You are here

The unique music that The Teng Ensemble is making falls within the four tenets of old and new, east and west.

Putting a new spin on heritage tunes

Jul 15, 2016 5:50 AM

HERITAGE tunes get a makeover by The Teng Ensemble when it presents its first major concert, complete with dance and film, helmed by veteran director Glen Goei.

Set up in 2009, the six-musician group went full-time last year, and its Songs from An Island City concert on National Day will see 10 songs composed of a "remix" of Singapore's heritage tunes.

Remix might be too simplistic a term although it gets the idea across. For example, one song is a combination of two Malay and two Chinese pieces in a counterpoint inspired by Bach, highlights Samuel Wong, the ensemble's artistic director and pipa player.

Another song, Gratitude, written as an ode to parents, is a weaving together of Ke Ren Lai and Shi Shang Zhi You Ma Ma Hao.

Familiar motifs from songs like Chan Mali Chan, Di Tanjong Katong and Munnaeru Vaalibaa are also present.

Familiarity could be relative though, as Dr Wong notes that these are tunes that younger Singaporeans increasingly don't know anymore. "Which is why we were inspired to do what we do - to play traditional music in contemporary formats. The songs aren't defined by language as we combine them musically," explains Dr Wong.

Inspired by Singapore's old tunes, the songs are composed by the ensemble's composer-in-residence Chow Jun Yi and arranged by Huang Peh Linde.

To reflect Singapore's multicultural music roots, there is a mix of Asian and western instruments. The original three members of the ensemble are Gerald Teo on cello and Yang Jiwei on sheng, besides Wong on pipa.

Then there's James Fernando on guitar and Phua Ee Kia as a countertenor, besides Huang who is the electronics expert.

What is also unusual is that all the six members are actually trained soloists. But a key to their good group dynamics is probably that the original members came from the same secondary school, notes Dr Wong.

For this concert, the group also invited Hong Kong-trained contemporary dancer Ix Wong of dance duo Ah Hock And Peng Yu, and Nirmala Seshadri, multidisciplinary artist and founder of N Dance and Yoga, to perform.

Guest musicians include tabla maestro MS Maniam; Riduan Zalani, a percussionist and co-founder of NADI Singapura; and Syafiqah Adha, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music master's graduate and the only female Singaporean accordionist. Goei's direction ensures there's a flow to the songs, from start to end.

"We want to let young Singaporeans know that Singapore has beautiful folk songs but we're putting our own spin on them to create new versions," says Dr Wong, adding that the group's five concerts in Hong Kong were well-received.

The ensemble will tour Milan in September and also perform at a TEDx Talk (Petaling Jaya) in Malaysia in October.

For their public engagement, the ensemble has even carted their instruments to wet markets - where they might amuse fishmongers, but are appreciated by parents with children.

Dr Wong points out that the name "Teng" doesn't mean anything in particular in Chinese, except to denote an indescribable sound, like a drumbeat. But "Teng" is fast becoming associated with the unique music that the ensemble is making - which falls within the four tenets of old and new, east and west.

  • Stories from an Island City will be held on Aug 12, at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Concert Hall 1 Esplanade Drive. Tickets from S$18-S$38 are available from