Go Behind The Scenes Of Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita

What did it take to bring Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita from the page to the stage? Read on to find out how writer Julian Wong and the show’s creative team sought out original music scores and cinematic references to provide context for the history and linguistic nuances in Zubir Said’s lyrics.
Julian and Iskandar for Beauty World (2008)

Julian Wong’s first involvement with Wild Rice was for the company’s 2008 production of the musical Beauty World. In 2007, Ivan Heng was looking for a pianist to play at auditions, and Pam Oei recommended the then 19-year-old Wong. When Julian’s mentor, Iskandar Ismail, came on board as the music director, he roped Julian in as his assistant, rehearsal pianist and show pianist.1 Later, in 2008, Wild Rice produced Julian’s first theatrical work, the NS-themed musical Botak Boys, for the Singapore Theatre Festival.

Jula Juli Bintang Tiga (1959)

Multimedia designer He Shuming sourced the footage featured in the show from three different films. They are Cinta (Love, 1948), Tunang Pak Dukun (Pak Dukun’s Fiancée, 1960) and Jula Juli Bintang Tiga (Jula Juli The Third Star, 1959). Cinta was produced by Shaw Brothers Malay Film Productions, while the latter two films were produced by Cathay-Keris Films. During the Golden Age of Malay Cinema, which lasted from 1947 to 1972, the two rival studios released more than 250 films, almost all of them in black and white.2

Cinta (1948)

Various scenes in Cinta were shot on the beaches of Punggol.3 Malay films made in the ’50s and ’60s often contain valuable archival footage of locations in Singapore, many of which have been transformed beyond recognition. Film historian Toh Hun Ping maintains a website where he has identified some of these locations at https://sgfilmlocations.com.

Racun Dunia (1950)

The classic song Sayang Disayang was first featured in the film Racun Dunia (Poison of the World, 1950), starring P. Ramlee as a villainous character. It was sung by playback singer Rubiah. In later years, it was recorded as a standard by singers such as Rafeah Buang, Momo Latiff and ‘Queen of Keroncong’ Kartina Dahari. In Indonesia, it has been recorded by Tetty Kadi and Hetty Koes Endang, and is known as Angin Menderu (or The Wind Howls, the first two words of the song).

Frederick working on a cheongsam inspired by the iconic 1960s Mondrian collection
(Photo Credit: Frederick Lee)

Costume designer Frederick Lee was inspired by both traditional and modern design elements for the look of the show. In addition to baju kurung and kebaya (for women) and baju Melayu (for men), he also included an argyle-patterned sweater vest and a cocktail dress inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 geometric Mondrian collection.4 This eclecticism reflects Zubir Said’s own mastery in composing songs that range from those using joget rhythms to those propelled by Afro-Cuban beats.

Ulang Tahun Negara Singapura, written in 1960
(Photo Credit: Nona Asiah)

Julian had puzzled over the lyrics to the song Ulang Tahun Negara Singapura (Singapore’s Birthday) when he first came across it in the book Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura by Rohana Zubir.5 The song was composed in 1960, yet the lyrics mention that Singapore’s Birthday was 9 August, a date associated with Singapore’s independence in 1965!

One day, Julian was reading about Nona Asiah’s 2016 Cultural Medallion win and came across a scanned page entitled “Song written by Zubir Said to record for radio show, 1960”, from Nona Asiah’s collection.6 Upon closer inspection, he discovered that it was the scoresheet to Ulang Tahun Negara Singapura, with the original lyrics crossed out and written over. The mystery was solved – Zubir Said had replaced the original date of 3 June (referring to Singapore’s transition to self-government in 1959) with 9 August.

Old National Theatre
(Photo Credit: National Museum of Singapore)

The vertical diamonds in the set design – echoing the repeated motifs around the interior walls of The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre – are inspired by the façade of the National Theatre.7 Also known as the “People’s Theatre”, it was designed by Singaporean architect Alfred H.K. Wong and officially opened on 8 August 1963. The iconic frontage consisted of five vertical diamond-shaped bays, which led many members of the public to associate it with the five stars of the national flag. Incidentally, Zubir Said sat on the Board of Trustees for the National Theatre Trust.

Set designer Ivan Heng also added a little Easter egg in the form of the musical notes decorating the arch at the back of the stage. They transcribe the melody to the line “dengan semangat yang baru” (“with a new spirit”) from the national anthem.

Minangkabau language in Arabic script on Minangkabau royal seal from the 19th century

The Minangkabau language is spoken by around 5.5 million native speakers. While spoken mainly in Sumatra, Indonesia, there are also numerous speakers in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. There is much similarity between the Minangkabau and Malay languages. For example, the Minangkabau lyrics “jauah kito marantau pai marantau” (“how far we’ve journeyed”) would be “jauh kita merantau pergi merantau” in Malay.

The original score of Majulah Singapura by Encik Zubir Said
(Photo Credit: National Museum of Singapore)

The word ‘rakyat’ in the national anthem comes from the Arabic, and means the ‘flock’ (ra’iyya), in contrast to the ‘shepherd’ (al-ra’i). The original meaning of ‘rakyat’ referred to the subjects of the raja (or sultan), who offered their loyalty in return for the latter’s protection. Over time, the word has gained a new meaning as ‘the people’ or ‘citizens’, reflecting evolving forms of government, from a monarchy to a modern democracy.

In a 1975 address to students, Zubir Said remarked: “I wrote the song in 1958, when Singapore was not a feudal country. Throughout the lyrics of the anthem, you don’t find anything about a King or Queen or Sultan and also not about a President or a Prime Minister. Because it is an anthem of the people and the State of Singapore.”8

Zubir Said at Piano
(Photo Credit – National Archives of Singapore)

In addition to Arabic, Malay is also influenced by Sanskrit. In Malay, Sanskrit-derived words are often associated with literary and mystical prestige. In the national anthem, these include words like ‘bahagia’ (happiness or blessedness), ‘cita-cita’ (dreams), ‘mulia’ (noble) and ‘berjaya’ (success). They imbue the anthem with a sense of the sacred. According to his daughter Rohana, Zubir Said once described the anthem in this way – “To me, it is a prayer.”9

Written By: Alfian Sa’at

1 “The Music Man.” Wild Times Issue 029, Wild Rice, Oct. 2015, https://www.wildrice.com.sg/the-music-man/.
2 Heng, Michelle, and Nor Afidah Abdul Rahman. “The Golden Age of Malay Cinema: 1947–1972.” Biblioasia, 2015, pp. 12–14.
3 “Chinta / Love (1948).” Singapore Film Locations Archive, 24 Oct. 2014, https://sgfilmlocations.com/2014/08/20/chinta-1948/.
4 “The Mondrian Revolution.” Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, https://museeyslparis.com/en/stories/la-revolution-mondrian.
5 Zubir, Rohana. Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura, ISEAS Pub., 2012, pp. 115–116.
6 “2016: Asiah Aman (Nona Asiah).” Cultural Medallion, National Arts Council, https://www.nac.gov.sg/singaporeartsscene/culturalMedallion/overview.html.
7 Saparudin, Kartini, and Wei Zhi. “National Theatre.” Infopedia, National Library Board Singapore, 25 July 2014, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_800_2005-01-18.html.
8 Zubir. 2012, pp. 11-12.
9 Zubir. 2012, p. 6.

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