More than Mari Kita: Wild Rice fund-raiser spotlights Zubir Said's music

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Music director and composer Julian Wong (at piano) and his singers. He conceived a musical tribute to the late Zubir Said titled Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita.

SINGAPORE – Most people know late composer Zubir Said as the man behind Singapore’s national anthem Majulah Singapura. But he was also a prolific composer whose works ranged from evergreen tunes to film soundtracks.

An upcoming fund-raising concert for theatre group Wild Rice, The Rice ‘Bowl’ 2021 – Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita, will feature 17 of his songs.

Helmed by music director, composer and educator Julian Wong, 33, it will run at Wild Rice @ Funan on Oct 29 and 30. The audiences are encouraged to follow the “orang Singapura” (people of Singapore) dress code and to attend the concert wearing clothes that represent Singapore.

It is not Wong’s first show featuring songs by the composer also known as Pak Zubir. In 2019, he staged a shorter version for the Singapore Bicentennial edition of Light To Night Festival at National Gallery Singapore. At 80 minutes, the upcoming concert will have about twice as many songs.

Wong has a connection to Pak Zubir, who died in 1987. He was mentored by late musician and Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Ismail, who in turn had Pak Zubir as a music teacher.

The concert’s title was something that Pak Zubir said in a speech, says Wong. “He actually said, ‘It is wrong to call me Mr Mari Kita, please don’t call me that.’ And I hope through the concert that people will go, ‘Oh yeah, he really was more than Mr Mari Kita.'”

The set list includes Sayang Di Sayang (Lover Is Loved) from a 1950 film, Rachun Dunia (World Poison), that became a signature song for the late keroncong doyenne Kartina Dahari. There is also Cempaka Biru (Blue Cempaka), sung by Pak Zubir’s muse, Cultural Medallion recipient and singer Nona Asiah, 91.

Another number, Suhanna, is based on a score published for the first time in the2012 biography, Zubir Said, The Composer Of Majulah Singapura, written by his daughter, Dr Rohana Zubir.

In some cases, Wong had to be creative with the arrangement of the songs. The old lead sheets – musical notations with melodies and lyrics – that he had tracked down through his research were incomplete. “It was a lot of detective work because there were no chords and sometimes the time signatures were wrong.”

For the concert, he will be accompanied by singers Abdul Wafi Abdul Rashid, Hannah Nordin and Rohaniah Sa’id. The live band will include Young Artist Award winner and percussionist Riduan Zalani. The show is directed by Wild Rice’s artistic director and Cultural Medallion recipient Ivan Heng.

Their rendition of Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore) will be an instrumental version slightly different from the official one that Singaporeans are familiar with.

“I will talk about what Majulah Singapura meant to Pak Zubir, which I think is something we never learnt in school. For all its ‘epicness’, it was said to be a very personal song to him and he regarded Majulah Singapura as a prayer more than anything,” says Wong.

He adds that it is timely to revisit the meaning of the national anthem, given the recent conversations about Singaporeans and foreign-born talent. Pak Zubir was born in Indonesia and moved to Singapore in 1928 at the age of 21.

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Mr Zubir Said, composer of Singapore’s National Anthem. PHOTO: ST FILE

“The story of Majulah Singapura is so relevant because Zubir Said shows us how to love our country, especially in a time like today, where I think we’re just increasingly intolerant and xenophobic.

“But this is a man who said, ‘It doesn’t matter that I’m from Minangkabau, my feet touch the ground here, this is where I have to hold up the sky,'” notes Wong, referencing the Malay proverb about adhering to the rules and customs of wherever one is physically.

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Mr Zubir Said at his residence in Joo Chiat Place. He died in 1987. PHOTO: ST FILE

Another song they are performing, local Children’s Day anthem Semoga Bahagia (May You Achieve Happiness), has a deeper meaning for Wong. Back in 1979, his music teacher Iskandar decided to pursue his dream of studying music at Berklee College of Music in the United States.

“Pak Zubir encouraged him to go in the spirit of Semoga Bahagia, ‘together we move forward in search of knowledge’. Thirty years later, it was my turn, and Iskandar encouraged me in the same way.”

The Rice ‘Bowl’ 2021 – Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita

Where: Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Level 4 Funan mall, 107 North Bridge Road
When: Oct 29 and 30, 6 and 9pm
Admission: Available tickets start from $1,000 for two seats in Balcony 1, go to this website; all donations will be eligible for 250 per cent tax deduction

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