26 February 2018

Musical Misfires

The story of how the Patron of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, who was the wife of the then Malaysian Prime Minister, walked out of the Orchestra’s inaugural concert in August 1998 in opposition to an arrangement of the country’s national anthem (a melody written as a French Revolutionary song in the 18th century) has passed into legend; a classic example, it is said, of narrow Third World xenophobia.  If nothing else it was a story which reached news agencies the world over and, if it did not necessarily reflect well on Malaysian politics, it let everyone know that a fine new orchestra had come into being.

It would be nice to think that such things no longer happen and that audiences are more forgiving of well-meaning attempts of visitors to ingratiate themselves with unfamiliar communities. But, for better or worse, they do. 

This year The King’s Singers, that marvellous English all-male a capella sextet, are marking the 50th anniversary of their first professional concert with a world-wide tour which, at the weekend, landed up in Singapore.

I am old enough to remember the early days of The King’s Singers.  They appeared on British radio and television almost nightly, often singing unexpected texts to Anglican chants.  One I recall well was the Highway Code being sung to a psalm chant, and there were things like weather forecasts and shipping bulletins similarly treated.  All good fun, and all beautifully done to elevate the ordinary into something special by using that magic which The king’s Singers, as they showed this weekend, still possesses.  And like any well-mannered and respectful visitors, The King’s Singers decided to add a bit of local flavour to their Singapore concert by including as an encore a song which they had been told would be well known to the audience.

Home is a pretty bog-standard if catchy piece of middle-of-the-road 50s-style light music which would fit in to just about any dance hall anywhere in the world and not cause offence.  Dick Lee composed it for the Singapore National Day celebrations in 1998 (what an eventful year that turned out to be for music in south-east Asia!). What makes it special to Singaporeans are the sentimental and (from the non-Singaporean’s point-of-view) mawkish lyrics which clearly mean so much to so many local residents. 

Adopting my standard practice for encores – ie. leaving the hall before they get round to them, because I often find them cringe-makingly embarrassing and usually they leave an unwelcome taste in the mouth after any well-constructed programme – I did not hear it, but I am told it was a most effective arrangement which served the song well.  And, of course, being The King’s Singers, the audience would have heard every word and, being Singaporeans, I am sure more than a few of them decided to sing along too.

So far so good.

But now I hear that it caused a few adverse reactions.  Apparently the concept of six Cambridge graduates emanating from Singapore’s former colonial masters, singing the words “winding through my Singapore” struck some in the audience as inappropriate.  A student relating this to me gave the instance of another time an English choir sung Home with all good intentions but ended up causing offence.  In March 2015 another Cambridge choir – that of St John’s College - was in Singapore and performed Home during the lying-in-state of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father (and, coincidentally, another Cambridge graduate).  At the time it seemed a beautiful and well-chosen tribute, which was widely appreciated and respected.  But now I learn that it did not go down well in all quarters, with several comments on social media and elsewhere suggesting that it was “controversial” and that it was “inappropriate for Brits to sing in Singapore”.

There are always issues with foreign musicians attempting to endear themselves to the locals, either by attempting a few words in the language of their hosts (I’ve heard some desperately awkward moments with European musicians attempting Cantonese) or by taking what they are told is a popular local song and not realising that such songs can be as divisive as they are popular, especially where the host nation comprises several communities in cultural conflict. 

My mind goes back to an occasion when the conductor Boris Brott took the rostrum for the first time with the BBC Welsh Orchestra (as it was then).  Having done his homework and conscientiously asked around, he had learnt that the Welsh had their own language of which they were (rightly) proud.  He went to great pains to have his speech translated into Welsh and taught to him phonetically.  Come the first rehearsal with the orchestra, he addressed them at length in Welsh and was met with total silence, until a member of staff took it upon himself to end everyone’s misery.  “Maestro Brott”, he said, “We appreciate the effort you have made to speak to the Orchestra in Welsh, but I must tell you, nobody here understands a word of the language”.

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