Saidah! the Phenomenon

“Next time I say I want to do something like that [M! the Opera], please bang me on the head, will you?” says Saidah Rastam. We are in Scat Productions. Her show opens in two weeks and she is busy putting together a tape to make up for the fact that many of her musicians cannot be present at the show — the Istana Budaya musicians have just been told they have to be in Sabah during those dates.

Fired up, but still talking in her usual carefully thought out sentences, Saidah is clearly happy: she has written the music that has been in her head for two years now, music that is completely new and that blends all of the sounds of Malaysia. It is a music she wants to offer her country.

The show opens this week and she has pulled together a show that until three months ago had no financing.  This alone has been a testimony to her tenacity  (her husband says she was a good lawyer —  “she never lets go”), her contagious passion (the cast had no guarantee of being paid) and her deep, solid friendships —  long time friend Chacko Vadaketh took on the thankless task of producing the show, librettist Jit Murad wrote most of the script and Jo Kukathas stepped in as director after two other directors fell through.

At 42, the petite lady often seen in baju kurung has certainly achieved much in the ten years since she left law.

She is now much in demand, with jobs that will keep her busy until the end of the year. Among those: music for a cabaret show at The Esplanade, Singapore in July (her biggest show ever), and soundtrack for Susuk, Amir Muhammad’s next film. Her music has been performed in contemporary concerts in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and Japan.

But it wasn’t always so easy and glamorous.

She studied law, as her father was opposed to her studying music, and practiced at Skrine and Co. During her pupilage under James Puthucheary, a famous advocate, trade unionist and opposition politician, she found law very exciting “because it wasn’t just law. It was about fights, about politics, people did all sorts of idealistic things.” But with the legal crisis in 1987 and growing corruption in the judiciary came disillusionment. She started to play the piano at jazz and cabaret shows and co-produced them.

She let her feisty, idealistic and arty streak express itself when she became one of the founders of The Instant Café Theatre Company in 1989, which became known for its bitingly honest political and social satire. She was its first music director.

She finally summoned enough courage to quit law in 1996 to “do music — whatever that meant,” only to find that no Malaysian college would take her as a music student. She then worked for two years composing music for commercials and corporate videos for Scat Productions, a music production house. Says Michael Veerapen, director of Scat and established jazz pianist, about why he hired her: “musicians and arrangers, you get plenty of those, but composers, now that’s rare.”

Her attempts at a formal education in composition stopped there, apart from a summer workshop at New York University. It seems writing music just came naturally — “that’s why I’m a poor sight reader [at piano], because it’s easier to make it up!”

However she is very grateful for her two years at Scat. It taught her to follow a brief and deliver promptly, while exposing her to music she would never have chosen to listen to, helping her do away with the notion that music was “a precious arty sort of thing.” Instead, she learned to play with sounds and became totally enamoured with computer sound design and collaging, with which more traditional composers might not be so familiar.

When she left Scat she was in an enviable position — she could afford to be choosy about her projects even while her husband “brought home the bacon”. More work came in as she developed a reputation for artistic integrity and high standards. Commissions included soundtracks for films, including Amir Muhammad’s Lips to Lips, music for plays and musical theatre pieces such as Instant Café Theatre’s Pulau Antara (Kuala Lumpur, 2001), Huzir Sulaiman’s Occupation (Singapore Arts Festival, 2002) and Toy Factory’s Spirits (Singapore Arts Festival, 2005).

Her style evolved and became more avant-garde. The music for Jit Murad’s The Storyteller (1996) combined gamelan and angklung with synthesizers and tape, and “Scintillations” (1997) blended jazz and Indian classical styles. She composed for Rhythm in Bronze’s gamelan ensemble, for the Malaysian Chinese Professional Cultural Chinese Orchestra and explored as many different traditional styles as possible. At the same time she would listen to Frank Zappa, Bela Bartok, Edgar Varese… “Saidah’s perspective is quite international and she is very aware of how her music has to measure up in terms of quality against other forms of new music around the world”, says Australia-based music director Roland Peelman.

Feisty, sometimes cerebral, whimsical, adventurous, unpredictable, and versatile are terms used to describe her music.

Kit Leee (now better known as Antares), a maverick and brilliant composer/writer, reckons only Sunetra Fernando and Valerie Ross are in the same league as Saidah in Malaysia in terms of creating a new Malaysian music language. In fact, when Sunetra Fernando, who was the Malaysian mentor for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s Forum for Composers, moved to the UK in 2005, Saidah was asked to replace her. The other two mentors, also appointed by the MPO associate conductor Kevin Field, are established composers from Australia and the United Kingdom. “She has a natural ability about her music, it communicates with people”, Kevin says, as he explains why he chose her. “If given a brief, she can do exactly that, whether it’s a TV commercial, a requiem, a cabaret.”

Certainly music director Roland Peelman wouldn’t have taken two months from his busy schedule to be the music director of M! The Opera if he didn’t think some interesting music was going to be created.

“I worked with Saidah before and it was a very exciting experience,” he recalls. “She is creating a Malaysian language,” he says.

In a romantic and idealistic way, her music attempts to reconcile all cultural differences and enable Malaysians to meet on a new and common ground.

“What Saidah has wanted to do for Malaysia perhaps and with Malaysian idioms is something I have always found very exciting and worth supporting,” says Roland.

As an outside observer who has worked in Malaysia, China and other countries, he believes one is witnessing a coming of age in Malaysia, a young country where people are “looking for Malaysia’s soul” and searching for how they can best use Malaysian traditions, some of which have been discarded, forgotten, transformed, and squashed.

Indeed Saidah is doing in music what Malaysian playwrights such as Huzir Sulaiman, Jit Murad and Jo Kukathas with The Instant Café Theatre (Saidah has written music for all ICT’s plays) have been doing in theatre — create a new idiom that absorbs and fuses Malaysia’s diverse cultures.

For M! The Opera, Saidah used workshops with asli singers, dikit barat players, classical opera and carnatic singers, Chinese opera performers and so on to include their sounds in the music.

But M’s tribulations with sponsorship and casting have been the talk in town for over a year. Yet what she faces is not unique says Kevin Field, though it might feel unique in Malaysia. Berlioz struggled when he wanted 220 musicians. Yet the artistic process, Saidah says, has been totally fulfilling, if painful.

M! The Opera faces two challenges however. One is whether the orchestration and the performers can measure up to Saidah’s music. The second is whether her music will touch her fellow Malaysians the way she wants it to. “I always believe that a good piece is relevant all over the world if it has the courage to deal with universal themes rather than local themes — though the flavour has to be local,” says Roland. “But I hope it is first and foremost relevant to Malaysians. Otherwise where’s the point?”

With her busy schedule, one could be surprised that she felt the need to create M! The Opera, a musical theatre that uses the fashion world as the stage for a story about fame, love and other eternal themes. But she explains there were no avenues for something that focused on music using a variety of Asian sounds and instruments. The MPO Forum for Malaysian Composer is for compositions for a Western classical orchestra. And since 2001, the Singapore Arts Festival has only commissionned works outside Singapore for theatre, not music.

But still, if Malaysia doesn’t buy her, Singapore might. Goh Ching Lee, director of the Singapore Arts Festival, came to KL in October to see a preview of M and she says, “This was the first time I heard her own compositions and I was very, very impressed, she is very exceptionally gifted.” She has asked the producers about possibilities of staging M! the Opera in Singapore.

When asked about the scary word “opera”, Saidah retorts, “Opera to me is a totally undesirable word. In retrospect I would have called it the music theatre piece!”

M! the Opera is staged at Istana Budaya, Thu 23 Mar – Sun 2 Apr 2006. The tickets are selling real fast due to corporate bulk purchase. Buy yours now!

First Published: 18.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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