Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

A Legacy Through Song: An Interview with Julian Wong, writer of Wild Rice’s ‘Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita’

Before National Day comes around and we once again celebrate the nation, have a think about one of the nation’s most enduring symbols – our national anthem. How many of us really know about its composer – Zubir Said, and only refer to him as ‘Mr. Mari Kita’?

This July, Wild Rice is here to change that forever, with Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita, a musical revue that tells the story of the life and times of Zubir Said, featuring some of his most famous and even a number of ‘long-lost’ compositions. Before it premieres, we spoke to music director Julian Wong, who not only conceptualised and wrote the show, but shares two degrees of separation with Zubir Said, who taught music to the late Iskandar Ismail, who in turn mentored Wong.

Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: When did the idea for ‘Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita’ first come about?

Julian: Beatrice Chia-Richmond, who directed the Light to Night Festival 2019, called me one evening in 2018 and told me about a request from the Singapore Bicentennial Office — they wanted to shine a spotlight on Zubir Said and his music in some way. Beatrice said she had a gut feeling that I might be the right person for the job.

I said yes because I saw it as an opportunity to honour my teacher, the late Iskandar Ismail, whose own mentor was Pak Zubir. The result was Sayang Disayang: The Lesser Known Works of Zubir Said, a 35-minute concert at the National Gallery in February 2019.

Bakchormeeboy: What made you decide on its form as a revue show of the Zubir Said songbook rather than, say, a play or a musical? 

Julian: I decided very early on that I didn’t want to create a play or musical about Pak Zubir’s life and legacy. I am not a playwright, and I’ve always come away from theatrical biopics wondering just where the line is between fact and fiction. I thought that it would be more unique, more heartfelt, and more truthful to share about Zubir Said from my perspective as his student’s student, to highlight his legacy through my personal connection to him. The revue format, of course, also allows Pak Zubir’s music and lyrics to take centre stage, without having to force them to fit the narrative of a musical biopic.

Bakchormeeboy: Considering that there’s still a degree of separation between yourself and Zubir Said, since he was Iskandar Ismail’s mentor, how much did you know about Zubir Said prior to starting work on this production, and what was the research process like? How did you decide on the specific songs that would go into this revue, and which ones would be left out?

Julian: Pak Zubir was a big influence in Iskandar’s life. Iskandar used to tell me about his piano lessons with Pak Zubir, as well as Pak Zubir’s close friendship with Iskandar’s mother, Nona Asiah. One of Iskandar’s proudest moments was arranging Semoga Bahagia, his favourite Zubir Said song, for the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, directed by Ivan Heng.

Before I started my research, I only knew 3 Zubir Said songs — Sayang Disayang, Majulah Singapura and Semoga Bahagia — at least two of which every Singaporean would know! Since then, I have uncovered and grown to love many more of his compositions, including rare and lost songs.

The research took me a long time. I borrowed books from the library, blew up old pictures of Pak Zubir’s handwritten sheet music, played through every one of the (sometimes inaccurate) transcriptions of his music that exist, and cross-checked them with recordings if they were available. There were some musical gaps to fill, so it was important to me that I did so respectfully. When I transcribed lyrics from old recordings with poor sound quality, I always checked them with my dramaturg, Alfian Sa’at. Talking to Dr. Rohana Zubir and reading her father’s biography (Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura) was very useful; Dr. Rohana’s blessing means the world to me.

Bakchormeeboy: As the protege to Zubir Said’s protege, and often referred to as one of Singapore’s top music directors today, is there ever any pressure to live up to Zubir Said’s legacy or the praise that you receive, or even the dreaded artist question – to create a magnum opus that will live on for years to come?

Julian:I don’t take the connection lightly but I also don’t see it as a burden. I am not aware of much praise, so I don’t feel much pressure at all! And no, I never think about a magnum opus.

I am very lucky that I can be selective about projects and collaborators. I only say yes to projects that resonate emotionally with me. So, when I commit to a project, I give my best and I hold myself to high and exacting standards for my music and my work ethic. It’s the way that Iskandar trained me, and that’s all that matters to me.

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve worked with Ivan Heng on several productions already, including the recent rerun of Faghag. With Ivan directing this piece written and conceptualised by you, how much control do you retain over the production, or how particular do you get over your own vision for certain scenes versus how they actually turn out? Are there specific rehearsal norms that make working together with Ivan a joy? 

Julian: Ivan is a respectful, gracious, sensitive, and critical collaborator. I appreciate his deep empathy and his brutal honesty. He challenges and questions me, and he consults with me on every detail of the production. He is always thinking about the work. After Wild Rice had to cancel the planned run of Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita due to Covid-19 last year, we staged a few special fundraising performances and, at the very final one, Ivan said to me, “I keep thinking about this line. What if you phrase it this way? Or add this word? Let’s try it later.” Of course, it made all the difference. It is a gift to work with someone who is as passionate about the work as you are.

Ivan has taught me and inspired me so much over the past 15 years. So much about text, story, visuals, pace, clarity, music, performance, the rehearsal process, loving your work and collaborators, and respecting your audience, I learned from him. There is no one like him.

When I get the chance, I step back and look at the great work of the artists that Ivan has gathered to serve this production and how he weaves it so seamlessly into the storytelling — Alfian Sa’at’s dramaturgy, Alberta Wileo’s lighting, He Shuming’s multimedia design, Frederick Lee’s costumes, Hafeez Hassan’s choreography — it humbles me every time.

Bakchormeeboy: Your cast comprises ‘some of Singapore’s most accomplished musicians and young vocalists’. What was the audition process and criteria for your cast of talented performers? Do you feel there are enough opportunities for musically-inclined Singaporeans in future to carve out a career in the industry? 

Julian: I knew that the musicians had to be proficient and sensitive ensemble players above all else. I needed musicians who would believe in the work, and who could be present, listen, and react without my conducting. I respect and admire Din Safari, Riduan Zalani, and Ryan Sim immensely. I knew that I would be in safe hands if they were on stage with me; they would make it easy for me to do my job well.

Once the veteran musicians and the creative team members were in place, I felt confident that we could open up space for new talent in the production. I thought of guitarist Leonard Mikhail and performer Rohaniah Sa’id (Hani), both current students of LASALLE College of the Arts, and vocalist Malcolm Lim (a recent Music & Audio Technology graduate of Singapore Polytechnic), all of whom are young, aspiring, talented artists. I also thought of Hannah Nordin, an ex-student of mine whose voice I have always found incredibly haunting.

In the same way that my mentors like Ivan, Iskandar, and Belinda Foo opened doors for me when I was a budding musician, I wanted to do the same for new talent today. As for career opportunities — I usually discourage people from pursuing a career in the Arts unless they absolutely have to do so with every fibre of their body.

Bakchormeeboy: Having worked closely with Wild Rice for so long, how do you feel Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita fits into Wild Rice’s canon of work and represents the Wild Rice ‘brand’/philosophy?

Julian: Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita is about Singapore, for Singapore, by Singaporeans. That is what Wild Rice means to me, and why I love them so much. Wild Rice’s brand of theatre is always relevant and Singaporean. I have always appreciated how Wild Rice is at the forefront of our performing arts industry when it comes to investing wholeheartedly in local artists and local works — trusting that we have the capacity, the talent, and the responsibility to tell our own stories.

Bakchormeeboy: Are there any parallels between yourself and Zubir Said, perhaps certain qualities or habits that have been passed down from him to Iskandar Ismail to you?

Julian: Iskandar and I are most similar in one way: we absolutely cannot stand it when people are late. When Iskandar mentored me, his rules had nothing to do with music. If I couldn’t even show up on time, he wouldn’t want to talk about music. In this and other ways, Iskandar made it clear to me that the things in life that really matter don’t require any talent. I think Iskandar’s unimpeachable work ethic was partly a result of Pak Zubir’s influence, and I continue to bring this same work ethic to my work and life every day.

Bakchormeeboy: Do you ever imagine that you yourself might take on proteges of your own one day? 

Julian: No, I don’t think about protégés. I help when I can, I love to teach, and if people regard me as a mentor, that’s a bonus. But I never position myself as a mentor or someone looking to groom the next generation of musicians. I believe there are more than enough good musicians already; what the world needs more of are good people. If, through my work as a music educator, I have a hand in developing people with good characters, empathy, kindness, and compassion, that would be enough for me.

Bakchormeeboy: Are there any particular scenes in the production that move you or make you feel incredibly proud every time you do a rehearsal of it? 

Julian: There is a point in the show when I talk about Iskandar and the impact he has had on me, and then I turn to look at Hani, Hannah, Malcolm, and Mikhail — all of whom I have taught in the past. It’s a moment that is at once joyful, wistful, bittersweet, puzzling, and full of gratitude — a surreal gut punch for me.

Bakchormeeboy: What kind of impression or knowledge do you hope audience members will have of Zubir Said after watching this production?

Julian: One of the biggest questions that set me off on my journey of discovery was: why do we know so little about this man who is so celebrated and decorated?

I hope to show audiences that Zubir Said was so much more than just the composer of our National Anthem — his life, his music, his sacrifices, and the courage of his convictions are all equally noteworthy. Through his music and his life, hopefully we can learn a thing or two about what it means to be Singaporean.

Bakchormeeboy: In entering a post-pandemic world where theatres and concert halls are open to full capacity again, how do you hope a musical production like Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita moves and affects audience members, in terms of looking towards the future and their own lives? 

Julian: I hope Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita will inspire audiences to think about our identity and history as we look towards the future. In a time of uncertainty and division, I feel there is no better composer whose music can unite us.

As Singapore opens up and theatres return to full capacity, I hope we remember that we don’t always have to look beyond our shores and bring in international acts. We have our own stories that we can tell, our own cultures that are worthy of exploration, and our own artists from whom we can take inspiration.

Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita plays from 7th to 23rd July 2022 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets available here

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