With the Anita Mui Tribute Festival fast coming to a close, The Band Post speaks to arrangers Ong Jiin Joo and Yap Sin Yee, as well as soloist Samuel Phua on their thoughts about the music of the finale concert this Saturday, presented by Philharmonic Wind Orchestra (PWO).
Cover Photo: Adrian Cheong, Ong Jiin Joo, Samuel Phua and Yap Sin Yee (from left to right)
Let’s talk about the pieces you are arranging.
I think what ended up on my plate were the faster pieces; the ones that we usually dance to rather than sing. I mean, you can sing along too, but usually it’s a dance, and Anita Mui is known for not just her vocal prowess, but also this very big stage presence while dancing.
In many ways when I was a kid, I noticed Anita Mui to be a bit like the Lady Gaga of that time. That’s because I also grew up in a more Chinese pop kind of environment, whether it’s Cantonese music or Chinese music. She fills that role basically of a “showgirl”, and those are the pieces that I ended up arranging for this concert.
I realised that it’s actually quite challenging, because we need to ensure that fans of Anita continue to recognise the songs, especially since these fans are diehard fans from 20 or 30 years ago, so the pieces needed to have specific flavours. The outcome doesn’t always conform to the nice or “baroque” sound, but once the music starts, you’d know it’s Anita Mui. That, I think, is her success.
Anita is probably the only one that does the so-called “cheesy” rock in a distinctive style. So on one hand I have arranged the pieces to appeal to the fans, but at the same time, I have to keep the band medium in mind as well. There’s also that segment of the audience that we want to make sure not to alienate, so that they continue to be accepting of this new music they’re probably hearing for the first time. A lot of those who are coming to the concert may be band people, but they are not of the generation of people like us who know Anita Mui or Cantonese pop well. And that’s where we struggle for this particular project.
It’s definitely not a free-for-all, write whatever you want, kind of thing, but it’s more of a reminiscence of this famous person. So it can have a much longer impact into the future because she has done a lot of interesting and good work, for that era and for people of that era, especially to those people who also speak and understand Cantonese.
So would you consider yourself an Anita fan?
No, not like Adrian, of course; he’s in another universe.
You don’t ask a classical musician if he or she was a Beethoven fan, but they’d have to reckon with it. I think it’s the same thing: if you study the Mandopop, Cantopop era of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s into the new century, you would know about Anita Mui. I mean, it’s impossible not to know about her, her music and her body of work.
Because, again, the word we always use is “prolific”. She’s so prolific in acting, singing and dancing, she has done so much work, but sadly only really recognised in Asia. She’s one of those that did not actually spill over to the Western world, unlike these days, where Asian artists also cross over to the Western world and reach out to the audience there.
I would not call myself a fan, but I mean, I have to reckon with what she is.
Ever since I was still a kid, when a CD player was a new thing where we were growing up, my mum went to a Pasar Malam (night market) and brought back my very first CD. It was a random set of music but it already has Anita singing on one of the tracks. We didn’t programme that particular song because she was not the original singer, but that’s already from the very first CD I ever heard. And she’s been present in my life all the way.
What are some of the challenges of arranging the music, especially the ones featuring vocalists?
What was most interesting was the singer selection.
I grew up thinking Anita Mui was a tenor-range female singer. It’s true, her voice is quite low, but she just had a wide range. In a lot of her songs, her deep, dark voice is in the tenor range. And that was the sound that we were looking for.
When we looked for singers, we listened to a few and shortlisted them. Zita Tse was one of those that came across as very interesting, very close to the sound we were looking for.
The usual challenge of arranging for singers in our concert band medium is that a lot of wind instruments don’t really blend very well with the vocals. Generally, strings and piano would blend a bit better. Arrangers will usually struggle to make sure that we don’t end up destroying the iconic parts of what the song was, but also bringing out the flair at the same time. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t have to work that much as singers this round as we gave the chance to some of the younger arrangers.
I had the liberty of actually transcribing more of the complete sound of what people remember of Anita’s music for, which includes not just the melody, but also things like electric guitar riffs, very jumpy bass guitar lines, and things like that which I think even the band struggles to understand at first. The drummer, for example, had to listen to the music over and over again to get the original groove. It’s a very ’80s digital sound in many ways.
Apart from arranging music, you have also helped with curating the music for the concert. Could you talk more about that experience?
It’s a lot of hard work but I would give the credit to Adrian.
We have enjoyed a great collaboration over decades. This time, I believe, is the first time where we had to curate an entire concert and I realised that Adrian has an interesting foresight.
Normally, when you just listen to the MP3, a song might feel like some very boring, very old, very arcane, and probably not-so-famous piece. However, he will say, this is important from a musicologist’s standpoint; this has to come before that or that needs to come before this. In many ways, his direction has been very good. It really saves a lot of time, because the last thing we want is to become a musicologist ourselves and actually listen to hundreds and hundreds of works to even begin selecting a representative set of music for a concert like this, where what we want are the highlights.
I would say that mostly what I do is to clarify what the essence of a song is. In some songs, the famous part is in the chorus, or the interlude, or the words. In other songs, for example, we cannot omit the first bar because the first bar is what gets people excited. I think those are the things that we did a lot of research on, even asking some of the older folks: if I give you these four notes, do you know what song this is? Then we had to go and figure out whether those motifs are important.
So that’s usually what we do. Because when we highlight, we also take on the responsibility of ensuring that what we highlight is indeed iconic. Hopefully, if the concept is successful, and we put it on YouTube, it becomes its own next wave of having the music live on. You want the parts that really were iconic of that era to live on. In this way, we are essentially curating the classical music of this era for our next generation.
Do you have any favourites?
No, but I enjoyed the pieces that mostly revolve around her being a “bad girl”; and these are also the pieces I feel are really iconic because it reminds me of some of the social issues of the era, and during my own youth. Perhaps not in Singapore, but definitely around Asia.
She captured our imagination with her music. For good or for bad, people actually want to dance to her music. And that’s what a lot of my own high school experience was like.
At that time, we had no internet, and no entertainment. When we found ourselves at venues where music was played, there were Western songs like Barbie Girl, but on the Cantonese side, it’s mostly Anita Mui. I wouldn’t say I have any favourite songs, but her music really reminded me a lot about my childhood and choices I made in life.
When I hear Anita Mui’s music, it reminds me of certain friends I had, and the struggle of finding our identity as a young kid. This music played a huge deal in our lives.
Have you heard of Anita Mui before coming onboard this project? (Samuel was born in 1997)
Okay, to be honest, I didn’t really know of Anita Mui until Adrian asked me if I would play for the show. So then I went to do my research on her. Then I started listening to all her albums, but I have to admit I don’t speak Cantonese, so when I was listening to her songs, it’s really just trying to understand the inflection of how she speaks. Of course, for 女人心 (A Woman’s Heart), I know the lyrics inside out. It’s been on the Spotify playlist that I’ve been listening to, and it is both sad and touching at the same time.
So how did this arrangement with the piece come about?
I’m playing the saxophone solo with the band. It was arranged by Germaine Goh and she is a good friend of mine. So what I did was to propose a composer-arranger that PWO can potentially work with, and it helps that I have recorded and performed quite a number of Singaporean works.
What Germaine did was she took the song, which was in a very standardised format of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and turned it into a theme-and-variation kind of work, where I play what Anita sings and then also a very showy solo. The piece itself is such an expressive song and the showy variation that Germaine wrote fits really well into the piece. In the middle of this arrangement, there’s a whole saxophone solo that is spun off from the introduction of the song. The whole band finally comes back together for a super grand ending.
When you look at the lyrics of the song, it’s a little bit sad. At the end of the song, she says that she is just an ordinary person, but the piece showcased that she is such a beautiful singer and it ends off so grandly. And that is really interesting, because she’s such a talented, multi-faceted artist. She’s a singer and she’s also an actor, and really, nobody is nearly as good as her.
女人心 (A Woman’s Heart) is such a melodious piece and it works really well on the saxophone. It’s been such a fun experience learning more about Anita’s life, and I am so intrigued that I would want to watch her movies to learn even more about her.
Could you also share your challenges that you face while rehearsing the piece?
Okay, so as a saxophonist, when we play songs, one thing that we have to be very careful about is how to look at the music and go about it as an instrumentalist.
What I mean by that is, how do we put all the vocal inflections that she does into the notes we see, and to fit that into the words that she sings. So a lot of times it’s about trying to mimic what she does in a way that cannot be notated, and that’s why it took a lot of time for me to learn this piece. I’m quite obsessive and I would actually listen to how she sings phrase by phrase and then try to match the way I play to how she would vocalise each and every single word.
The Cantonese language has seven different tones, more than the Chinese language which only has four. So to a certain extent, a lot of the research went into trying to understand how she makes those inflections and to take as much of that into the saxophone as possible. But then, of course, once you go on stage, you might forget, and it cannot be at the forefront of your mind. You just want to take away all these things and just go with the flow. I guess it’s about really trying to analyse what she does, only to absorb it to a point where after that you have to just do it without thinking about it.
Unfortunately, in this process, I’ve not been able to learn Cantonese or sing the song myself. I wish there was a Cantonese teacher to assist me with this. A few years back, when I did the Tosca Fantasy with PWO, I actually went to a German teacher and learned how to vocalise the different German words. That really played a big part in how I interpreted Tosca as a German work.
In the end, you really just have to use your ear and try to figure out where the hard and soft consonants are, and to figure out how to articulate the whole piece. Do we actually have to go through all this? No, but it’s a nice and important thing that we should do when we approach any song. I wouldn’t say that this is a challenge – it’s just an additional thing that we have to do. It’s not like a saxophone concerto where the notes are written out clearly for the soloist.
What are some of your memories about Anita Mui?
My memory of Anita Mui is mostly as an actress because I saw her in the Hong Kong films. I am not really a big fan as I only see her sporadically in some films. Since I don’t speak Cantonese, I’m not also very into her songs, except for her most famous Chinese song, which is 亲密爱人 (My Dear Love), which I also arranged.
It was only until Adrian Cheong started designing the concert that I got myself more interested in her life story. I even watched a show about her titled Anita on Disney+, and it basically summarised her life. She’s just quite amazing as an artist and also in terms of her personality. And that was how I learned more about her in her life and her music.
Do you have to do your own research and listen to other songs a couple of times before you could start writing?
Yes, I had to listen to the rest of the songs, and get acquainted with them. Some of them have different versions, like one of them is a theme from the movie “Days of Being Wild” (阿飞正传) which I didn’t watch, but somehow know of its existence. That particular song has an original version but she redid it in her own style, so there are two versions. I also had to reference and try to come up with something that will work well for the band.
This is also not the first time writing for vocalists. Do you research Zita’s vocal range before you incorporate her into your songs?
Yes, when writing for singers, you have to know at least the vocal range, what key they want to sing in, and also a bit of the quality of their voice. Sometimes also when I arrange, I also have to ensure that the music is able to suit different types of voice qualities to use it with another singer; though it doesn’t happen very often. For this concert, I did listen to some of the clips of Zita singing, and amazingly, she sounds very close to Anita Mui, so that made it a bit easier for us.
Were there any other challenges that you faced when being asked to arrange the music?
I think besides arranging, Adrian, Jiin Joo and I also planned the other arrangements in this concert so there’s some variety to the style of the music. I think I wouldn’t really say it was a challenge, but we had to work with many parties to try to get all the scores in on time.
Actually, I was looking forward to this pop concert. We haven’t had such a pop concert in a few years. It’s fun because I like writing for the band and transcribing or transforming a pop song into something for the band. I find this quite enjoyable.
So other than arranging music, did you also have to curate the repertoire and order of pieces?
Yes both Jiin Joo and I were involved but most of the credit goes to Adrian. We just try to help him with it, and also liaise with some of the other arrangers to make sure they know where their part fits into the concert, and communicate any specific instructions. So Gordon Tan wrote for the other singer, Novabelle Ng, and Germaine Goh and Robbie Say wrote for soloists Samuel Phua and Bian Tong respectively.
Is there a piece that you are looking forward to performing, or one that you think the audience will enjoy most?
There are many songs, and there’s this one called Remembrance Medley arranged by Robbie. At first I didn’t really go and listen to all of them until I started arranging some of the music, and then rehearsals started and I’m playing in the band, and I found I really like Robbie’s piece for the Dizi solo. I think the way he did it was very nice; he transformed the song into a version that sounds more like a symphony and that was quite cool.
Finally, do you have anything to add for the audience?
I hope that this will be a good concert. I thought it was a very good programme, and it’s also nice that it’s the first time in a few years that we’re doing a pop concert; one that is highly curated and very specialised.
This concert is about Anita Mui and her life and it’s going to be very exciting because I think Adrian also has a big plan for the emcee, who will be narrating the show and telling the audience about Anita’s life. It will be a very promising concert, and I hope we can do more such concerts in future.
Limited tickets are still available for LEGEND: Anita Mui Tribute Concert happening this Saturday at 7.30pm at Esplanade Concert Hall.
Get yours now at https://sg.bookmyshow.com/events/ANITAMUI