Patriotic musical notes

ALTHOUGH the buzz right now is sport because of the SEA Games (and perhaps more on that properly next week), it’s also been an incredibly busy month for many in the musical world. Certainly, I’ve never played so many concerts in such a short space of time as in the last three weeks.

Music (particularly in the classical tradition) doesn’t arouse the same boisterous displays of patriotism as sport does, particularly since one doesn’t usually wear one’s flag when playing music; but still, the right repertoire can trigger an equally profound sense of love to the nation in the listener.

For the players, though, the physical and emotional connection to their instrument is as crucial as that between an athlete and their apparatus (whether it be a racquet, pole or gymnastics mat). Every action of the fingers, hands, arms, feet, lungs, and vocal chords matters intensely not just to the performer but to the end result enjoyed by the audience.

The Strings Competition organised by the Seremban-based Euroasia Association of Performing Arts has been running for five years and this time, more than 500 participants from around the country took part. The culmination was a concert where the winners were announced, and I was very pleased that the second winner of the Patron’s Prize was, entirely based on the assessment of independent judges, another member of the Arioso Sinfonia from Seremban, with whom I performed the second movement of Bach’s ‘Double Violin Concerto in D minor’. The next day saw the close of the Kuala Lumpur Piano Festival, jointly presented by the Euroasia Association and the Malaysian Youth Orchestra Foundation, which also saw overwhelming demand compared to the number of places available.

For the parents in the audience their main concern was the achievements of their children, but as the diplomats and academics in the audience noted, it is comforting to know that despite tough economic conditions, the pursuit of music as an integral part of life (rather than as an intended vocation) among young Malaysians seems stronger than ever.

The practical application of it to the hearts and minds of Malaysians was seen in the subsequent two concerts I was asked to perform in.

The first was the musical soiree organised by the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE). This NGO is well known among civil society activists as an active, if comparatively conservative (in the best Merdeka-era sense of the word) one. Its president Datuk Halimah Said asked me to play a programme, which I began with ‘Negara Ku’ and Tan Sri Ahmad Merican’s ‘Tanah Pusaka’ (arranged by Datuk Johari Salleh), a reminder that as a musician there is nothing more electrifying than having a respectful audience join in to accompany you. I was followed by brilliant four-part harmony renditions of patriotic songs that should become standard fare in schools up and down the country – but alas, that’s not a priority in many schools (often through no fault of the school itself, though).

The second was a fundraising charity dinner in aid of the National Kidney Foundation organised by the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (where I’m a trustee).

The Choir of Gonville & Cauis College of the University of Cambridge (already in the country as part of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s 20th Season) provided the entertainment, and I was extremely humbled (and equally nervous) to perform with them the world premiere of ‘Anyaman’ – a weaving of three Malaysian folk songs (‘Eh Wau Buleh’, ‘Lenggang Kangkung’ and ‘Gelang si paku Gelang’) composed by my musical teacher and mentor Yew-Boon Chong. (The video is on my Instagram.)

And then unexpectedly, at the beginning of the Malaysian Public Policy Competition at Sunway University the ensuing weekend, there was a technical glitch that halted the ‘Negara Ku’ recording midway. But everyone in the audience kept singing the national anthem anyway (rather tunefully too).

As I mentioned in my welcoming speech, that’s an apt metaphor for how many people feel about the country. Although there are glitches in how our country seems to operate sometimes, most of us still want to be patriotic. Uplifting events like the SEA Games are important to remind us of the need to be come together despite our differences (and to bask in the glory of our seemingly unassailable lead in the medal tally), but even then, our national anthem serves as the moment were we ultimately let rip our emotions.

The story of our national anthem will also feature at ‘Jalan Merdeka’, an exhibition about Malaya’s many routes towards independence, throughout September at Carcosa and Seri Negara.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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