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Theatre Review (Singapore): Open Homes: ‘When Mother Music Comes to Tea’ by Khir Johari

2017’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) is offering a plethora of interactive programmes whereby audiences are invited into personal spaces, homes, and kitchens of home owners who then entertain the participants with private stories and/or food.

One such programme was When Mother Music Comes to Tea, presented by Khir Johari on 19 August 2017, at his condo on Grange Road. This was part of the Open Homes segment by SIFA.

Khir Johari in his Grange Road condo

We gathered at the lobby, about 20-25 of us, shuttled into the elevator and exited directly into the gorgeous home of Johari, who works in investment management. He shook everyone’s hands and welcomed us warmly into his living room. Chairs and sofas were set up around a big wooden coffee table loaded with vinyl records, books, photos, silver containers, and other artifacts that reflect Johari’s travels and his love for music.

Quite promptly Johari began his storytelling, which took the audience to the 1960s when he was a fan of Sharifah Aini, a local singer. Because of his fanaticism, Johari was often courted to be involved in the island’s music events. Through this, Johari came into close contact with the woman he said was regularly referred to as Mother Music of Singapura (Singapore) – a lady whose real name was Mrs Daisy Devan.

Mrs Daisy Devan

Johari was evidently in awe of Mrs. Devan, and as he told us more and more about her, the audience got the picture of a woman who was very much ahead of her time. She was in charge of EMI Music Singapore as the General Manager from 1957-1981, despite the British titling her on paper only as an Artist and Repertoire Manager. The British did send her all over the world to study the intricacies of developing an actual music industry in Singapore – believe it or not, local music did not just spring onto Singapore’s radio stations. It was Devan who went to the West to learn more about putting together music groups and recording music, and to places like India to learn more about setting up a vinyl pressing factory locally.

Then Devan signed on singers she found, people like Sakura Teng, Rita Chao, Saloma, P. Ramlee, and The Quests. In 1964 The Quests became the first Singapore band ever to release a record of original instrumental songs; till then, bands were merely playing cover songs. It is Devan who made The Quests Singapore’s answer to The Beatles (in fact their debut single “Shanty” toppled The Beatles, taking over the No. 1 spot on the charts and staying there for 12 weeks). Thus she was instrumental in getting Singapore-created music off the ground and discovering many local bands and singers that have molded the ecosystem of Singapore music.

The amazing thing? Devan did all of this in a saree! Whilst she wore slacks and dresses and modern clothing socially, she always presented herself in a saree when dealing with business.

A selection of Vinyl recordings produced during Devan’s time at EMI

Johari then got his nephew Ahmad and two other guests to reenact a scene where Devan had a tea party with the young Johari (he was only a teenager when he first made her acquaintance). At first the scene seemed a little plodding, but it eventually took shape and revealed itself to be the conversation where Devan went on to sign Anita Sarawak, arguably one of Singapore’s most valuable exports. Sarawak was a resident performer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for many years.

The session ended with a visibly moved Johari speaking about the last time he had seen Devan, and how in the end Mother Music died alone in a flat, her body was discovered when neighbours saw unclaimed newspapers stacked at the doorway and noticed a decaying stench emanating from inside. It was a sad end to her legacy, because Devan’s family had all migrated, her husband had passed on a few years earlier, and the couple never had children of their own, so Devan was all alone when she left this world.

However, Johari says that many of the musicians Devan interacted with and helped discover did attend her funeral to give her a final sendoff. Johari also mentioned that he has been in touch with the powers-that-be to make sure Devan will be properly honoured soon, especially given all that she has done for music in Singapore.

We were then invited to partake in kuehs, cakes, tartlets, curry puffs, and tea. Made by Johari’s mum and helpers, the food was simply delicious. Johari made sure to interact with every guest, was most generous in the spread of dishes, and even offered guests to doggie-bag the food home!

It’s always tricky when a programme involves someone’s personal space, interaction with strangers, and a deeply personal narrative, but Johari’s warmth, humour, and graciousness made this a truly magical experience. I left his place feeling I had spent time learning about a woman most of us had never heard about but whose contributions spearheaded the local tunes we now enjoy on this island – and also realising that underneath it all, we all share a need to hear each other’s stories. That is what makes us human.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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