and arts

The theme of this year's Malay festival of the arts is inspired by the idea of voyage

Ning Baizura. -- PHOTO: HAPPENINGS
Ning Baizura. -- PHOTO: HAPPENINGS
Adapted from American playwright Clare Boothe Luce's satire, The Women, Wanita (left) is an all- women play.
Adapted from American playwright Clare Boothe Luce’s satire, The Women, Wanita (above) is an allwomen play. -- PHOTO:DESMOND FOO
Rahayu Supanggah. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Gamelan master Rahayu Supanggah on his debut full-length presentation, Sakti (above). -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE PHOTOS: ESPLANADE, DESMOND FOO, HAPPENINGS, ST FILE, BH FILE

After 12 years, a new curator has taken the helm of the Esplanade's annual Malay arts festival.

Pesta Raya, which returns from Aug 28 to 31, will be curated for the first time by Esplanade producer Rydwan Anwar. He takes over from Ms Norhayati Yusoff who left the arts centre last year.

Mr Rydwan says the idea of merantau - "travel" or "voyage" in Malay - inspired the choice of all the festival's acts this year - from Malaysian pop, soul and R&B diva Ning Baizura to a dance-and-music performance spearheaded by world-renowned gamelan composer Rahayu Supanggah from Indonesia.

He explains that merantau is reflected in "how the Malay culture today in Singapore is influenced by the confluence of different cultures from within and outside of the Malay archipelago".

As an example, he points to Rahayu's production Sakti, a fusion of traditional music and dance to be staged at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Aug 29, and was inspired by the 7th- to 9th-century South-east Asian reign of the Srivijayan empire.

He says: "The dancers hail from Palembang, which is the capital of this mysterious ancient empire from which Prince Sang Nila Utama comes from, the same man who named our country Singapura, according to the Malay Annals."

Back for its 13th edition, Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts will feature programmes that celebrate the unique hybrid of art forms and language in the region.

Taking place at venues within the arts centre, the seven ticketed and 35 free programmes include two specially commissioned plays by home-grown Malay theatre artists - Wanita (The Women) and Kuat Ketam Kerana Penyepit, Kuat Burung Kerana Sayap, which translates as The Strength Of A Crab Is In Its Claws, The Strength Of A Bird Is In Its Wings.

Home-grown singers and musicians also take centre stage. There are concerts by singer-songwriters Awi Rafael and Tengku Adil, while Malay orchestra Orkestra Melayu Singapura will relive classic Malay genre dondang sayang (love ballads) with a concert that features Peranakan singers such as Babas Frederick Soh and Francis Hogan.

Regular Pesta Raya attendees have given this year's programmes the thumbs-up.

Civil servant Saiful Amri, 36, praises the line-up for having "something for everyone". She says: "I am looking forward to Alin Mosbit's Wanita and Rahayu's Sakti. Wanita because it will be performed by big-name actresses from the local television world led by a theatre genius. Sakti because it will be the first experience of a full gamelan concert in the acoustically awesome concert hall."

Housewife Fildza Zin, 34, says the Esplanade "has been upping the ante" with the Pesta Raya programmes over the years. "The quality of the programmes has improved and I especially like the infusion of local artists instead of just getting foreign talents to sell the Pesta Raya programmes."

Gamelan champion's full-length debut

Today, Rahayu Supanggah is an ethnomusicologist and one of the world's foremost gamelan music composers, with more than 100 works to his name.

But the 64-year-old Indonesian music pioneer's life - and the entire gamelan scene - could have taken a different turn had he followed his childhood dream.

"My mother was a musician and my father and grandfather were all puppeters. When I was young, I thought choosing a career in the arts was not very promising and I wasn't sure I could make a living by playing gamelan.

"I thought I would be better off becoming an architect or a doctor," he says with a laugh in a telephone interview from his house in Solo, Central Java.

The global gamelan scene would surely have been poorer had he not continued in the family tradition.

Over the past three decades, many of Rahayu's works have graced the world stage.

Among his illustrious achievements is composing the music for multicultural music theatre production I La Galigo by prominent American avant- garde theatre director Robert Wilson, which had its premiere at the Esplanade in 2004 and has since been staged throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States.

He is also known for his collaborations with Grammy Award- winning American string quartet Kronos Quartet as well as home-grown director Ong Keng Sen on his pan-Asian interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Rahayu takes centre stage at this year's Pesta Raya, the Esplanade's Malay arts festival, with Sakti, his debut full-length presentation in Singapore.

Originally a 20-minute dance and music performance staged at the Venice Biennale 2013, it has expanded to become a full concert.

Inspired by the Srivijayan empire's 7th- to 9th-century reign over the region, Rahayu has assembled a team of dancers and musicians from all over the Malay archipelago to perform in Sakti, a term which in Bahasa Indonesia encompasses magic, the divine, the sacred and the supernatural.

The non-narrative performance is produced by Indonesia's The Bumi Purnati Center for the Arts, Indonesia and Italy's Change Performing Arts.

Rahayu, who has taught ethnomusicology and composition at Indonesian art schools such as Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia and his alma mater, the Indonesian Arts Institute in Solo, says: "There will be many new things we are adding that are unique to the Singapore production.

"The repertoire will be a mix of gamelan music, Malay traditional music and contemporary sounds.

"The musicians I have assembled are all who can work with an open mind. They can collaborate with one another and combine many different elements in their performance."

Rahayu's childhood reservations about the gamelan dissipated when he discovered that he was naturally skilled at playing the instrument. When he first learnt how to play it, he found that he could play any melody immediately after hearing it.

Impressed by his skills, Indonesia's then Minister of Education and Culture Prijono included the teenager in an Indonesian arts mission which performed in China, Japan and South Korea.

In the 1970s, Rahayu taught classical Indonesian arts in Australia and performed all over Europe.

In the 1980s, he obtained a doctorate in ethnomusicology from France's Universite de Paris VII.

The father of three has also composed music for films such as the 2006 musical Opera Jawa, which won him the Best Composer accolade at three film awards events - Asian Film Award, Asia-Pacific Film Festival and the Indonesian Film Festival.

He is heartened by the fact that gamelan music is gaining popularity outside of Indonesia.

"I am very optimistic about the future of gamelan music," he says. "Although in Indonesia itself, the media seems to focus more on pop music but, in the rest of the world, gamelan music is spreading fast.

"In England, Japan and the United States, many new gamelan works are being composed and I am happy to see gamelan musicians collaborating with musicians from other genres such as jazz and Western classical music."

New York tale gets 1950s Malay setting

The new play by theatre stalwart Aidli Alin Mosbit's might be adapted from a 1936 American script and reimagined in a 1950s Malay setting, but the issues it presents are contemporary.

"The story is still very relevant," she says of the all-women play Wanita, adapted from American playwright Clare Boothe Luce's satire, The Women.

It is one of two productions specially commissioned for Pesta Raya, the Esplanade's annual Malay arts festival.

While the original was a commentary focused on the lives of eight New York socialites and tackled issues of marriage, divorce and adultery through their gossip, Wanita's characters are what Alin describes as the members of the "Malay bourgeoisie" from the 1950s.

The 41-year-old adds: "These are women who travelled a lot. They were also Anglophiles and were very influenced by the British lifestyle."

Her biggest challenge, she says, was transposing the original script, which had three runs in Broadway and was adapted into three films as well as a television show, to the local culture and settings in the 1950s.

So while a character in the original leaves New York to go back to her hometown Reno, Alin's script sees the Malay counterpart leave Singapore to go back to Bandung, Indonesia, to escape society and recuperate from her divorce.

Alin has assembled a formidable cast for the play that includes theatre veteran Nora Samosir, award-winning actress Seri Wahyuni Jaes, stage and television actress Marina Yusoff and Suria/ Channel 5 crossover actress Nadiah M. Din. It also features long-time television actresses such as Aminah Ahmad and Siti Hajar Gani who make their return to the stage.

Alin says: "One of my missions in doing this play was to get people from television to come back to theatre.

"Many of the personalities from local Malay television are from the theatre scene and I wanted to bring them back to the stage."

The director also wanted them to challenge themselves, so she gave each of them two to three roles in the play. "I wanted to make it interesting for them by giving them two or more characters to play that are distinctly different.

"For example, Seri Wahyuni plays a datin, a high-status woman but her second character is a maid. Actress Endang Rahayu Ruslan plays a prima donna but her second role is a 13-year-old girl. It's my challenge to the actresses."

Alin is a busy woman these days. Besides Wanita, she also runs theatre group Panggung Arts and teaches at Temasek Polytechnic as section head of the school's arts division.

Beyond Pesta Raya, she has plans to take Wanita to Penang for the Malaysian state's annual George Town Festival, although nothing has been confirmed.

"In the story, we have a character Chombi, a manicurist from Penang. So it would be interesting to have it staged there in the future."

Bye sex symbol, hello mum

Say hello to the new Ning Baizura.

The Malaysian R&B singer and actress might have previously made headlines for her sex-symbol status and va-va-voom image, but that is all in the past now.

"Whether it's clothing or performances when I'm on stage, or whatever I do or say, it's important for me to celebrate the fact that I am a mother now," says the 39-year-old, who gave birth to her first child, a son, last year.

She and her British husband, Mr Omar Sharif Christopher Layton Dalton, her former manager, have been married since 2008.

So no midriff-baring outfits then - such as the one she wore at a concert here in 1996 that got her into trouble with the Malaysian press - when she returns to Singapore to perform at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Aug 30. The show is part of the arts centre's Malay arts festival Pesta Raya.

Speaking to Life! in a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur, the spunky singer admits that her past provocative image might be a little hard to shake off though.

"I'm much more sensitive to other people now. Sometimes clients want me to do a sexy approach for shows but I tell them, 'Look, I'm much more mature now, I'm a mother.'

"There are a lot more things that I am apprehensive about. And that's why I tend to take on a lot more jobs that have to do with children."

In the past two decades, Ning has built up a reputation as one of her country's foremost pop, soul and R&B singers, one who is comfortable not just singing in Malay, but also in English, Mandarin and French.

As a child, she took up violin lessons and was part of a youth orchestra.

At 16, she won the Most Promising Artiste award at a regional singing competition, Voice Of Asia, organised by record label Sony Music.

Her debut album, Dekat Padamu (Close To You), released in 1993, made her an instant star and won her the Best New Artist and Album Of The Year prizes at that year's Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM), one of Malaysia's premier music awards shows.

She has recorded 14 more albums since - her latest, Kekal (Permanent), was released last year.

Besides amassing a string of hits such as Awan Yang Terpilu, Selagi Ada Cinta and In Another Life, her trophy collection has increased too - she counts seven more AIM awards to her name, in addition to wins on other Malaysian awards shows such as Anugerah Juara Lagu.

She is also a member of the successful and award- winning singing trio 3 Suara, which also include popular Malaysian singers Jaclyn Victor and Shila Hamzah.

Her acting career has been just as illustrious.

She has taken on roles in theatre productions, telemovies as well as critically acclaimed films such as 2008's Muallaf (The Convert), helmed by the late Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad, and fantasy musical comedy Magika (2010).

Ning is excited about her Pesta Raya gig, her first major solo show in Singapore. She plans to sing 25 to 30 songs spanning her entire career.

She says: "It's going to bring back a lot of memories for the fans because I'll be singing songs from all the way back to my first album.

"It's going to be up close and personal, too, because I plan to go down to the audiences and have the fans sing along with me. There are going to be a lot of happy, happy moments."

Other Pesta Raya highlights


Learn the Malay language with teacher Cikgu Djohan Abdul Rahman, better known as one of the veteran cats in the 1980s episodes of popular children series Aksi Mat Yoyo.

Where: Library@esplanade

When: Aug 30, 4pm, and Aug 31, 5.30pm

Admission: Free

ST 20140819 EDPESTA6TZ9 584266m


Former busker and ex-frontman for local Malay band Bhumiband, Awi Rafael is an award-winning rising star here and across the Causeway with No. 1 hits such as Pulanglah, Bila Aku Jatuh Cinta and Asalkan Aku OK.

Where: Esplanade Recital Studio

When: Aug 30, 9.30pm

Admission: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

ST 20140819 EDPESTAAKQ2 584271m


A classic Malay music genre that literally translates as "love ballads", this dondang sayang concert by local orchestra Orkestra Melayu Singapura led by maestro Amri Amin features host Rudy Djoharnaen and singers Hariani Hassan Bakri, Frederick Soh and Francis Hogan.

Where: Esplanade Recital Studio

When: Aug 31, 3pm

Admission: $25 from Sistic


Writer, chef, culinary consultant and retired restaurateur Aziza Ali will explain the types of leaves used in Malay cuisine.

Where: Library@esplanade

When: Aug 31, 4pm

Admission: Free


Home-grown singer-songwriter Tengku Adil's debut album has been making waves here and in Malaysia, with lead single Babak Cinta hitting the radio charts.

It was also used as a theme song for Malaysian drama serial Bukan Bidadari.

Where: Esplanade Recital Studio

When: Aug 31, 8.30pm

Admission: $25 from Sistic

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