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Alexander Abisheganaden

Perhaps the most important guitarist in Singapore history.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Music is the broad canvas behind me all the time, inspiring me to love and help people through life, touching the lives of so many, both young and not so young.

Born in 1926 in Singapore, Alex Abisheganaden is perhaps the most important and versatile guitar maestro in Singapore’s history. Despite working full-time in the teaching industry for 36 years, the classical guitarist, double bassist, composer, singer and actor has, for more than 60 years, played and taught the guitar with unflagging dedication, motivated by his love for the instrument and his desire to spread the joy of music to everyone. For his efforts—which include creating a 26-episode television programme on guitar-playing, publishing two guitar textbooks, composing numerous popular, classical and fusion works for the guitar, collaborating with diverse instrumentalists and founding and leading the Singapore Classical Guitar Society and Singapore’s first guitar orchestra, the Guitar Ensemble of the National University of Singapore—Abisheganaden received a Cultural Medallion in 1988.

Alexander Abisheganaden was born in 1926 in Singapore, the sixth of seven children in a musical family. He taught himself to play the guitar at the age of 15 armed only with a guitar handed down from his older brother Gerard and a guitar handbook, the Ellis's Thorough School for Guitar, improving his skill so much that he attained a technical proficiency equivalent to a grade six guitar player.

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the 1940s, a teenage Abisheganaden found work as a guitarist in an Indian orchestra for a Japanese-run radio station. When the war ended, he finished his Senior Cambridge examinations and began teaching English at a primary school while studying at the Teachers’ Training College.

During that time, Abisheganaden—then a guitarist with the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra—began learning to play the double bass from resident Hungarian cellist Feri Krempl. He quickly mastered the instrument and, in 1949, became a double bassist for the orchestra and the Singapore Chamber Ensemble. Over a decade later in 1960, Abisheganaden—now a school principal—became the first Southeast Asian recipient of a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music for performance on the double bass. He also attained a grade eight certification for guitar and voice. The following year, he received a government study grant for the Royal College of Music in London. He moved to the UK and studied singing, double bass and guitar, with famous Australian guitarist John Williams as his teacher.

Not long after his return to Singapore, Abisheganaden became an Inspector of Schools at the Ministry of Education. In 1967, he founded the Singapore Classical Guitar Society, which he would lead for the next 25 years. Soon after, the Minister of Education at that time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, commissioned Alex to create a music education programme that would be broadcast on television. The result was the 26-episode Music Making with the Guitar broadcast on national Education Television from 1970 to 1971. This music programme was the first of its kind on Singapore television, and it was accompanied by two guitar textbooks written by Abisheganaden.

Through the decades that followed, Abisheganaden helped to establish TheatreWorks, sang and acted in plays and operas, and performed collaboratively with a diverse range of musicians. But mostly, he kept on contributing to the Singapore music scene.

He composed popular songs such as Salute to Singapore which won the National Theatre Trust’s national songwriting competition in 1976, and Read for the Future for the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986. He also wrote pieces for the guitar including Reverie, Dance Singapura and Katong Blues, and guitar orchestra pieces such as Gela-Nexus and the erhu, sitar and guitar orchestra piece Huan Ying-Vanakam.

In 1981, Abisheganaden founded Singapore’s first guitar orchestra, the National University of Singapore Guitar Ensemble (GENUS), and in 1986 made it Southeast Asia’s first Niibori guitar orchestra, performing a wide-ranging repertoire that includes Alex’s compositions such as Gela-Nexus and Huan Ying-Vanakam (which GENUS performed in Germany in 2007). He also initiated an annual concert that remains popular today.

For his contributions to music in Singapore, Abisheganaden received the Cultural Medallion in 1988. In 1998, he received the COMPASS Meritorious Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.

Today, Alex is the patron and artistic director of the Toa Payoh Guitar Club, which consists of guitarists spanning generations and diverse backgrounds. He continues to perform and teach aspiring young guitarists both solo and ensemble guitar playing with commitment and passion.

Timeline

31 Jan 1926

Born in Singapore.

1933 to 1942

Attended St. Andrew’s School.

1941

Began learning the guitar on his own.

1942 to 1945

Attended Syonan Nippon Gakuen.
Radio singer, Syonan Broadcasting Station.
Guitarist, Azad Hind Broadcasting Station.

1945 to 1946

Attended St. Andrew’s School. Graduated with Senior Cambridge certificate.

1947 to 1950

Attended Teachers’ Training College.

1947 to 1957

Teacher, Rangoon Road Primary School.

1949

Began learning the double bass.
Member, Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra.
Singing member and double bassist, Singapore Chamber Ensemble.
Singing member, Singapore Musical Society.

1957 to 1963

Principal, various primary schools including Cedar Boys Primary School, Redhill Primary School, Boon Lay Primary School, Telok Paku Primary School, and Margaret Drive Primary School.

1960

Received Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music for double bass performance. First person in Southeast Asia to do so.

1961 to 1962

Attended Royal College of Music, London, UK, on a government study grant.

1963 to 1970

Inspector of Schools, Ministry of Education, Singapore.

1967

Founder, Singapore Classical Guitar Society.

1967 to 1992

Music Director, Singapore Classical Guitar Society.

1970

Founding member, Young Musicians' Society.

1970 to 1971

Created the music education programme Music Making with the Guitar which was broadcast on national Educational Television. Published accompanying textbooks Music Making with the Guitar Vol 1 and Music Making with the Guitar Vol 2.

1971 to 1981

Inspector of Schools for music, Educational Television Unit.

1976

Received first prize for Salute to Singapore in a national songwriting competition organised by the National Theatre Trust.

1980

Founder, Guitar Ensemble of the National University of Singapore. Formed Southeast Asia’s first Niibori guitar orchestra.

1981 to 1983

Teacher, St. Margaret’s Secondary School.

1984 to 1987

Radio presenter, 92.4 FM.

1985

Founding member, TheatreWorks.

1986

Received Cultural Award, Government of Australia.
Composed Read for the Future for National Reading Month, commissioned by National Book Development Council of Singapore.

1988

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music.
Performer, Beauty World, Theatreworks, World Trade Centre Auditorium, Singapore.

1998

Received COMPASS Meritorious Award, Composers and Authors Society Singapore.

2000

Released CD Maestro: The Music of Alex Abisheganaden.

2002

Received Centre for the Arts Special Recognition Award, National University of Singapore.

2005

Published Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes from a Musical Life.

2009 to present

Music trainer, The Little Arts Academy.


TributeSG

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.

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