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Local singers, regional wonders

Before Joanna Dong and Nathan Hartono, many other S'pore artists shone overseas


The past year has seen several relatively new names from the home-grown music scene find success in regional talent shows.

Jazz singers Joanna Dong and Nathan Hartono became famous among Chinese pop audiences when they reached the finals of reality singing series Sing! China.

By appearing on the show, both Dong and Hartono have now been exposed to a music market far larger than the one back home as Sing! China is massively popular in China and the region.

The first season of the singing competition last year that featured Hartono topped the ratings and broke viewing records, registering billions of online views, according to broadcaster Star China.

This year's recently concluded season also consistently ranked at the top of China's ratings charts.

On a smaller scale, but no less impressive, was 21-year-old national serviceman Akif Halqi, who won Best Vocal Award at a competition that is part of the major South Korean music event KBS K-pop World Festival.

Singing a Korean song - Eyes, Nose, Lips by popular South Korean singer Taeyang - Akif's performance was streamed live on social media, with the concert's official hashtag registering over eight million tweets.


The last decade has seen many similar stories.

In 2007, former Singapore Idol Hady Mirza won Asian Idol.

Singer Ling Kai became the only female finalist on China's reality contest Sing My Song in 2014, while local singer Sufie Rashid, also known as Sufi, became the first Singaporean to win the popular and long-running Malaysian singing show Akademi Fantasia in 2015.


While their regional achievements might have boosted their profiles among the public, many of these singers were already known names in the local music community.

Dong and Hartono, for example, have years of singing experience and have performed in major venues like the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Away from the mainstream, many home-grown acts playing niche genres have also made their mark beyond Singapore.

Wormrot, a band that plays grindcore, a genre that fuses harsh music styles like heavy metal and punk, was invited to play at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain in June, one of the biggest and most prominent music festivals in the world.

Made up of vocalist Mohammad Arif Suhaimi, guitarist Mohammad Nurrasyid Juraimi and drummer Vijesh Ashok Ghariwala, the band are signed to respected British music label Earache Records.

Voices, their third album released last year, received rave reviews and earned a 10/10 score on music website Metal Injection.

Last year, indie-pop act Gentle Bones was featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for entertainment and sports personalities in Asia.

The singer-songwriter, whose real name is Joel Tan, has got over three million views on YouTube for the music videos of self-penned tunes like Until We Die.

The last two decades have seen Singapore singers who gained success in the region - household names like Stefanie Sun, JJ Lin, Mavis Hee and and Kit Chan - before the proliferation of platforms like Sing! China.

In fact, Singapore singers have done well regionally for decades.

Back in the 1960s, many local singers and bands like The Quests had ardent followings in the region, and would get mobbed when they performed in places like Hong Kong.

The Quests, whose line-up included bassist Henry Chua, singer Vernon Cornelius and the late guitarist Reggie Verghese, are known for original songs like Shanty, a tune that knocked the Beatles off the No. 1 spot in the local charts back in 1964.


For local musicians, growing up in a multicultural and cosmopolitan society like Singapore seems to have worked in their favour.

Dr Edmund Lam, chief executive and director of the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (Compass), says: "Singapore, being a metropolitan city with a very diverse cultural environment, will naturally throw up exciting musical talents, especially songwriters and arrangers, who are uniquely different from their counterparts in similar ethnic countries."

Growing up in a multicultural setting can allow them to be a bridge between the West and the rest of Asia.

Says acting chairman of the Music Society, Singapore (SGMUSO), Mr Kevin Foo: "Artists like Nathan and Joanna have had a lifetime of access to genres and music, in their case quite specifically jazz, that's still referred to as being unique, different and niche in the Chinese markets.

"They are able to express it in a language that's understandable in China and Taiwan."

The Singaporean identity was a big advantage for music icon Dick Lee who gained fame in Japan, and subsequently other parts of the region, through seminal album Mad Chinaman in the early 1990s, a time when Japanese pop reigned supreme across Asia.

"Back then, coming from Singapore was the strongest selling point for me," he says.

"It was almost a novelty, the fact that someone from Singapore turned up with this type of pop music, when all they thought that we had was ethnic music."

While the recent achievements of the likes of Dong, Hartono and Akif have helped boost the profile of local singers outside of Singapore, it remains to be seen if doing well at such singing contests can translate to a long and viable music career in the region.

Singapore's multicultural background becomes an advantage only if the singers use it to stand apart from their peers overseas.

The ubiquity of the Internet has ensured that aspiring singers from any city around Asia are exposed to the same global influences.

Says Lee: "I feel they need to find a Singapore identity through the music.

"The problem we have is that we don't have our own language.

"If (we) want to get abroad, we have to (take) something that is 'us'. "We are not K-pop, we are not J-pop, we need to have an identity different from those two. And if (we) keep mimicking Western music without this thought, we will never be different."


Doing well in a contest like Sing! China may open doors, but the artists need to do more than just wait for opportunities to come knocking.

As SGMUSO vice-president Mohamed Shahid Isahak, known in the industry as Syaheed, puts it: "A reality show provided focused attention on and quick validation of Joanna and Nathan, and that helped us rally behind their efforts. But it's been some years in the making for the both of them."

Prolific producer and songwriter Billy Koh says that to break into the huge Chinese pop market, for example, learning the Chinese language and culture in depth is essential.

"Move to one of the cities in China and live there like a local for a year or more," suggests Koh, who has helped Mandopop stars like Chan and Lin achieve success in the region.

"Learn the culture and explore opportunities."

In the local music scene, there already exists a network of organisations and companies like the National Arts Council (NAC), the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), record labels, music schools, music management companies and studios that are taking steps to help local singers venture overseas.

The NAC provides grants for artists performing overseas, while SGMUSO and STB have got three Singaporean artists, Sam Rui, Linying and MAS1A, to perform in the Sydney edition of Singapore: Inside Out, from Nov 3 to 5.

Compass supports major music events like Mediacorp's Anugerah Planet Muzik (APM), a regional Malay music awards show whose most recent instalment saw Aisyah Aziz become the first Singapore artist to win one of its major prizes, Best APM Song.

The Jazz Association (Singapore) recently sent its jazz orchestra to the JZ Shanghai Jazz Festival, helping it to collaborate and network with its counterparts in China.

The Musicians Guild of Singapore organises events like its annual Clapps Songwriting Conference, and provides access to affordable legal assistance for local artists.

The chairman of the Musicians Guild of Singapore, Professor Bernard Tan, says: "We have a strong infrastructure in place.

"We hope artists will be proactive and source for all available networks, channels and platforms to maximise all opportunities and avenues available. "

It remains to be seen if all the infrastructure and initiatives will translate to more Singapore singers and musicians gaining prominence and having viable and long careers in music overseas.

But perhaps the home crowd should also recognise the wealth of music talent right here in Singapore, and not only when they hit the limelight through prominent, region-wide platforms like Sing! China.

Every week sees new music releases by Singapore artists and musicians.

Gig venues like the Esplanade regularly host ticketed and free shows featuring home-grown music talents. So there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate and support their work.

Free music festivals like the Esplanade's Baybeats draw up to 80,000 over three days.

More importantly, ticketed shows have also sold well.

Last year, for example, Gentle Bones sold out two nights at the Esplanade Concert Hall, drawing 1,500 each night.

He was the first solo singer from the indie scene here to achieve such a feat.

Music websites like SingaporeGigs.com provide comprehensive listings of shows around the island at venues ranging from the Substation Theatre to the Aliwal Arts Centre.

Every year, the NAC's Noise Music Mentorship programme for budding musicians uncovers gems like jazz-pop singer Miss Lou (real name Lou Peixin) and folk-pop singer LEW (real name Lewis Loh), both of whom could well win over regional fans in the future with their distinctive voices and songwriting chops.

Having support from a strong fan base back home can be a big boost of confidence for local artists trying to make it outside of Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline Local singers, regional wonders. Subscribe