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Music

Iskandar Ismail

Singapore's "Music Man".

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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What I’m striving for is togetherness. I want audiences to feel we’re all Singaporeans when they hear the songs.

– Iskandar Ismail: The Music Man, 2013.

Iskandar Ismail was a Singapore musician, composer, conductor, music director and producer widely regarded as one of the most prolific contributors to Singapore's music scene. The Cultural Medallion Award recipient was known for his long-time involvement in events such as the National Day Parade and ChildAid, as well as directing and producing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. He often composed the symphonic music that accompanies the New Year's Day fireworks display at the Marina Bay Singapore Countdown.

The versatile maestro was the go-to man for musical arrangements in numerous theatre productions in the last 30 years. His versatility also saw him work with Cantopop stars Sandy Lam, Aaron Kwok and Jacky Cheung, and he went on to arrange and orchestrate the latter's musical Snow. Wolf. Lake. in 1997. Iskandar was an Honorary Fellow at the London College of Music at Thames Valley University.

Iskandar Mirza Ismail was born on 23 July 1956 in Singapore to veteran Malay singers Ismail Kassim and Nona Asiah. His late father was a draughtsman who moonlighted as a singer, while his mother was a professional musician who did playback singing for Malay movies, recording songs on soundtracks so that actors could lip sync for the cameras. She later went on to produce the popular children's talent show, Mat Yoyo that first aired on Radio Television Singapore.

Iskandar was the eldest of five siblings. The family lived in a kampong-style house in Kembangan in the eastern region of Singapore. Growing up, Iskandar and his siblings were encouraged to take up musical instruments. All except one learnt to play the piano. The third eldest, Bobbi, played the trumpet. Iskandar was eight when he started formal piano lessons with none other than Zubir Said, the composer of Singapore's national anthem. Iskandar's mother, Nona, was taking classical piano lessons from the celebrated musician but relinquished her place to the young Iskandar. She recognised at a very early stage that her eldest and youngest sons, Iskandar and Indra, had great musical abilities and perfect pitch, and insisted that they undergo proper music education.

Despite his mother's sacrifices, Iskandar once said that taking piano lessons under Said was "torture". He said in his biography, The Music Man, "[Said] was very old school, very dry and technical in his teaching approach, not like today's lessons. I was bored and tired and would just play the classical pieces with my mind drifting." However, the esteemed composer inadvertently played an instrumental role in Iskandar's musical development by instilling him with a strong classical foundation.

At 10, Iskandar was proficient on the piano and keyboards. He formed a family band with his siblings modelled after the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. Their parents were enthusiastic supporters of the amateur group, organising concerts at public venues and nightclubs. After passing his Grade 3 classical piano exam, Nona enrolled the 12-year-old Iskandar at the Yamaha Music School. It was here that he discovered the Electone keyboard, where a single instrument could be used to play an entire orchestra. He did so well at Yamaha that he was offered a teaching position at the music school when he was 15.

All while establishing an early career in music, Iskandar attended Upper Serangoon Technical School and then St. Patricks for his pre-university studies. At 19, Iskandar won first prize at the Singapore Electone Festival, subsequently representing the country at the regional finals in Hong Kong. At the regional finals, he was unplaced. Rather than getting discouraged, Iskandar decided then that he would further his music education by studying in the United States.

In 1976, he set off for Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz, music arrangement and professional pop. He worked hard to assimilate into the competitive but stimulating culture at the university. He took full advantage of the exposure to top musical performers who held master classes or staged concerts at the institution. After two years at Berklee, Iskandar was presented with the prestigious John Lewis Jazz Masters Award given to students who excelled in performance. He was subsequently offered a position in New York after his graduation but he returned to Singapore at the request of his mother.

Upon returning home, Iskandar found it hard to find his footing in the local music scene. He was told that he was overqualified for many positions. He became a piano player at the Hilton Hotel, performing with the popular jazz outfit Louis Tan Trio and arranging their music. Thanks to his exposure to crossover bands like Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Boston, Iskandar infused funk, R&B and electronic sounds to standard jazz numbers.

By the early 1980s, Iskandar gained minor celebrity status with music aficionados in Singapore's nightclub circuit. In 1984, he assembled a group of seasoned musicians, including vocalist Kaye Hamid, and formed the show band Hangloose. A few years later, he set up his own music company and began a decades-long collaboration with record label Warner Taiwan to produce the albums of Mandopop stars Tracy Huang, Dave Wang and Little Tigers. Working with the Taiwanese label into the early 1990s, Iskandar arranged music for all the big stars of the time, including Sandy Lam, George Lam, Aaron Kwok and Jacky Cheung.

During this period, the musician also started arranging pieces for the former Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and began his involvement with the National Day parades. He would continue with his involvement in the yearly affair for the next 20 years, serving as music director for the parade in 2000, 2004, 2003 and 2012.

It was also in the 1990s that Iskandar started collaborating with theatre groups to provide scores for stage productions. One of the first musicals he worked on was Kampong Amber staged in 1994. He was roped in to arrange its Peranakan-inspired music, including the classic Bunga Sayang. From the first successful collaboration with theatre veterans in Kampong Amber, Ismail went on to arrange scores for numerous other theatrical productions, which included Mortal Sins in 1995, Sing to the Dawn and Hotpants in 1996, and hit musicals Snow. Wolf. Lake and Chang & Eng in 1997. Snow. Wolf. Lake in particular was a watershed moment for Ismail as it was shown not only in Singapore but in Hong Kong and multiple cities in China too.

Iskandar's contribution to Singapore's music scene continued up until his passing. In the last 10 years, not only had he composed, arranged and directed music for the National Day Parade, he had also worked on other large-scale events such as charity concert ChildAid and the annual Chingay Parade. He also often composed the symphonic music that accompanies the New Year's Eve fireworks display at the Marina Bay Singapore Countdown (MBSC), which is jointly organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. He had worked closely with Esplanade Producer Michelle Yeo, one of the event's coordinators, who once shared that his music compositions were the heart and soul of the annual fireworks display.

Iskandar was also a keen promoter of Singaporean talent, and joined the Spotlight Singapore series to showcase local artists on international platforms that included Tokyo, Moscow, Cape Town and Bratislava. In recognition of his significant contributions, Iskandar received the Cultural Medallion in 2008, the country’s highest arts accolade.

Using the $80,000 grant given by the National Arts Council to Cultural Medallion recipients, the musician and his wife, Ernawaty Sorianto, put together a biography to chronicle his three-decade music career. Iskandar Ismail: The Music Man was published in 2013 by Epigram Books.

One of Iskandar's largest undertakings was probably the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, which was held for the first time in Singapore. He served as music producer and director of the Games, which included the opening and closing ceremonies broadcasted to two billion viewers worldwide.

That same year, Iskandar was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and in spite of the diagnosis, he continued to work on his music projects. He kept to his role as music producer for MBSC 2015 up until he passed away on 1 Nov 2014 from lung and brain cancer. He was 58 years old.

A memorial concert was held in his honour on 23 Jan 2015 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. A Music Man for All Times: Iskandar Ismail brought together family and friends who shared the music and their memories of Iskandar.

Timeline

23 Jul 1956

Born in Singapore.

1964

Started piano lessons with iconic Singapore composer Zubir Said.

1971

Started teaching music at Yamaha at age 15.

1975

First prize winner at the Singapore Electone Festival.

1976

Set off for Boston, US, to attend Berklee College of Music.

1978

Won the John Lewis Jazz Masters Award.

1979

Graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, US, with a Degree in Professional Music.

1984

Formed the show band Hangloose.

1988

Composer and music arranger, National Day Parade.

1994

Singapore Festival of Arts Musical Kampung Amber with Dick Lee
Music director, National Day Parade.

1997

Orchestral arrangements for musical, Chang & Eng staged in Beijing, China.
A Twist of Fate, composed by Dick Lee.
Snow. Wolf. Lake and Chang & Eng.

1998

Composed City for the World for National Day Parade.

1999

Chang & Eng restaged at the Kallang Theatre.
Composed for the National Day Parade.

2000

PCK The Musical, President's Star Charity Show.
Music director, National Day Parade.

2001

Chang & Eng restaged at the Victoria Concert Hall.
Music producer, National Day Parade.

2002

Composed songs for Perahu – Memecah Ombak – at the opening of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Orchestral arrangements for musical, Chang & Eng staged in Bangkok, Thailand.

2003

Honoured as the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year.

2004

Orchestral arrangements for musical, Snow. Wolf. Lake staged in Mandarin in Hong Kong and many cities of China.

2006

ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent.
Iskandar was commissioned Music Producer for the opening ceremony of the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. He worked alongside Dick Lee who was given the honour to write the music.
Composer of multicultural performance, Generation/s, performed in Tokyo, Japan, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.

2007

Awarded Honorary Fellowship, London College of Music, Thames Valley University, United Kingdom.

2008

Received the Cultural Medallion Award.
Beauty World staged at the Esplanade Theatre.
Composer of multicultural performance, Generation/s, performed in Moscow, Russia, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.
Music director, National Day Parade.

2009

ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent performed at Resorts World Sentosa.

2010

Music producer and director, 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

2011

Composer of multicultural performance, Selamat, performed in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.

2012

ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent performed at Marina Bay Sands Grand Theatre.
Composer of multicultural performance, Living Dreams, performed in Bratislava, Slovakia, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.
Music director, National Day Parade.

2013

Biography Iskandar Ismail: The Music Man
was published by Epigram Books.

1 Nov 2014

Passed away from lung and brain cancer at age 58 in Singapore.

2015

A memorial concert, A Music Man for All Times: Iskandar Ismail, held in his honour on 23 Jan 2015 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.


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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