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PopLore #1: Origin stories

How Singapore pop came to be

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Published: 20 Jan 2022


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PopLore #1: Origin Stories

Making music at a cultural crossroads

PopLore is a seven-episode narrative podcast series about Singapore pop. And in this first episode, we kick things off with a big question—what exactly is Singapore pop? 

Do pop songs performed by Singapore artists but created elsewhere count? How about pop songs composed here, but performed by artists in other countries? What about the songs that are created and performed by Singaporeans, but mainly popular in other cultures? And what about the songs left behind by those passing through this port city, on their way to somewhere else? What about the songs we no longer really remember? Are these all Singapore pop? 

Long before we even get to the idea of whether there is a Singapore sound, these are the questions that arise when considering the popular music of a highly porous island nation that is always looking forward to the next trend, the next wave, the next twist of fate. 

As you might expect, the singers, musicians, composers and producers we spoke to for this series have a lot to say about the character and potential of Singapore pop. For now, we’ll focus on a period of time before Singapore became an independent country in 1965, and how the first creative inclinations of receptivity to the new and an affinity for remixing different influences took shape. 

Waves of regional migration and colonialism gave rise to a uniquely diverse soundscape. Early forms of entertainment —from the cabarets and song stages of amusement parks to the hybrid melodies crooned by homegrown movie stars—brought this mingled music to new heights. Meanwhile, puritanical impulses gave rise to movements that took aim against the perceived decadence of pop music, even as pragmatism reined in these campaigns. Then, in 1961, a seismic event—a concert by UK rock and roll royalty Cliff Richard & The Shadows convinced a generation of budding musicians in Singapore to join the pop revolution. These are the opening notes of Singapore pop. 

This episode is narrated by music industry veteran Lim Sek, and features singer-songwriter Shabir, musician Rudi Salim, writer CT Lim, entertainment journalist Alice Kwan, singer-songwriter Art Fazil, singer Rahimah Rahim, broadcaster Brian Richmond, Lawrence Lee of The Checkmates, and John Chee and Raymond Ho of The Crescendos. Some of the soundbites in this episode are in Mandarin, and these have been translated in the narration. 

PopLore: Stories of Singapore Pop, produced by Hong Xinyi and Dorothy Ding, is commissioned by Esplanade as part of PopLore: A Year of Singapore Popular Music in celebration of its 20th anniversary in 2022.  

About the artists

Lim Sek

Although his record review columns in the local newspapers introduced him to the Singapore music scene, it was Lim Sek’s seven-year stint as a variety programmes producer at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation that gave him the opportunity to work with some of the best local and foreign talents and to build up a regional network to make local entertainment more exciting and enriching.

Since helming Music & Movement 31 years ago, this vision has expanded to include large-scale national events, ground-breaking musicals, music festivals, as well as the production of international concert tours by local and foreign artists.

Another highlight was the opportunity to either manage or introduce stunning music talents like Sandy Lam, Tracy Huang, Dick Lee, Tanya Chua, Najip Ali, Nathan Hartono, Cheryl Wee and Corrine May to different music markets in the world.

More recently, apart from curating and sharing his early television experiences on a YouTube channel titled BiLingual, he is also working on concerts, musicals and other online projects with several regional artists. Yet, the belief that more can be done for the local music talents, young and experienced, still inspires him to be involved in meaningfully important projects like PopLore


Shabir

Shabir is one of the most esteemed flag-bearers of Tamil music in Singapore. The inaugural winner of Mediacorp’s Vasantham Star in 2005, Shabir has since matured into a multiple award-winning singer-songwriter, music producer and performer. In 2020, he was the resident judge of Yaar Antha Star, a singing contest to unearth the nation’s best young singing talents. Shabir is the first artist of Tamil and Indian descent to be conferred the Singapore Youth Award, the highest national honour given to young achievers by the Singapore Government. In 2019, Shabir achieved mainstream success in India as a composer, songwriter and singer in the highly competitive Indian film music industry, with Yaayum crossing 105 million collective views on YouTube. 


Rudi Salim

Rudi Salim is the son of the late Salim I, one of the most popular pop yeh yeh singers of the swinging sixties. A talented musician in his own right, Rudi plays multiple percussion instruments, from the African djembe and the Afro-Cuban bongo to the Malay rebana. Rudi has been active in the music scene since 2000 as a session percussionist, as well as leading percussion groups such as Nadi Singapura. Endowed with his father’s signature husky vocals, Rudi started the band The Wisma 2 in 2015 to sing the songs of Salim I, and to promote and preserve pop yeh yeh authenticity. 


CT Lim

CT Lim writes about history and popular culture. He used to write for BigO magazine. 

Sketch Portrait Credit: Morgan Chua


Alice Kwan

Alice Kwan is a media veteran. Before she began her career as a full-time journalist in 1979, she was already writing freelance about the entertainment industry, and has borne witness to over 40 years of entertainment history. Alice is also passionate about performing and has participated in numerous stage plays, as well as in countless television dramas since the days of black-and-white television.


Art Fazil

In 1991, Art Fazil founded Rausyanfikir, the folk trio that presented the industry with alternative ethno-folk-rock-pop music combined with socially conscious lyrics. Since then, Art has had an expansive career in music, from writing songs for regional artistes, to recording and performing as a solo artiste himself. Art is currently signed as an artiste to Moro Records (Malaysia) and is also the label’s in-house producer. 

His most recent album is Good Morning Jogja, released in 2019 as part of a theatre production of the same title, which Art also acted in and produced. 


Rahimah Rahim

Rahimah Rahim is a multi-talented songbird who has been a part of Singapore's entertainment industry since the 1960s, first debuting as a child actress before making a name for both herself and her country when she won the Kimi Koso Star 1974 singing competition in Japan. She is a recipient of the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour in the arts.   


Brian Richmond

Brian has been a voice of a generation since 1971 when he made his bow on national radio. From being the first face on national colour television, to hosting sports and radio shows, Brian is one who has seen it all and done it all, resulting in a Lifetime Achievement Award by Mediacorp at the Singapore Radio Awards in 2005. 


Lawrence Lee

From the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, Lawrence Lee played bass guitar with The Checkmates, one of the resident bands of The Golden Venus, the venue remembered as Singapore’s hot bed for rock and roll back in the swinging sixties. After the band dissolved, Lawrence worked in the oil and gas industry for more than 40 years. Resuming music-making from the late 1980s, Lawrence has since been engaged in paid gigs, charity functions, and jamming with other musicians, as well as arranging and providing music backing for open mic singers. 


John Chee & Raymond Ho, The Crescendos

In June 1961, three schoolmates of St. Patrick’s School—John Chee, Raymond Ho, and Leslie Chia—participated in the Radio Singapore Talentime at Victoria Theatre, collectively calling themselves The Crescendos. They were placed second in the grand finals, singing the Dean Martin version of Memories Were Made of This. In November of the same year, The Crescendos opened four shows for Cliff Richard & The Shadows at Happy World Stadium.

Just before the 1962 Radio Singapore Talentime started, leader John Chee, discovered 15-year-old Susan Lim, who gave The Crescendos not only a new voice, but also a new look.

In February 1963, PHILIPS Phonographic Industries Holland released The Crescendos’ first vinyl 45rpm single Frankie and Mr. Twister, making The Crescendos the first local singing group on an international label. 

The Crescendos stopped singing in 1966 when Susan enrolled in the University of Singapore. On 8 February 1970, Susan, who was then 22, was reported missing swimming with her fiancé and friends at Kemaman Beach in Terengganu, Malaysia. On 7 June 2021, Leslie passed away aged 77 years old. John (now 79) and Raymond (now 77) are still singing duets at friends’ gatherings, charity shows and at occasional public appearances. 


Listen to the music mentioned in this episode.

Download the transcript here

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