Sing It, Mean It!

Last weekend my chamber choir performed an enactment of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a traditional Christian service format. We were asked, recently, if we wanted to participate in the upcoming December 25th Christmas Open House at the field opposite Amcorp Mall.

A Malaysia Open House happens for six major festivals: Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Gawai (Sarawak’s harvest festival) and Kaamatan (Sabah’s). The Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage manages these events (but to know more, its website links you elsewhere). This is the entry for the Christmas Open House, found on the Tourism Malaysia page:

With the exception of snow, the Christmas spirit certainly prevails in Malaysia. As elsewhere, Christmas here celebrate the occasion with Christmas trees, gifts and attending church services plus generous doses of Malaysian warmth and hospitality. [sic]

On December 11th, a article carried the heading:

Rev Lim: Excluding carols with Jesus’s name is scandalous

The clergyman here is Rev Father OC Lim, director of the Catholic Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. His statement is in response to an unofficial directive issued from the government to ban Christian religious symbols that specifically mention Jesus Christ at the aforementioned Open House. This prohibits ‘hymns like Silent Night, the Nativity scene, carols, and all religious symbols and biblical phrases’. The government, it is said, wants “nothing that insults Islam” during the event. This is not unrelated to the following:

The Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

I attended a Dewan Philharmonik Petronas press conference on November 6th. The Monteverdi Choir from UK, regarded as the choral group for period music, particularly period religious music, was going to perform Purcell’s music from The Tempest, and Dido And Aeneas, two secular works. The performance that and the following night will be conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who founded the choir. When asked why they weren’t going to perform any of Bach’s cantatas (the choir had performed The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, singing all 198 surviving pieces in churches throughout Europe), Sir Gardiner replied: We were told not to perform religious music.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is a Knight Commander of the British Empire (for a distinguished service to music; the Beatles are Members) and has won more Gramophones (the most significant honour in the classical recording industry) than anyone else; the Monteverdi Choir celebrates its 40th year this year. The autograph line after Monday night’s performance ran down the stairs.

During intermission that night, after about an hour of music from The Tempest, I was in bad need of coffee. Hearing Ariel sing “Full fathom five my father lies,” I had watched the person beside me slip into sleep by degrees. It is strange that Purcell was a Restoration composer; one would have assumed more debauchery in the post-Cromwell age than chaste monotony.

I didn’t need the coffee. Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s only opera and possibly his most expressive piece of music, was performed on a small grey platform around which the English Baroque Soloists (arguably the period orchestra) were arranged, while the titular couple went off ‘hunting’ stage right. I forgot my programme that night, and being a rube I did not know Dido (Renata Pokupic) was queen of Carthage or Paul Tindall’s drunk character a sailor; most words, though in English, were lost to me.

I was quite moved, nevertheless. Well, a large part of this was due to the Sorceress (Frances Bourne, cavorting evilly with her Witches, very sexy); but I was transfixed as the tragedy unfolded. When Ms. Pokupic sang her final lament-whatever it was she said – I felt it, and I left the hall feeling intensely sad.

The Canticle Singers – The Season of Light – A Christmas Musical

The first time he is asked about religious music Sir Gardiner turns to his choir-members, saying: “I think we all agree that our personal religious beliefs are irrelevant.” The implication is that a performer transcends overt creeds in the music and roots for the universally human instead.

Malaysia’s Canticle Singers, however, believe that:

“Only one who has personally experienced Christ’s redemptive work can have a harmonious life that produces a true song upon one’s lips. Such a person should desire to proclaim that same message as effectively as possible to share this joy with others.” (from the programme book)

Members of Canticle Singers are all practising Christians by design. The choir is evangelical in nature, but deftly avoid legal shenanigans by advertising with the caveat “Admission Is By Invitation Only”. Admission costs were RM30. Theirs is a music ‘ministry’; during The Season of Light – A Christmas Musical, held on December 4th and 5th at First Baptist Church, the ‘congregation’ was invited to join in at certain points. A large number of the audience had brought their Bibles.

Artistic director Chin San Sooi (known for the many restagings of Emily of Emerald Hill and a founding member of Five Arts) appears to have taken a minimalist approach: no costumes, Sunday School narration, a backdrop projection of different nativity paintings, sunrise, and what seemed to be the hyperspace effect from Star Wars films.

The Canticle Singers have obvious talent: dulcet Praveen Abraham has performed solo since pre-pubescence and Elvira Arul is a gospel choir all by herself. They have obvious conviction: Michelle Ho, singing Mary’s ‘Tiny Hand In Mine’ tears and falters at her last few notes – the music director assured me it was unplanned.

I’m still unsure about this sort of conviction. I grew up in a Christian family and have a weakness for hymns, but my primary source of entertainment that night was watching my non-Christian friend slouch uncomfortably in his pew. Both of us had problems accepting church services masquerading as concerts.

The Christmas Open House

On December 12th, an article in the New Straits Times carried the heading:

No Ban on Christian hymns at Open House

In which Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim said: “There is nothing wrong in singing songs such as Silent Night and Merry Christmas. These are joyous songs sang for the festival.” The article cites ‘assumptions made over protocol for functions involving the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the Prime Minister, who are expected to grace the occasion’.

This issue brings to attention something that fascinates me: the capacity for religious communities to immediately assume oppression from without while failing, simultaneously, to acknowledge their own crusades and inevitable oppression of other communities.

The Christmas Open House concern is made up of Muslim fear for the integrity of its adherents and Christian fear of the state curtailing its activity, in equal parts. Both faiths draw a line between them and everyone else: Christianity’s Us vs. the World, Islam’s Ummah vs. the Infidels. And while I’ll concede that censoring ‘Jesus’ in a carol or Bach cantata borders on the insane; were the factions reversed, ‘Muhammad’ would be viewed with no less suspicion. Raihan’s music is described as Dakwah, which means ‘sermon’ as a noun and ‘preach’ as a verb, a person with a radio would have likely been preached to. The Canticle Singers use sing-along hymns as a conversion tool, even if you have to pay to be converted.

Both actions – censorship and exploitation – unconsciously acknowledge the inherent power of music, in this instance choral music. A choir resembles a congregational prayer at a church or mosque: it brings a community together in a shared conviction that they are God’s Chosen People. Churches, mosques and many religious institutions do not consider everyone God’s Chosen People – or, rather, you are only a God-Chosen Person if you sing their songs, and only their songs. And mean it.

The Young KL Singers – Beat It, Sing It!

The YKLS is an ongoing choir camp. Getting in is not difficult (you don’t even have to read music), and you learn fun stuff: previous productions showcase Roger & Hammerstein, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables. The choir is often described by its members as a family- and the family is large: Beat It, Sing It!, its latest production, had 48 singers, 5 percussionists (guest group Rhumba Nusa), and two dancers.

I had fun at Beat It, Sing It!: the choir was obviously having a good time, with their rousing Mongolian and Zulu pieces; urging us to buy bananas and papayas at the Latin American marketplace; pulling us, their final-day audiences (it was December 5th) to come on-stage and jig to a calypso with them – it was difficult not to stand up and clap along.

The choir field-tripped to the last two Rainforest World Music Festivals; Susanna pointed this out as inspiration in her programme notes. The production aimed ‘to return to the very roots of each culture in order to fully understand its music’.

I was suspicious of this; it sounded like World Music. Paul Simon’s Graceland album, released in 1986, is marked as a vital event for World Music as a marketing definition; the record gave South African a cappella chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo worldwide recognition; it may also be argued that Simon used their sounds as mere backdrops to his own interests. Domestication to market forces, as it were: Graceland was a huge success.

But World Music is inherently inauthentic – between here and there something is lost. Sometimes it is just how much effort one takes to mask the credit card’s plastic-ness; and I’m not convinced that the YKLS did enough. Right before ‘A Glimpse of Malaysia’, a medley of Malaysian traditional tunes, six choir-members appeared in black dress and gold trimming for a ‘Sumazau Dance’, and it was at this point I felt most like a tourist, at the Tadau Kaamatan Malaysian Open House, marvelling at Truly Asian ‘ethnic’ flavour.

The Open House calendar was originally conceived under the Ministry while it was still Arts, Culture and Tourism, and the angle to which each festival is approached has not changed: short and sweet. ‘Christmas trees, gifts and attending church services’ – in a few words, this is what Christians celebrate. A few words also describe Muslims, Hindus, the Chinese, the lbans, the Kadazan-Dusuns: a half-dozen neat little sightseeing package. We are still tourists in our own country. Malaysian culture offends us so profoundly we revel in artificial pine trees.


Zedeck Siew sings a tentative tenor with Cantus Musicus.

First Published: 22.12.2004 on Kakiseni

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