Major Player!

Published on 23 December 2014

Superstars Jay Chou and Wang Leehom can manipulate multiple instruments with ease. So can these young local musicians who play everything from the drums to the dizi.

TEXT BY JO TAN

Amid the pop world’s proliferation of starlets who can barely hold a tune, much less play an instrument, Taiwan has produced at least two megastar musical prodigies who can play everything from the guitar to the guzheng. One is Mandopop king Jay Chou, whose knowledge of over 10 instruments, including the piano, guitar, fiddle, cello, guzheng, pipa, erhu, jazz drum, banjo and even sitar has helped him pioneer his famous China Wind genre of music — a fusion of pop, rock or R&B with traditional Chinese instrumentation and influences. Fans can expect him to bust out his de rigueur instrumental solo during his Singapore concert on 27 Dec because the man can.

Then there’s Wang Leehom and his unique style that fuses hip-hop with Chinese instruments and sounds, including those of tribal ethnic minorities. Other than being the only singer to be crowned Best Male Singer twice at Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards, Wang also plays some nine instruments (and counting) including the violin, piano, drums, harmonica, guitar, flute, erhu, guzheng and zhongruan.

Wang and Chou may hog the headlines when it comes to Asia’s talent quota, but Singapore too, has its stellar young multi-instrumental maestros who are using their musical skills to forge their own new frontiers. Singer-songwriter Tay Kewei has sung and played the erhu at Wang’s concerts. She has also performed at the concerts of A-Mei, JJ Lin and David Tao and is equally handy on the violin, piano, ukulele and guitar.

“I learnt the erhu by playing in the school orchestra from primary to secondary school, as well as in my dad’s orchestra. When I auditioned to be backing vocalist in David’s world tour, playing the erhu definitely gave me an edge above the others!”

Tay, an international recording artist and multiple nominee/winner at the Singapore Hit Awards, doesn’t just use her instrumental skills for backup — she creates her own originals too. “I played quite a bit of erhu for the songs in my latest album Turn Back and Smile. Also, the nine songs I wrote in that album were definitely inspired by my tinkling on instruments.”

Benjamin Kheng, member of award-winning folk-pop band The Sam Willows, is another talented musical all-rounder from our shores. “For a songwriter, knowing only one instrument is like going to war with a Swiss Army knife. Even if you are niche and only write with a guitar and overly-reverbed vocal track, expanding your musical knowledge will healthily affect your creative direction,” says the dapper player of the piano, guitar, drums, cajon, bass and banjo. He also admits to having a “passable knowledge” of the ukulele and violin. “You learn to serve the music first and ego second. It also helps break down writer’s block by simply writing from another instrument.”

Singapore’s young multi-instrumentalists include those who aren’t frontmen but background creators. Benjamin Lim Yi composes scores for several international movies and stage productions, as well as being the resident composer of Singaporean Chinese instrumentalist collective The Teng Ensemble.

“As a composer you’re usually trained to write for quite a variety of instruments so of course, it’s a bonus to know some of them intimately, to write for them appropriately,” he says. “I started playing the Chinese sheng (a reed pipe mouth organ) at the age of 15 in my secondary school’s Chinese Orchestra. Then I learnt to play guitar, keyboards, and now also dabble in lots of other wind, percussion and keyboard instruments.

“The world is such a myriad of wonderful musical cultures of which the western classical tradition is but one. Thanks to my diverse musical training, my composing style is not confined by subconscious adherence to any particular one tradition. I’ve never had to grapple with issues of identity that bog some young composers. It’s simply been fun introducing audiences to the amazing sounds of instruments that are not commonly heard.”

There’s also sassy twentysomething Julian Wong, musical arranger for multiple local stage productions and composer for several events including this year’s Countdown to 2015 fireworks display. He’s adept on the piano and violin, plays “a bit” of viola, has taken classes in cello, guitar, dizi and Afro-Caribbean percussion. “I played the clarinet for two years until a friend told me a rude joke before a concert. I laughed so hard, I was unable to get through four bars of my piece. The audience was not amused,” he chuckles.

While he believes it’s useful for composers to know more than one instrument, Wong studies them just for the love of it. “I want to learn a brass instrument so when I write a brass-heavy arrangement, I don’t have to depend so much on my colleagues to tell me if something is playable or interesting. But I also want to learn the gambus (Malay traditional lute) because I was recently invited to play at the Bulan Bahasa 2014, where leading musicians from the Malay music scene coached me in playing traditional and popular Malay music. It just inspired me to learn more.

“I will always want to learn new instruments. The first time I saw a live orchestra, I was 10 years old. Maestro Iskandar Ismail conducted and I was personally introduced to each family of the orchestra. I was transfixed. I wanted to learn to play them all, because I loved every sound.”

Jay Chou’s concert, Opus 2 Jay 2014 World Tour, plays at the National Stadium on
27 Dec. 

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