Thank you, Mak Nona

Performers such as Najip Ali (second from left) held a tribute concert, Si Cempaka Biru, for Malay music legend Nona Asiah.
Performers such as Najip Ali (second from left) held a tribute concert, Si Cempaka Biru, for Malay music legend Nona Asiah.PHOTO: ESPLANADE

Artists mentored by Malay music doyenne Nona Asiah come together and put on a touching tribute to her


Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

Si Cempaka Biru, named after one of Nona Asiah's most famous tunes, was a fitting and touching tribute to the 86-year-old Malay music doyenne who helped mould some of the most recognisable Malay artists here.

A variety show made up of songs, skits and monologues, it came across as heartfelt because its participants were artists she directly mentored.

The show itself was directed by Najip Ali, who owes much of his stage personality to Mak Nona's tutelage when he was still a fresh- faced teenager in the early 1980s.

One of her sons, prominent musician Indra Shahrir Ismail, co- directed the music, played by the robust and versatile local orchestra, Orkestra Melayu Singapura, led by co-director Amri Amin.

The two-hour programme was a tight encapsulation of Mak Nona's creativity.

Herself a protege of Zubir Said, composer of the Singapore national anthem Majulah Singapura, she started out singing Japanese tunes during the years of World War II. She later became a familiar singing voice as a playback singer for many films from the golden age of Malay movies in the 1950s and 1960s.

She was much more than a singer. In between covering her tunes such as Jangan Tenong-Tenong and Jikalau Abang Merindu, she gave indispensable career advice to entertainers, veteran singer Julie Sudiro recalled.

Others, including some of Malay television and radio's most prominent personalities from the last four decades - such as hosts/actors Rilla Melati, Khairudin Samsudin and Djohan "Bobo" Abdul Rahman - gave anecdotes of their formative years with Mak Nona and how she groomed them to be all-round entertainers.

The show also proved her influence was felt in the next generation of singing talents.

One of the outstanding performers in the ensemble cast was Amni Musfirah, who made her name at the ChildAid concerts and is studying at Boston's acclaimed Berklee College of Music.

She, another upcoming singer, Aisyah Aziz, and singing competition Anugerah champ Sarah Aqilah came together to deftly deliver some of Mak Nona's most recognisable tunes such as Chium-Ku Lagi, her first recorded work from 1949, staying true to the cadence and lilt of the original songs.

Some of Mak Nona's tunes were versatile enough for male singers too, as demonstrated by Imran Ajmain, Rudy Djoharnaen and Elfee Ismail.

For those who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the segments highlighting the doyenne's vast influence on the children who sang the songs of that era was a nostalgic trip, as was Indra's rendition of radio hits that he sang as a child.

Mak Nona's family members, including grandson and rising television actor Imam Shah, paid tribute to the matriarch either on stage or through video clips, and even modelled the fashionista's much vaunted kebayas and other Malay dresses that she designed and made herself and kept in pristine condition.

Mak Nona went up on stage at the end to thank the performers and, coaxed by Najip, joined them in singing Cempaka Biru.

The biggest absence of the show was Mak Nona's eldest son, Iskandar Mirza Ismail, the immensely talented music maestro and Cultural Medallion artist who died of cancer in November last year.

How different would the tribute show have been, if he had played an active part in Si Cempaka Biru? One can only wonder.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Thank you, Mak Nona'. Print Edition | Subscribe