One Small Voice: Louis Soliano

Published on 26 March 2017

Singapore jazz legend Louis Soliano improvises life and music.

By Melanie Lee

I grew up in a family of professional musicians.

I was taught piano and violin since the age of five, but I was more interested in playing games. However, when I was 14, I accompanied my dad, a multi-instrumentalist, to a studio recording for a silent movie at Jalan Ampas. It was there that I fell in love with drumming after I heard the drummer playing.

With that interest, my father showed me how to play the drums, and how it can be the loudest and softest instrument at the same time. I would practise at home, and the neighbours would complain about how noisy I was. By 16, I was already playing professionally in places such as the Cathay Restaurant, Golden Venus Bar, and Seaview Hotel.

In 1966, I was working with my Uncle Alfonso Soliano’s band at Chao Phya Hotel in Bangkok. There was an American officers’ club at the hotel and I was spotted by an American entertainment agent. He offered me a gig to perform at American military bases in Vietnam for US$700 a week. I thought that was a good pay, but it was only when I got there that I found out that we would have to perform three shows a night at each military base — that meant 21 shows in a week!

In the three years I was in Vietnam, I was always on the road travelling from one base to another. Gunshots were heard daily everywhere, and I had to carry a revolver myself for protection. Sometimes, when we played, we could hear heavy shelling and gunshots in the background. But we were young — we had energy and were not afraid of anything.

Today, I’m a father of four and a grandfather of six. Many of my friends have passed away and some are in old folks’ homes. I thank God that I’m still able to live another day doing what I love. I keep trying to grow myself. I hope to do a big-band concert in the future, working with young musicians in Singapore. I’m so glad to see how jazz here has grown with all this new talent.

At the end of the day, I hope that the great songs I bring to my audiences take them back to a special time or place in their lives.

Photos: Louis Soliano

Seventy-five-year-old jazz veteran Louis Soliano has been performing drums and vocals for 60 years in Singapore and around the world. He is considered one of the top drummers in this region and his vocal style is often compared to that of Johnny Hartman and Nat King Cole. Soliano has played alongside many famous musicians, including Stan Getz, Lea Salonga, Matt Monro and Anita O’Day. In 1997, he took home the Artistic Excellence Award by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS) and in 2014, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Singapore International Jazz Festival. He released his solo album Improm2 in 2004.

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