Singing duo Jack & Rai are kindred spirits

Jack & Rai's partnership goes beyond making music together

Jack Ho at age four and Rai (above) at age six on his kindergarten graduation day. -- PHOTO: RAI KANNU
Jack Ho at age four and Rai (above) at age six on his kindergarten graduation day. -- PHOTO: RAI KANNU
Jack Ho (above) at age four and Rai at age six on his kindergarten graduation day. -- PHOTO: JACK HO
Jack Ho (left) and Rai Kannu (right) have built a following by playing early to mid-2000 chart-toppers. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

From a modest beginning as part-time musicians playing covers to a grand total of four patrons in a local pub in 2002, singing duo Jack & Rai have built up their name to become one of the most popular acts in the live gig circuit.

Today, the pair are full-time artists who not only entertain crowds at nightspots, weddings and major events like the recent Pedestrian Nights street party at Orchard Road, but have also put out an originals-only album which spawned radio hits. Their songs are also in demand as soundtracks for local television shows as well as advertisement jingles.

Last month, the duo started anchoring a year-long gig series aimed at promoting local talent, Guinness Amplify Presents, which will see them headline every Wednesday night at Timbre @ The Substation.

Perhaps more significantly, the enduring partnership between Jack Ho, 37, and Rai Kannu, 36, goes beyond merely making music together.

Last year, together with Ho's wife, former air stewardess Angelina Leong, they opened a 600 sq ft restaurant together, The Flying Squirrel in Amoy Street, which was named Best Japanese Casual Dining at last month's Epicurean Star Award organised by the Restaurant Association of Singapore.

Ho and Kannu, a bachelor, are so close that they even go on holidays together and stand by each other at important moments in their personal lives.

At Ho's wedding in 2009, Rai played multiple roles - he was the best man, MC, wedding singer and witness.

Off-stage, Kannu's seemingly stoic demeanour might be a contrast to Ho's permanent smile and infectious energy. But despite the seeming difference, the fact that the pair are always in sync is obvious and during the interview, they often complete each other's sentences.

Talking about their first gigs together at Holland Village's Wala Wala Cafe Bar in mid-2002, Kannu remembers: "The first night Wala Wala put us on was Sunday night..."

Ho continues: "...because they didn't know where to put us."

By then, both had known each other for a few years because they did separate solo performances at local pubs like No. 5 Emerald Hill and Barcelona.

When Ho found out Wala Wala was looking for performers, he went for an audition as a solo act, but was told by the management that they preferred putting on duos or bands.

Both their repertoires consisted of acoustic renditions of radio-friendly alternative rock hits by the likes of British bands Travis and Coldplay, and Ho immediately thought of Kannu. He says: "So I said, okay lah, I get this fella called Rai. Our offering was very niche then and you must remember that at that time, the bands that were popular in the club circuit were Energy and John Molina."

Kannu interjects: "That time, the Top 40 pop-rock bands were the ones that everyone went to see. So because Sunday nights are the safest time for any club to put on new acts, they tried us out. The first night, we played to only four people in the audience."

Still, Wala Wala liked their set so much that they asked the duo to perform on much busier Friday nights - with the caveat that they formed a band.

So they did, roping in friends and fellow musicians. They named the band EIC, short for East India Company, which they found suitable because Ho is Chinese and Kannu is Indian.

The crowd soon began to grow.

Says Kannu: "I think about a year after we started, I was looking from the stage to the audience and Wala was packed, like sardine-can packed."

They both attribute their rising popularity to their set list - covers of early- to mid-2000s folksy, rock chart-toppers by the likes of Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Jason Mraz - which they say were favourites among their mid-20s peers.

In 2008, the pair took their biggest step out of the "covers band" tag by releasing their debut album, In Stores Now!, comprising original songs that they co-wrote themselves.

It sold moderately - about 3,000 copies - but two of the songs, The Fa La La Song and Fiona, got frequent airplay over local radio stations.

More importantly, the CD cemented their reputation as songwriters. In the wake of the album launch, the pair received multiple offers to write themes, jingles and soundtracks, including for MediaCorp television shows such as Polo Boys and Dream School.

The pair are loyal to their roots and besides Timbre on Wednesdays, they still play at Wala Wala on Sunday nights. They claim that the same four who saw their debut performance still come to watch them.

The duo are still committed to putting out more original songs and have been working on the next album, which Kannu says will have songs that are "a little bit more edgy and more fun, and be tunes that make the crowds jump to".

He says: "We are just happy and feel blessed to be making a living from music. Whether they are covers or originals, we do everything with our own identity."

Ho interjects: "We are who we are."

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