Julian Wong passes on the legacy of Zubir Said with a heartfelt lesson on music, nation building, and chasing dreams.
In 1928, a young man made the decision to take fate into his own hands, go against his father’s wishes, and pursue a life of music. With only the clothes on his back and a clean towel in hand, he left his village of Bukit Tinggi, and arrived in Singapura, ready to carve out a new life for himself as a musician. That man was Zubir Said, and would eventually become forever etched in our memories as the composer of Singapore’s national anthem.
But what people often forget about is that Zubir Said was more than just the composer of “Majulah Singapura”. Across his storied career, Zubir Said would also work with a bangsawan Malay opera troupe, compose over 1000 songs for some of the biggest films during the Golden Age of Singapore cinema, and perhaps most importantly, was also a mentor to many hopeful musicians. Through his role as teacher, he passed on his immense talent and knowledge of music to the next generation, with students that included the late Iskandar Ismail, who then went on to teach Julian Wong, one of Singapore’s current leading music directors.
Inspired by the life and music of his teacher’s teacher, the story comes full circle, as Julian created Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita, a new show paying tribute to his “Pak Zubir”. Titled after a quote from Zubir Said himself, Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita is a musical revue that works to celebrate and shed light on Zubir Said’s life, with Julian taking us on a journey featuring a selection of songs composed by Zubir Said, while interspersed with Zubir Said’s story.
From the moment one steps into the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita already feels like it contains an air of respect and reverence for Zubir Said and his work. With a set designed by director Ivan Heng, the theatre is given a touch of grandeur with a red carpet laid across the whole stage and lightbulbs along the perimeter, vertical diamond structures recalling the facade of the Old National Theatre (and echoing Wild Rice’s own diamond references to it in their walls), while an arc of musical notes hangs above the wooden backdrop, resulting in a set design that takes audiences on a throwback to the halcyon days Zubir Said was active.
This overarching mood and throwback to the heyday of Singapore’s past extends even to the costuming, where Frederick Lee has outfitted the performers in nostalgic period clothing, such as the coordinated maroon suits donned by the four-piece band (electric bassist Din Safari, acoustic guitarist Leonard Mikhail, percussionist Riduan Zalani, and cellist Ryan Sim), and the golden sarong kebayas and sequinned slippers worn by the female vocalists. Julian Wong himself wears a crisp white blazer, complete with a red carnation corsage and black bowtie, and as we’re heralded by a jaunty opening number (Selamat Berjumpa Lagi/Pulang Merantau), our vocalists performing a joget as they sing, it feels as if we have been transported to a cabaret, about to witness an intimate, celebratory set.
Over the course of the evening, we are presented with a series of songs that showcases the range and diversity of Zubir Said’s compositions, taking us from the innocent, wide-eyed wonder of when he first arrived in Singapore (Singapura Permai), to sentimental, romantic duets featured in blockbuster films (Bintang Hati), and even a children’s ditty teaching listeners about antonyms in the Malay language (Kata Berlawan). The sheer variety is enough to prove that Zubir Said isn’t just ‘Mr Mari Kita’, but the show goes beyond showcasing this sample of his work to tell the tale of how one man’s dreams came to define a nation, and influenced the life of one acclaimed music director.
In leading Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita, Julian confidently takes centrestage in front of the piano. Poised and comfortable, Julian’s eyes shine with pride as he takes the time between numbers to regale us with a detailed biography of Zubir’s life, gleaned from long hours of research at the library. In speaking to us, his running commentary is observant, witty, and heartfelt, sharing not just historical fact, but peppering it with wit, sighing as he references the way kids would mangle song lyrics in school, or conveying the sadness Zubir felt when his songs were banned from national radio. Through his storytelling, Julian brings to life Zubir Said’s personality across his struggles and achievements over the years.
But what makes Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita so unique is how personal and sincere Julian makes this story, educating us not only of Zubir Said’s long artistic journey, but also the legacy and lessons inherited by Julian. Sharing anecdotes of his own time as a teacher at ITE, Julian displays a firm dedication to music through his fervent quest for knowledge and understanding. This is evident from the sparkle in his eyes when he shares his enthusiasm over discovering little books of music and newspaper clippings during his research, and even his commitment to learning Malay so that he would understand his students better, taking night classes after work and surprising them with his fluency later on.
It is this same knowledge that would also unwittingly allow him to better appreciate the poetry and poignance of Zubir Said’s songs, making him a better musician, teacher and person. He tells us of the surprise and appreciation from a Peranakan family when he is to perform for a funeral, knowing exactly how to play the deceased’s favourite song – Zubir Said’s ‘Sayang Disayang’ on violin, and giving the family a suitable send-off. Each time he takes to the piano, there is emotion that courses through his fingers, while his voice rings clear and strong, not only hitting the notes, but also capturing the essence and meaning behind each word. In ‘Suhanna’, a song Zubir Said wrote for his granddaughter, one does not need to know Malay to simply feel the love Julian brings out from his performance of both the lyrics and melody.
And as a teacher, Julian carries Zubir Said’s legacy well, radiating with pride for all those that have persevered and flourished under his tutelage. This is clear with how he beams when he introduces his former students performing alongside him onstage – vocalists Hannah Nordin, Malcolm Lim, and Rohaniah Sa’id, and acoustic guitarist Leonard Mikhail. Each time they are featured, Julian takes a step back and allows them to be in the spotlight and shine, all smiles onstage and connecting with us via eye contact. With Hafeez Hassan’s choreography, the performers are given just the right amount of movement to accompany each number, bringing out the joy and sentimentality of each song, complementing and never overshadowing the focus on the music.
It wouldn’t be a Zubir Said tribute without ‘Majulah Singapura’, but Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita manages to avoid using it as an easy crutch to milk emotion, and instead presents it tactfully and thoughtfully. Towards the end of the revue, Julian introduces the song in its original form as the City Council theme song, with an upbeat, jazzy melody and different lyrics, cheery in his singing and playing. But as he transitions into speech, he tells us of its significance as a tiny prayer of hope for a better age, and how, with slight edits, it then came to be chosen as the perfect song for our anthem. There is no big choral performance, no forced singing – only the silence of the theatre, before it is broken by a piano rendition of ‘Majulah Singapura’. Nobody sings out loud, allowing the melody to wash over us, but in our hearts, we are all singing in unison, those lyrics we’ve learnt since our earliest schooldays, and for a moment, we are one.
For the final song of the evening, Julian decides on Children’s Day song ‘Semoga Bahagia’. But rather than just seeing it as a celebration of youth, Julian draws our attention to the second line ‘pandai cari pelajaran’, which roughly translates to a hope that we aspire towards seeking knowledge. Just as how Zubir Said found the strength in him to leave home and find his calling in Singapore, just as how Julian pursues the story of ‘Pak Zubir’ and learns all he can about him and his music, ‘Semoga Bahagia’ is elevated to become a spell and a blessing, carrying with it the hope that we leave the theatre tonight en route to happier days.
We think back to Zubir Said’s rise from humble kampung boy to esteemed composer, facing seemingly insurmountable odds at multiple steps in his journey, yet possessing the resolve and perseverance to continue chasing his dreams. In hearing his story, we now know him as an underdog, internally cheering him on as we learn how he overcame hurdle after hurdle, and eventually, found success. And in the same way, after two years of the pandemic, we too might consider how we should make the most of our brief time on Earth, to live with no regrets as we go forth and do it all. This is a sincere tribute and celebration of Zubir Said’s life, his legacy’s torch burning bright through Julian Wong, passed down from teacher to student. And now in this theatre, all this knowledge and passion and love passed down to us, a little prayer to keep chasing our dreams, and boldly live the life we want.
Photo Credit: Wild Rice
Don’t Call Him Mr Mari Kita played from 7th to 26th July 2022 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Listen to the original cast recording on Spotify