Tribute for Keroncong Queen Kartina Dahari

This story was first published in The Straits Times Life! on Aug 26, 2013

Malay music doyenne Kartina Dahari, a familiar and elegant face and voice on local Malay television and radio from the 1960s to the 1980s, has amassed many achievements in an illustrious music career.

Known as the queen of keroncong, a traditional folk music genre, she was also a 1960s pop singer who became the first Malay singer in Singapore to record in English.

This Friday, the 72-year-old will chalk up another first. She will be the first living Malay artist here to have a tribute concert at Esplanade Concert Hall dedicated solely to her music.

Titled Sayang Di Sayang (Lover Is Loved) after her best known keroncong tune written by Zubir Said, who composed Singapore's national anthem Majulah Singapura, the 90-minute show will feature veteran Malay singers from Singapore and Malaysia paying tribute to her illustrious career by covering her best known songs.

Kartina, who was given the Artistic Excellence Award at the 15th Compass (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) Awards in 2010, will not sing though. She is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer but she is very much involved in the preparation of the show.

She personally chose former singing partners and musical collaborators Julie Sudiro, Kassim Masdor, Sugiman Jahuri, M. Ismail and Jamilah Samsuri and selected the songs that each singer would perform at the concert, which will have a 42-member orchestra led by local maestro Amri Amin.

She is fiercely protective of her repertoire. "If you get the wrong person to sing, they will kill my songs," she says. "Keroncong is not easy to sing. I have to be very selective. It's a very important concert."

Kartina, who sang classic Malay tunes such as Hati Ke Hati (Heart To Heart) and Budi Setahun Segunung Intan (A Year Of Morals, A Mountain Of Diamonds) has always been very serious when it comes to her craft, says her long-time singing partner and Malaysian veteran Sudiro, 68.

They started singing together in the early 1960s.

"I remember in our early days, she would sometimes chide me for being too playful and not being serious enough in our shows. But despite our differences, we are close like sisters and I'm looking forward to singing for her at the show."

The concert is a way of recognising Kartina's contribution to the local Malay music industry, says Ms Norhayati Yusof, who is her 40s and is the Esplanade's associate producer of programming. "With this show, we celebrate her life and her music that we still listen to today."

Always seen in classy traditional Malay garb, Kartina is highly particular about how she presents herself. She is her own stylist and does not trust anyone but herself when it comes to clothes, she says.

Most of the dresses and traditional baju kurung and kebayas she wears for public appearances are her own. "I am very particular when it comes to presenting myself. I will find out the concept of the show or programme that I am appearing in and make sure that I am dressed appropriately."

She continues to do so, even though her performing days are over.

When Life! meets her at her condominium in the central part of Singapore for the interview, the grandmother of two has lost none of her elegance and is immaculately dressed in a blue baju kurung and matching tudung.

Although her voice is a little raspy, she is chatty and friendly, laughing often and looking at least a decade younger than her age.

"It's all natural," says the winner of the Perdana Emas (Gold Prime) award at Malay entertainment awards ceremony Pesta Perdana in 2009. "I don't believe in going for cosmetic enhancements."

She credits her age-defying looks to jamu, or natural herb remedies, her paternal Javanese grandmother made and insisted that she take daily when she was a teen, to enhance her health and beauty.

She is famously tight-lipped about her marriage, it is a part of her life that she would rather leave in the past, she says.

She has three children - daughter Adlin Adnan, who lives in London with her husband and two sons; and sons Shah Reza, 40, who lives in Malaysia, and Noor Indera, 49, who is married and will soon be a father.

Adlin and Noor Indera briefly followed their mother's footsteps. They took part in the now- defunct national singing competition Talentime in 1982, organised by the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. Adlin was the winner while Noor Indera was placed sixth.

Until three months ago when she finally relented to her daughter's repeated requests for her to hire a maid, the fiercely independent Kartina lived alone. She gets regular visits from her close friends.

Even with the maid, she admits to being a stickler for order and cleanliness, and insists on doing many of the household chores herself. "I am happiest when my house is clean," she says.

She supervises the cooking very closely, especially when her children come over for meals.

"It's my fault. I have been spoiling them with good food since they were young, so they have very particular tastes now," she says, laughing.

Adlin, who declines to reveal her age, returns once a year when her two boys, aged 12 and eight, are on their summer holidays.

"Mum is strict but not garang," she says. "She is very, very particular about hygiene, cleanliness and etiquette. She is also generous to a fault and she would always encourage me and my brothers to be on our best behaviour." Garang means fierce in Malay.

Born and raised in a kampung at Lorong Engku Aman in Geylang, Kartina grew up in an illustrious musical family. Her father was the late Dahari Jarr, leader of well-known local Malay music group Orkes Kampung Gelam, while her grandfather, Wak Jarr, was a Malay folk music composer.

When she was a child, Malay entertainment icons P. Ramlee, Saloma and Siput Serawak would come to their house to rehearse.

But Kartina, whose mother died when she was two, was discouraged from entering the music business.

She recalls: "As a girl, I was expected to stay at home. I never sang in front of my father and grandfather, so they did not know how good I was. But I believe I inherited my talents from them."

She has an elder brother and four step-siblings - three younger sisters and a younger brother - from her father's second marriage after her mother died. None of them are in show business. "I was the only one, they were not into music."

Despite her father's objection, Kartina, a fan of singers Doris Day and Patti Page, sang at her alma mater, Tanjong Katong Girls' School.

When she was 14, a friend invited her to sing for a keroncong group, Delima Orkes. Knowing that her father would not approve, she went to the recording studio at the old Cathay building without telling him.

Her performance was broadcast on radio and he heard it. "The next morning, he asked me, 'Tina, who brought you to the recording?' I told him that it was my friend. He said, 'Don't do it again, okay?'"

Three years later, she got another invitation to sing for music group Melati Putih Hiburan, which performed regularly on radio.

"My father did not object because I was older by then and he felt that I was already mature enough to handle my own affairs."

From radio, she moved on to television and started making regular appearances on Malay singing show Pesta Pop. Her appearances would create a stir among her neighbours in the kampung. "They were very proud that someone from the kampung could be popular and appear on television."

Her television shows attracted the attention of the heads of major recording label EMI, who called her for auditions and signed her in 1966.

"They knew I could sing well but I still had to go for the auditions. The label's general manager flew in from London and was there too."

She was credited as "Tina" on her early recordings and her first few releases were in Malay.

Because of her mastery of the English language, she also recorded in English and was paired with bands from the era including The Quests, The Brown Boys and Filipino outfit D'Starlights.

Her first full-length album was released in 1968 and includes her rendition of English hits such as the James Bond theme You Only Live Twice and Eurovision 1968 song La La La (He Gives Me Love) and Filipino tune Ikaw.

A 1967 single that features You Only Live Twice and San Francisco, was also released in the Philippines. She released several singles, EPs and LPs over the next 10 years. Her final recording, her third full-length Malay album, Senandung Lagu Lama (Singing Old Songs), was released in 1976.

She says: "I stopped doing recordings after that because EMI ceased operations here. I wasn't keen on signing on with the smaller labels because they did not have the global prestige that EMI had."

Still, her schedule was packed. Her television appearances from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s included hosting her own Malay television show, Hanya Untuk Mu (Just For You). "I liked doing that programme. The producers let me choose what I wanted to sing and which singers I wanted on my show. They gave me creative freedom."

She was highly in demand as a live performer and sang in places such as Taiwan. Besides singing in clubs such as the now-defunct Cockpit Hotel, she was also invited to sing for the royal families in Malaysia and foreign dignitaries who visited Singapore.

One of her fondest memories was entertaining Malaysian soldiers on duty in the Sabah and Sarawak jungles. She recalls: "We were flown by helicopter into the jungle and singers like me and Julie would sing on makeshift stages that they built for the troops. I will never forget how happy they were to see us sing for them."

In 1984, she decided to take on fewer singing offers. "I think I had enough of singing. I would sing only for special occasions where I represented Singapore and sing keroncong songs."

In the mid-1980s, she tried out for her only non-entertainment-related job, as a food and beverage officer at York Hotel.

She says: "It was a mostly desk-bound job and I did not like it. I lasted only six months."

Her last high-profile appearance was at the 1999 National Day Parade, where she appeared in a skit playing the role of a mother who communicates with her overseas children via the Internet.

Before she was diagnosed with her illness in October 2010, she would spend half of each year in London with Adlin.

She managed to convince her doctor to let her go on one overseas trip last year. It was a two-week trip to Mecca for the umrah, a type of Muslim pilgrimage.

Kartina is enthusiastic when talking about Friday's concert and during the interview, grills the Esplanade's Ms Norhayati, who is present, about the logistics of having her make-up done at home and having a driver take her and her family to the venue.

She will be seated in the first few rows among the audience, she says.

"I'm honoured to have the Esplanade give me this tribute. I won't sing. I have done that for a very long time and now is my time to rest and recover from this sickness.

"At the concert, I'm going to sit back and enjoy the music."

This story was first published in The Straits Times Life! on Aug 26, 2013

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