Get To Know The Man Behind The Music

A celebration of the life and legacy of the late, great Zubir Said, Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita is a labour of love by writer, performer and music director Julian Wong. We chat with Julian about the inspiration for this work, his painstaking research process, and what he hopes audiences will take away from watching the show.

In a nutshell, what is Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita about?

It’s a celebration of Zubir Said’s music. With my band and singers, I will present 16 songs from Zubir Said’s songbook, including beloved classics and unearthed gems that have never been professionally recorded. Together, we invite you to get to know the man behind the music. We all know that Pak Zubir wrote Majulah Singapura, our national anthem, but there’s so much more to who he is as a man and as a musician.

What inspired you to create this show?

In 2018, Beatrice Chia-Richmond – who was slated to direct the 2019 Light to Night Festival – reached out to me with a request from the Singapore Bicentennial Office. They wanted to shine a spotlight on Zubir Said and his music in some way, and Beatrice had a gut feeling that I would be the right person to create a show to do just that. 

I agreed right away, because I saw it as an opportunity to honour my teacher, the late Iskandar Ismail, whose own mentor was Pak Zubir. The result was Sayang Disayang: The Lesser Known Works of Zubir Said, a 35-minute concert that premiered at the National Gallery in February 2019.

Ivan Heng, the Founding Artistic Director of Wild Rice, came to watch that incarnation of the show. In May 2019, when The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre was still very much a building site, Ivan reached out to me and asked if I would develop the work with him to perform it at the new theatre. Three years and considerably more research and hard work later, we’re proud to finally be able to welcome audiences to watch Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita.

How familiar were you with Zubir Said and his work when you first embarked on this project?

I must confess that I wasn’t familiar with his music at all to begin with. I only knew three Zubir Said songs: Majulah Singapura, Semoga Bahagia (the Children’s Day song) and Sayang Disayang. All Singaporeans would know at least two of these songs!

What I do remember about Pak Zubir was how big an influence he was in the life of my mentor, Iskandar Ismail. Iskandar had grown up with Pak Zubir in his life. Pak Zubir was close friends with Iskandar’s mother – Nona Asiah, a renowned singer in her own right, who was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2016. She was Pak Zubir’s muse, and recorded some of his songs back in the day. Iskandar used to tell me about his piano lessons with Pak Zubir. One of Iskandar’s proudest moments was arranging Semoga Bahagia, his favourite Zubir Said song, for the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, which was directed by Ivan.

What did you find out about Zubir Said in the course of working on your show, and what do you hope audiences learn about him after watching Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita?

 One of the biggest questions that set me on my own journey of discovery about Pak Zubir was how surprisingly bare his official legacy is. He has been conferred the status of national icon, and has been celebrated and decorated – his name is on a street sign right outside the School of the Arts! So why do we all know so little about this man and his music?

During the course of my research, I learned about his trials and tribulations as a musician in Singapore – how there were efforts to silence his music and take it off the airwaves, followed decades later by efforts to reclaim, recognise and honour him just before he died, as well as posthumously. Like so many artists, from Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley to P. Ramlee and Kuo Pao Kun, Zubir Said had evolved from radical outsider to mainstream hero. That was mindblowing to me. 

I hope to show audiences that Zubir Said was so much more than just the composer of our National Anthem – his life, his music, his sacrifices, and the courage of his convictions are all equally noteworthy. Through his music and his life, hopefully we can learn a thing or two about what it means to be Singaporean.

Tell us more about your research process – how did you go about learning more about Zubir Said’s life?

I went to the library and I spent hours combing through old newspaper articles, from the time Pak Zubir arrived in Singapore in 1928 till his death in 1987. I also read from cover to cover Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura, a biography written by his daughter, Dr. Rohana Zubir, that was published in 2012. I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Rohana about her father a number of times as well, for which I am grateful – her blessing for this project means the world to me.

I also hunted down what little remained of Pak Zubir’s music. By his own estimation, he wrote approximately 1,500 songs, and only 100 of those still exist in some form. Just before he died, the Culture Ministry (as it was called at the time) held a nationwide campaign to save his music – much of which he had thrown away, assuming that no one would be interested in it. The Ministry invited people to come in and sing his songs, so that they could be transcribed. I managed to find the book that was the result of this initiative. I also happened upon Lagu Lagu Kita: Our Songs, an anthology of Malay songs for primary school children published by the Singapore Malay Teachers’ Union in 1981. 

Pak Zubir was also a prolific composer of music – scores and songs – for Malay films back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. So I watched those Shaw Brothers and Cathay Keris films too, like Chinta, Jula Juli Bintang Tiga and Racun Dunia

How did you go about arranging and/or recreating the music for the show?

I magnified old pictures of Pak Zubir’s handwritten sheet music, played through every one of the sometimes inaccurate transcriptions of his music that exist, and cross-checked them with recordings if they were available. 

Some of the transcriptions made less musical sense than others, and all of them didn’t include chords or piano accompaniment. As a result, there were quite a few musical gaps to fill, and it was important to me that I did so respectfully. Pak Zubir himself once said, “Nyanyikanlah menurut melodi lagu yang tertulis, janganlah dibunga-bungakan sehingga melemahkan wujud penggubahnya”, which means: “Sing the melody as I have written it; do not make it flowery as it will weaken the composer’s intention”.  

So, as I set down to arrange the music, to create harmonies for it, I put in a lot of craft and thought while always striving to honour Pak Zubir’s melodies. This process took a long time because, for every choice you make when arranging music, there are many other choices that you automatically de-select. So every choice I made had to be the one that I felt best represents Pak Zubir’s intentions in composing his songs. 

What is one thing that helped you greatly in your research process?

When I started learning Malay five years ago, it was for one reason and one reason only – so that I could understand when my students were talking behind my back in front of me! But I think it was the best decision I ever made, because knowing the language gave me a gateway into Zubir Said’s music and lyrics, which I have grown to love very much. 

Four of your former students are performing in this show. What does it mean for you to have them share the stage and spotlight with you?

In his later years, Pak Zubir dedicated much of his life and energy to teaching future generations of students to learn, play and love music. One of his students was, of course, Iskandar, who went on to teach me. Pak Zubir once said, “Knowledge is not meant to be taken to the grave. Those that I teach today can teach others later on.” And so, while this show is very much about celebrating Pak Zubir’s musical legacy, it is also about teachers and students, and the gifts they share with one another. 

I am honoured to have four of my former students – vocalists Hannah Nordin, Malcolm Lim and Rohaniah Sa’id, as well as guitarist Leonard Mikhail – share the stage with me. I taught them when they were teenagers and cannot take any credit for their talents and achievements today. But I’m really proud of them. In the same way that my mentors like Ivan, Iskandar and Belinda Foo opened doors for me when I was a budding musician, I wanted to do the same for new talent today.

During a rehearsal at Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita (Photo credit: Julian Wong)
(L-R) Malcolm Lim, Leonard Mikhail, Julian Wong, Hannah Nordin, Rohaniah Sa’id

What’s it been like working with the team behind Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita, led by director Ivan Heng, to expand this piece from its original incarnation?

Working with Ivan is nothing short of an honour and a joy. He is a respectful, gracious, sensitive, and critical collaborator. I appreciate his brutal honesty and his deep empathy. He challenges and questions me, and has consulted me on every detail of the production. It is a gift to work with someone who is as passionate about the work as you are. He’s helped me tell the story with such nuance. I have learned so much from him about the importance of text, story, visuals, pace, clarity, music, performance, rehearsing, loving your work, your collaborators, and your audience. 

I’m grateful, too, to have had Alfian Sa’at come on board as the production’s dramaturg. He shared so many insights with me. For instance, I knew the modern meaning of some Malay words Pak Zubir uses frequently in his lyrics. But Alfian could tell me about how these words had different meanings in Pak Zubir’s time, which really changed my perspective on some of the songs I was in the process of discovering.

It is humbling, too, whenever I get the chance to step back and take in the great work of the many artists Ivan has gathered for this production, and how he weaves it all so seamlessly into the storytelling – from his own set design to Alberta Wileo’s lighting, Shu Ming He’s multimedia, Frederick Lee’s costumes and Hafeez Hassan’s choreography, as well as the remarkable talents of my fellow musicians, Din Safari, Riduan Zalani and Ryan Sim.

Last but not least, what do you hope audiences take away with them after watching Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita?

I hope Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita will inspire audiences to think about our identity and history as we look towards the future. In a time of uncertainty and division, I feel there is no better composer whose music can unite us. 

I also hope we can all remember that we don’t always have to look beyond our shores for great art, music and culture. Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita is about Singapore, for Singapore, by Singaporeans. We have our own stories that we can tell, our own cultures that are worthy of exploration, and our own artists in whom we must invest and from whom we can take inspiration.

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