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Interview: TENG Ensemble

The TENG Ensemble tell us how they’re putting a spin on four local folk and patriotic tunes for their first major concert

TENG Ensemble
TENG Ensemble
By Rebecca Liew |

How many times have you heard ‘Chan Mali Chan’? Probably too many to remember – but we’re willing to bet you’ve never heard them the TENG Ensemble way. The local crossover group is putting together its first major performance, entitled Stories from an Island City, that puts a grown-up twist to these familiar folk and patriotic songs. The sextet combine the sheng (a woodwind instrument), pipa (a stringed instrument), cello, guitar, vocals and electronics – not to mention dance and visuals – to tell ten tales set in Singapore, led by theatre director Glen Goei. Three members of the group tell us more about what these tunes mean to them.

'Fusion' (based on 'Chan Mali Chan')

Yang Ji Wei (sheng): Most Singaporeans are familiar with ‘Chan Mali Chan’, so reworking this piece as a sheng solo was a real test of my musical abilities. I spent several weeks improvising so that it would suit the overall mood and theme of the song. I’ve also included a snippet of the original ‘Chan Mali Chan’ melody in the middle of ‘Fusion’, so the audience can note the contrast between the original and new versions of the song.

'Storm War' (based on 'Munnaeru Vaalibaa')

Samuel Wong (pipa): ‘Munnaeru Vaalibaa’ was written in 1966 by former Raffles Institution teacher, S Jesudassan, who described the piece as ‘a rally call for the youth to strive and reach out for the sky’. We decided to use the unique ability of the pipa to pitch bend to emulate [certain sounds in] Indian music. This is our re-creation of the traditional song, blended with metal influences.

Photo: Ejun Low, The Fullerton Heritage

'Departures' (based on 'Di Tanjong Katong' and 'Suriram')

Wong: We wanted a piece to flesh out the idea of loss and leaving. ‘Di Tanjong Katong’, which was written by Osman Ahmad in the 1900s, features a chorus that speaks of yearning and longing for love, while ‘Suriram’, believed to be written in the 1400s, speaks of a mother pining for her child. 

'The Little White Boat' (paired with 'The More We Get Together') 

Wong: ‘The More We Get Together’ was adapted by the British from the 1679 Viennese tune ‘Ach, du Lieber Augustin’. We combined this with Korean children’s song ‘The Little White Boat’ to create our take on both songs. We wanted to juxtapose a Western and Eastern piece to show how both pieces have become localised and sung by Singaporeans.

Gerald Teo (Cello): We used ‘The Little White Boat’ for our first music video, and it was a huge production. We filmed under the hot afternoon sun in suits – it was hard work, but the final product was absolutely gorgeous.