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Music Film

Notes from the First Lady of Entertainment, Nona Asiah

On Malay pop music and film in the '50s and '60s.


Published: 8 Aug 2015

Time taken : ~10mins

At 85, her energy and fashion sense belie her age. Nona Asiah, the legendary "First Lady of Entertainment", recounts her experiences as a singer and fashion designer during the golden era of Malay pop music and film.

What was it like to be a singer in the 1950s and 1960s?

Nona Asiah: Back then, recording an album required a lot of professionalism, patience and hard work. A finished recording was in fact one continuous take. There was no room for error.

Each time we went to the studio to record, we had to sing with a live orchestra or ensemble because there was no such thing as a pre-recording or recording on different tracks. If someone made a mistake, it meant that we had to do it all over from the top, and that took many hours.

At times, retakes made musicians temperamental. During one of them, I remember, a pianist got so upset that he kicked the piano really hard. That hurt my feelings so much that I broke down and cried. In a way, because recording was laborious, it trained me to be more professional.

Compared to before, being a singer now is much easier because instrumentation and singing are recorded separately. No longer do singers need to record with live music accompaniment and retakes do not require you to start over.

What kind of opportunities did you have?

When I started out in the 1950s, I fronted a programme on Radio Malaya. It aired every Wednesday and I would sing song requests by listeners all over Singapore and Malaysia. The show got popular and caught the attention of HMV, who then offered me a recording contract. Records back then were all made from vinyl, usually featuring one song on each side.

Music directors weren’t common at that time and there were few full-time songwriters or composers to write songs for you, which meant that singers had to do all of that.

In my case, I covered a lot of popular music in Malay, one of which was the Spanish song, Besame Mucho, or Kiss Me, Kiss Me Again. That recording I did was sold out and it did not take long before I started to collect royalties.

My manager at HMV at that time would take me to the post office after each payment to deposit the money. That’s how I learnt to save.

The golden era was also the peak of Singapore's Malay film industry. What kind of impact did being a playback (voiceover) singer for films, especially working with legendary filmmaker P. Ramlee, have on you?

Playback singing was not common in the film industry back then. It was pak Zubir Said who suggested that P. Ramlee and I should lend our voices to BS Rajhan’s 1948 film, Cinta, which starred Siput Sarawak and S. Roomai Noor. It was the first film to use playback singing.

Malay films and their music were extremely popular around the region because they were enjoyed by everyone equally, regardless of race. The biggest movie production house in the region was Malay Film Productions, which was owned by Shaw Brothers and located at Jalan Ampas.

Therefore, recordings of music from these films were really easy to sell. At the same time, their popularity also brought me many opportunities to perform regionally.

Once, the late P. Ramlee offered me a role in his film but I turned it down due to my commitment to a children’s educational radio show that I was doing. In fact, I hosted the programmes for 10 years on Radio Malayu and even named my children after some of the historical characters that were featured in it!

Never stop learning and improving yourself.

Music no doubt runs in your family, but which came first? Your love for singing or fashion?

My love for singing of course. My mother was a bangsawan (traditional Malay opera) singer and it also helped that from as young as 12 years old, I was given a chance to perform for an audience. That was during the Japanese occupation. A group of us from my mother’s opera troupe were invited to the camps to perform for the soldiers and in return, we would be offered food or other treats.

My love for fashion developed when I was a teenager. As mentioned, my mother was a performer and ever so often, when she was not at home, I would sneak into her room to try on her beautiful baju kurungs.

How did you get into fashion design? Did you make all the baju kurungs yourself and how did you become a designer to the stars of the Malay entertainment scene?

It all started when I tried on my mother’s bajus. It was very rare to find any with sequins and embellishments, so I wanted to make my own. My father was an oil painter and he would sketch out the designs that I wanted before I sewed them.

It wasn’t long before my friends from the entertainment circle started noticing them and asked me to design for them as well. Before long, I was making bajus for many celebrities, most of whom were actresses from Malay Film Productions and nightclub singers.

One particular baju I made was for one of the National Day parades. It was red with a slit that ran up from the bottom, exposing a panel of white pleats. Around the pleats, I sewed on an attap house surrounded by coconut trees, which I embellished with sequins.

How has the Malay music scene changed over the years?

Things are more advanced now, which is how it should be. Musicians now have opportunities to study music production, arrangement especially. They also use synthesizers, unlike the ‘50s when we had to rely on live instrumentation. Sound systems nowadays are also much better, so the quality of music has vastly improved.

What sort of encouragement or advice would you give to aspiring female singers?

Never stop learning and improving yourself.

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