By Beverly Grafton
In an effort to begin to unravel Singapore's Jazz scene, I interviewed maestro Jeremy Monteiro as my starting point last week, with the promise that I'd continue this journey forward with the sultry songstress, Jacintha Abisheganaden. I posed the same questions to her and here's what she had to say.
Beverly Grafton (BG): What made you realize music was your calling?
Jacintha Abisheganaden (JA): I was used to media exposure, what with the live radio shows with audiences at Mediacorp at 11-12 years old and hosting my (the) first teenage tv show at 16, called “In and around” for Mediacorp. I also had my singing group called The Accidentals (as in music sharps and flats) and did music variety items (a lot of Sergio Mendez) on Tv at 15.
As these were commercial productions, you couldn’t mess up and that's why people liked us. We took on New Years Eve Specials for the station along with Dick and the Gang (Dick,his sister and three brothers).
The rule at home was "ace your studies and you’ll get music on the side". This was all through French, Art, Swimming, Singapore Youth Choir Piano exams, music theory exams and a slew of Speech and Drama courses with Trinity Board London and Dance. At dance I took ballet, jazz and oriental. Ironically I first represented State in Dance with Rose Eberwein when I was 12 at the PATA Conference: Pacific Asia (something ) Alliance. That I’m used to a lot of stress is a result of this kind of hothousing which my parents did. At some point I even managed to fit in riding horses.
By the time I got to RI (Raffles Institution), I’d met Dick Lee and was regularly singing his compositions for him. That led to a lot of other collab work. It was good that he went to London to study fashion or I may not have finished Uni!
By then, I’d won the National Talentime and became involved in theatre. The call was strong from early teens but I’d distinguished a commercial music career from a normal one. In my family it was not an option to be a Musician. Music was a prize, Life was first about staying in the system by learning as much as you could.
My parents were both educationists with my Mum being a lecturer of pre-school at The Teachers Training College and later an Inspector Of Schools and my Dad was a group Inspector of Schools. Mum was an activist for International Planned Parenthood whilst Dad started music as a CCA for all schools together with Dr.Goh Keng Swee.
I actually became a journalist with The Straits Times after I graduated with an honours degree in English Literature (American Lit). I guess I kind of trained myself from an early age to be multidisciplinary because I understood serious fun (you can sing it, you’re beaming from Caldecott Hill. Fine)
BG: Did you face the same stigma other musicians do from relatives and peers telling you to get a real job when you were starting out?
JA: I got a real job when I was starting out actually. At SPH. As a writer with the lifestyle desk, I sat right next to Richard Lim, a very close Friend of Jimmy Wee, WEA. It was in fact Richard, who introduced me to Jimmy.
Also, I have never believed in stigmas nor peer pressure. Although if I did, it would not have stopped a single thing I’ve done to date.
BG: When did you make the decision to focus on jazz and what transpired to bring you to that decision?
JA: The jazz formula worked for winning the Talentime: always work with what you’re given. We won with a live orchestra and big band under the baton of Ahmad Jaffar. I liked the songs and understood the stylings although I subsisted (listened to) on pop.
I knew early on that I could tell a story with songs because Dick would write 20 new songs a week, sit there and make me learn each line and then he’d want to hear the whole song. Every Saturday afternoon.
I made 4 intruiging pop recordings with WEA, Wave Records Japan and Springroll Records before arriving at recording jazz. Between the first pop recording and the first jazz recording I’d moved from Singapore to America and back to Singapore again. I was also in back to back theatre productions and musicals with Theatreworks. I then decided to take on my second full time job in my late thirties by acting full time for Mediacorp in the English Programmes Unit.
I must say, my mentor Jeremy Monteiro kept calling me back to the table to cook jazz all through my twenties and thirties and to have musicians of this caliber playing with you...you’d want to eat this food forever. It was deep, delicious, hysterical and epic all at once!
But to record it was another magical prize the Universe bestowed on me. I got to go to Hollywood, I got to not compromise my fussy non colonial values because my boss of GrooveNote Records is Singaporean, I got to meet Stevie Wonder and how was it done? My acting friend, Lim Kay Tong, whom
I’d started Theatreworks with, gave a demo with Rick Smith on it to Ying. On the demo, were 4 classic jazz tunes recorded in a studio in Taiwan when I’d gone to sing for a Sing Tourism gig.
I quickly quit Television, landed a marriage proposal after I’d quit and went to Hollywood to record “ Here’s to Ben”
My work has been a result of successful relationships with great musicians, directors, creators and Curators. I value these people, Dick Lee, Jeremy Monteiro, Sydney Tan, Ying Tan, Ong Keng Sen, Iskandar Ismail, Lim Sek and Mishal Varma, probably more than I do the body of work they’ve given me. And all I could bring with each one was that if I was in the room with them, I’m giving you a thousand percent of myself and whatever-I-don’t-know-I-have, I’ll find that and give it to you to. The bond for me is not for sale. The Record is.
BG: What do you think of the local Jazz scene now and compared to back then?
JA: The local jazz scene is brimming with a lot of new talent. If they don’t love the historic genre of the American Songbook of Jazz as much as I did and want to write their own stuff, that's ok. We need as much fresh experimentation as possible. I worry, like me, they’ll have to juggle working three to four jobs to keep their portfolios. Also, the business still rests with getting a label before you can stream music which provides you with legit royalties.
The way I did anything was to include as many friends in it to experience the joy. This is how I approached starting Theatreworks. It was born from a visceral need and longing to have local writing and voices heard.
When I joined TV it was exciting to literally create local original content for English programmes. 4 actors were chosen, Gurmit, Chieng Mun Koh, myself and Ng Chin Han. Gurmit became the local emblem of Mediacorp. Chin Han went on to act in Batman and has a career in Hollywood. Chieng Mun was pivotal in Crazy Rich Asians and I chose to quietly lead a jazz comeback in the Audiophile world.
We have some systems in place at last with Jeremy’s JASSO and with the allowance of studying jazz in schools. Music literacy always elevates a country’s GDP. The Arts always does.
Jazz is the difference of your spin on it. A lot of pop is derivative and age centric because it was of that time. Jazz is also the “classical” music of the 20th century. Its not an old but new form. It took Singapore a Long, Long time to recognise and loosen its grip from only funding classical music. The scene today should be as pushy as possible to put jazz on the Map and to record it as palatably as they feel for their generation.
BG: What's the direction you foresee our scene taking in the near future as well as further down the line?
JA: With who we are and what we have, "a vibrant scene" is very nice to say if you’re the Minister of Tourism but it is not going to consistently put food on the table or allow you to have a family for the individuals who are busting their gut trying to stay afloat in the arts or music. After my fourth decade of working consistently in Singapore, I can still count very few had families with children.
I, myself, put my money in property.
Its not “where I live, I live in the music” but that is the fact of my existence in the most expensive city in the world. I still believe that if it can be your muse and not your master, the music will thrive. You will thrive; because unfortunately the soft core values with or without technology have survived, so that the country can keep its portfolios but the individual artists have suffered.
BG: Do you believe we already have or will have what we can uniquely call Singapore Jazz?
JA: We do have a uniquely Singapore Jazz Scene. I find it extremely p.c. and a bit bloodless if you ask me but the costs of any production up until the pandemic have been prohibitive. We toe the line, we sing nice. We remember our Singapore politeness. It doesn’t make for phenomes like Miles Davis or Billie Holiday but we are an extremely undysfunctional society. We thrive on functionality, punctuality, cleanliness and results. So, if this is the way our unique jazz is going, I say bring it on; it will make for more jobs, more shows and maybe down the line one or two more babies.
I believe in democracy for the arts. Democracy for music. I believe in a system that not only values the healthcare and livelihood of musicians but could possibly make it trusted (justice) equal i.e. paid equitably and prosperous from cradle to grave, not just for show but for real lives lived and invested here. I may be riffing from our Pledge but I want it to not just work for the next generations, but to also work for the content to SING, to resonate with a new world beset by health pandemics, climate change and a new, new-normal of non prescription jobs.
Jacintha, with one of the biggest influences in my life, Stevie Wonder
You know, after an interview like that, I start to wonder why we don't have more women in Parliament like our very own Renaissance woman, Jacintha Abisheganaden. Truly one of a kind, she would be the best choice to speak on behalf of the music scene.