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Ahmad Ja'afar was a Malay pop icon who came to Singapore in 1946 and embarked on an eventful career that saw him become the famed conductor of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra and a prolific composer of many well-loved Malay songs in films including the titular song for P. Ramlee’s Ibu. Dubbed the "Father of Modern Malay Pop", Ahmad was honoured with the Meritorious Award by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 1996 and the Cultural Medallion in 1981 for his contributions to music in Singapore.
Born in Binjai, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Ahmad Ja’afar was the son of silent-movie operators. A young Ahmad first learnt to play the bugle as a boy scout in school, then moved on to the piano, violin and drums which he played in various cinema orchestras, performing also in his parents’ silent movie cinema.
As a teenager, Ahmad learned the violin from his uncle, and then joined the Medan Amateur Orchestra which comprised Indonesians and Dutch musicians performing a variety of music from brass band music to symphonic band music. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, the orchestra was prohibited from performing and thus disbanded. Ahmad and several former band mates then formed a new group that performed Malay and Japanese music.
When the war ended in 1946, a 27-year-old Ahmad decided to leave Indonesia. Accompanied by his wife, he travelled by boat to Singapore buoyed by the dream of working at the newly established radio station Radio Malaya. Arriving in Singapore, he first worked as a saxophonist with the Cecil Wilson Band playing at the Great World Cabaret. Two years later, he joined the Harry Hackmayer Band at the Cathay Restaurant. He also played in the Raffles Orchestra led by Gerry Soliano.
In the 1950s, almost a decade after he had arrived in Singapore, Ahmad clinched his dream job. He took on a part-time position with Radio Malaya, composing musical soundtracks for Malay film companies such as Cathay-Keris Studios. It was there that he wrote famous evergreen tunes such as Selamat Hari Raya and Ibu. He became a full-time employee at Radio Malaya in 1958, and began performing with his first professional orchestra, Malayannaires, in which he played the clarinet, flute and tenor saxophone.
When Singapore became independent in 1965, Ahmad was appointed deputy conductor of the newly established Radio Television Singapore Orchestra. Two years later, he became its conductor, a role he would play through the broadcaster’s transformation into the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in 1980 and until his retirement in 1982. In this period, Ahmad arranged music for Talentime contestants, and continued writing Malay pop music. After his retirement, he continued in his passion for music by being a trainer and advisor to various school bands in Singapore.
Ahmad was honoured with the Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Gangsa) (Public Administration Medal [Bronze]) in 1970 and the Meritorious Award by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 1996. In 1981, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.
Ahmad passed away in 2009 in Singapore at the age of 89. He is remembered as a beloved Malay music icon whose repertoire consists of over 60 original compositions, many of which are still popular today. His song Selamat Hari Raya continues to be heard every year during Hari Raya.
Born in Binjai, North Sumatra, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Moved to Singapore with wife.
Saxophonist, Cecil Wilson Band.
Member, Harry Hackmayer Band.
Deputy conductor, Radio and Television Singapore Orchestra.
Conductor, Radio and Television Singapore Orchestra (later known as Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra).
Received Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Gangsa) (Public Administration Medal [Bronze]).
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.
Conductor, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra, Victoria Concert Hall. This is Ahmad’s last concert.
Named Honorary Fellow, Institute of Parks & Recreation, Singapore.
Received Excellent Achievement Award, Malay Activity Executive Committees Council, People's Association, Singapore.
Received Meritorious Award, Composer and Authors Society of Singapore.
Passed away at age 89.
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Ahmad bin Ja'afar (standing, centre) with family in their home at Kampong Bedok, Singapore. 1965.
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Ahmad bin Ja'afar (2nd from right) with Charles Lazaroo (far right) on the Talentime Christmas show.
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Ahmad bin Ja'afar singing with Charles Lazaroo (on violin) at a Talentime Christmas show Charles Lazaroo.
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Ahmad bin Ja'afar (in sunglasses) with the Radio Television Singapore Orchestra led by Gus Steyn (standing) in Brunei.
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Ahmad bin Ja'afar (2nd row, 6th from left) with President Benjamin Sheares (in front of Ahmad). c. 1970s.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.