Star-studded musical salute to NS

Local celebrities have come together to release an album marking the 50th year of national service this year

Whether they are songs sung by recruits on a route march or the rousing rhythms of a military brass band at a parade, music has always been a big part of the national service experience in Singapore.

So, it is only fitting that a new music album, We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album), has been released as part of the series of events to mark the 50th year of national service (NS) in Singapore this year.

Many of the artists and songwriters involved in the making of the album, which contain seven multilingual songs that pay tribute to life in NS, are prominent names in the home-grown music and entertainment scene.

There is jazz-pop singer Nathan Hartono, the 26-year-old who became a household name last year after he emerged runner-up in the massively popular regional Chinese reality television singing show, Sing! China.

He sings on the Mandarin song, New Day (with singer-songwriter Edric Hsu), and English tune We Are The People, which features vocals from the Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, as well as vocal group Camokakis of the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company (MDC).

Dr Ng says: "I'm proud that MDC has produced many performers who are household names. I am even more happy that these stars from the MDC family have produced a special album as their way to commemorate NS50.

"To show support for this album, I joined Hartono and the Camokakis for the song, We Are The People. It's a song that fits the NS50 theme - From My Generation To Yours."

All of the artists, such as Hartono, rapper Shigga Shay and film-maker Jack Neo, did national service in MDC, except for Vasantham Star winner Shabir, who served in the Singapore Police Force.


Jazz-pop singer Nathan Hartono sings on the Mandarin song, New Day, on We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album). PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The album, released by So Drama! Entertainment - the media company comprising MDC, Safra Radio and Pioneer magazine-and distributed by Warner Music Singapore, is available on digital music platforms such as iTunes ($7.98) and Spotify (free, pay $9.90 a month for premium services).

The songs are also accompanied by music videos hosted on the Ministry of Defence's YouTube page (mindef.sg/NS50mvs).

The Sunday Times speaks to five of the artists featured on the album on what national service means to them.

Jazz-pop singer Nathan Hartono sings on the Mandarin song, New Day, on We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album).

• We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album) is available on digital music platforms such as iTunes ($7.98) and Spotify (free, pay $9.90 a month for premium services)


Shigga Shay

For We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album), rapper Shigga Shay decided to write a tune based on something a lot of national service (NS) recruits look forward to after a hard week of training.

Book Out Day, the title of the song, and chanted like a mantra in the chorus, refers to the time they get to leave camp for their days off.

The 25-year-old, whose real name is Pek Jin Shen, calls the English and Mandarin number "a song which everyone serving NS could sing along to".

Over the years, the rapper has performed in major events ranging from the National Day Parade to the Singapore Grand Prix.

He served his NS in the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company (MDC) from 2012 to 2014, a stint which he says helped him become a well-rounded entertainer.

We each have our own stories and feelings of how MDC and NS have played a part in our lives and would like to share it with others.

RAPPER SHIGGA SHAY, on how the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company and national service helped him become a well-rounded entertainer

Book Out Day also features a rap verse from Jack Neo, the 57-year-old film-maker behind movies such as the NS-themed Ah Boys To Men series, who, like Shigga, also did NS in MDC.

"Writing a song for NS50 is something I wanted to do to share with others who are or will be going through NS," says Shigga, whose 2013 hit song, Limpeh, topped the Singapore iTunes charts.

"Jack was also from MDC and he attributes his success to his time spent in MDC.

"It felt right to have Jack on the song as we each have our own stories and feelings of how MDC and NS have played a part in our lives and would like to share it with others."


Camokakis

I think what makes it extra meaningful is knowing that this is something the recruits look forward to, that we can put smiles on their faces as they serve the nation.

DOMINIC CHIN (centre, with Jayesh Melwani, left, and Lokies Khan, right), who is part of Camokakis, on performing during Recruits' Night on Pulau Tekong

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has its very own in-house boyband, Camokakis.

Formed in 2013, it has a rotating line-up, usually with five to six national servicemen who sing with the SAF's Music and Drama Company (MDC) band, E#.

The group can be heard in three songs in We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album): the title track, its remix and Nathan Hartono's We Are The People, which also features vocals from the Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen.

The line-up that sang in the album comprised Dominic Chin, 22, Aaron Emmanuel Lim, 22, Jayesh Melwani, 19, Lokies Khan, 25, and Howard Chan, 20.

While Chin composed the album's title track, he says the creative process in Camokakis is a group effort. "Everybody contributed to making the song better. Howard came up with a basic backing vocals structure, Aaron and Jayesh added suggestions for harmonies and Lokies suggested vocal embellishments."

All five had been performing regularly before their national service days. Chin and Chan, for example, sang original songs and covered hits on YouTube.

Chin says Camokakis' most memorable performances are the regular shows for new national servicemen, dubbed Recruits' Night, on Pulau Tekong.

"I think what makes it extra meaningful is knowing that this is something the recruits look forward to, that we can put smiles on their faces as they serve the nation."


Sezairi

Without the discipline instilled in him during his national service days, singer, songwriter and former Singapore Idol winner Sezairi says he would probably idle away most of his days.

The 30-year-old pop-soul singer, whose full name is Sezairi Sezali, served in the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company (MDC) from 2010 to 2012.

"The time I spent in MDC just practising on the guitar and working on my voice all day, five days a week, really taught me the benefit of diligent practice.

"That diligence has really helped me to focus on and improve my craft, especially with all the distractions of working at home, such as hanging out with my cats and playing video games."

Sezairi won the third edition of Singapore Idol in 2009 and released an album, Take Two (2010), and a self-titled EP last year. A song from the EP, Fire To The Floor, was named Song of the Year 2016 by Apple Music Singapore.

That diligence has really helped me to focus on and improve my craft, especially with all the distractions of working at home, such as hanging out with my cats and playing video games.

SINGAPORE IDOL WINNER SEZAIRI, on the benefit of diligent practice during his time at the Music and Drama Company during national service

He has also dabbled in acting, playing a police constable in historical movie 1965 and a tailor in Wild Rice's 2015 theatre production, The Emperor's New Clothes.

He sang and composed a Malay song, Bukan Kali Terakhir (Not The Last Time) in We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album), which he describes as "a tribute to parents who have raised sons and daughters who have gone on to serve the nation bravely, so that all our loved ones can be safe".

"Writing Bukan Kali Terakhir came quite naturally to me as I am really close to my mother. The song is written from the point of view of a national serviceman saying goodbye and comforting his mother that this would not be the last time they're seeing each other."


Bang Wenfu

Music director, arranger, composer and musician Bang Wenfu has been a familiar name in the theatre scene in the last two decades. He has worked with Mandopop stars such as Kit Chan, Stefanie Sun and A-mei.

Trained as a classical pianist as a child, he credits his national service days in the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company (MDC) for giving him a head-start in the contemporary music industry.

The 43-year-old says: "When I joined MDC in September 1993 as a pianist and choir member as part of its Musical Group division, I was under then-vocal director Babes Conde, who was instrumental in helping me transition from my pure classical background to a more contemporary musical skill set, introducing me to the world of improvisation and music arrangements."

I was under then-vocal director Babes Conde, who was instrumental in helping me transition from my pure classical background to a more contemporary musical skill set.

MUSICIAN BANG WENFU, on his time in the Music and Drama Company

His work can be heard in theatre productions such as Singapore Repertory Theatre's Forbidden City - Portrait Of An Empress and Theatre Practice's Liao Zhai Rocks!.

In We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album), Bang arranged the music for two songs. The first is the Mandarin tune, New Day, performed by Edric Hsu and Nathan Hartono and composed by Hsu.

The second is the English song, We Are The People, which features Hartono, MDC vocal group Camokakis and the Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen. It was composed by Glen Wee. "The songwriters for both songs first passed me their songs in recorded form," Bang says.

"Then I arranged them into what you hear today by putting in various instruments, creating distinct styles for each song and helping to produce their vocal recordings in the studio."


Shabir

Singer, songwriter and composer Shabir went from winning the inaugural edition of reality television singing show Vasantham Star in 2005 to making music for the globally popular Tamil film industry in India.

He credits his national service (NS) days in the Singapore Police Force (SPF) for playing a part in his eventual foray into the international entertainment industry.

"India has a big industry with unique and complex challenges. NS helped me to get built like a tank. I can take a great deal of uncertainties in life and still get the task at hand done well and be grateful for what I have," says the 31-year-old, who runs a local music school, Shabir Music Academy of Contemporary Music.

He sang and composed Stand Tall, a Tamil song in We'll Carry On (The NS50 Album), a tune about solidarity among national servicemen.

The artist, whose full name is Shabir Tabare Alam, has released several albums and the soundtrack he composed for Tamil crime drama Sagaa became popular in India last year.

All that... had been transformed into something more consistent, useful and manageable.

MUSICIAN SHABIR, on how national service helped him channel his energy positively

In October, he received the Singapore Youth Award for his work, which promotes the Tamil language and culture through music.

He did NS in SPF's Special Operations Command (SOC) unit from 2005 to 2007.

"I thought myself quite angsty as a teenager. But NS training instilled a great deal of discipline, resilience and patience in me, especially in my time at SOC.

"All that raw energy that I had in me had been transformed into something more consistent, useful and manageable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline 'Star-studded musical salute to NS'. Print Edition | Subscribe