Behind the glitz and glamour of some of the world's greatest artists is a crew of talented musicians who are producers, arrangers, and music directors. These are the individuals who labour behind the scenes to help create the magic that's carried by the artists on stage, working hand-in-hand with them to bring their songs, albums and performances to life.
In Singapore, some of these very remarkable music-makers have gone on to win awards internationally, even working and touring the world with a range of A-listers including Jacky Cheung, A-mei, and Sandy Lam.
Just over a fortnight ago, four such maestros delighted audiences online with their show-stopping arrangements of popular Mandopop hits at Sing • Lang 2021, a live-streamed concert on Mediacorp's digital VOD service MeWatch.
Featuring performances by acts like Benjamin Kheng, Kit Chan and Yung Raja the show did not forget to pay tribute to the minds behind the night's music arrangements — Goh Kheng Long, Kenn C, Martin Tang and Terence Teo.
Esteemed musicians in their own rights, these four maestros are among the region's most highly sought-after composers, arrangers, and producers. They've worked with the biggest names in Mandopop and have had their arrangements featured on notable regional platforms like 'The Voice of China'.
Apart from frequent collaborations with Mandopop heavyweights from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, the maestros also helped homegrown artists like JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun put together career-defining songs and concert performances.
To track the advancement and progress of Singapore's Mandopop scene, one only needs to take a listen to the impressive body of works created by these four maestros over the years. Hear65 casts a spotlight on Kheng Long, Kenn, Martin, and Terence in this exclusive interview to find out more about their musical journeys and the contributions they've made to the scene.
Getting their start in Singapore's music scene
While all four have successfully expanded their careers beyond our shores, the maestros got their humble beginnings in the local music scene as young musicians. Playing local gigs with their first bands proved pivotal in equipping them with the skills and opportunities to break into overseas markets and take on larger, international stages.
Kheng Long recalled playing keyboard for Jive Talkin' in the early '90s, which was a resident band at Hard Rock Cafe. Describing the experience as the "best on-the-job training" he received, his stint at the band allowed him to jam alongside big Western names like Kenny G and Miami Sound Machine.
Goh Kheng Long performing 'Kiss Goodbye' on the keyboard with American-Taiwanese musician Wang Leehom
"The spontaneity in their playing and improvisations was certainly an eye-opener, and it kind of influenced and shaped my thought process in my music," Kheng Long shared.
Similarly, Martin started out playing weekend gigs that eventually landed him a full-time gig with Tony and Terry, a well-known musical duo in Singapore of the late '70s. From there, a few of his band members decided to regroup and start a career as a 'show band', where they played nightly shows at live houses throughout the '80s.
"Being involved in the local music scene helped me hone my arrangement skills, especially since we were playing in a very unique band that blended Western and Eastern instruments. I had to learn how each instrument worked, and also how to fuse them together so that they wouldn’t come across sounding cheesy," said Martin.
Martin Tang performing a cover of Stevie Wonder's 'Overjoyed', featuring vocal accompaniments by Jacob Collier.
He also cited his experiences performing covers in the band as an important lesson that prepared him for his arrangement career. 'You have to reverse engineer the arrangements when you play a cover, and this is a good way of learning how things are done by other arrangers."
Kenn made his foray into music playing wedding and hotel gigs in the early days. Aside from performing, he also jumpstarted his career by arranging demos for indie record label Ocean Butterflies. Describing his decision to become a musician as 'blindness' motivated by his soul-deep love for music, it greatly surprised him when he witnessed the first few signs of his art taking off commercially, attributing his success to 'divine favour'.
"Some years back, a friend showed me Mandopop radio YES 933's Top 10 charts. Of the top four songs on that list, three were arranged by me," recalled Kenn.
"And there was a time when I went shopping at HMV. They had a rack of the 10 bestselling Mandopop CDs, and I realised I had done work on seven of them."
Kenn C performing guitar on 還記得嗎 ('Do You Remember') with Taiwanese singer Angela Zhang.
Despite having his music heard by millions internationally, Kenn is grateful to the local music scene for having provided a space for him to practice and to just 'be'. He shared that it was artists who had gone before him that paved the way and gave him his connections to the regional epicenters of Mandopop in China and Taiwan.
As a young child, Terence played the organ and enjoyed the confidence and platform it gave him, inadvertently turning heads. During his national service, he performed as a keyboardist in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Music and Drama Company, before gradually progressing toward making music digitally as an arranger under the tutelage of professionals in the local scene. Before long, his arrangments began gaining momentum regionally and he started being offered work from overseas, blossoming into the acclaimed musician he is today.
Leading as pioneers of our Mandopop industry
More than just big names in our Mandopop scene, the maestros have served as trailblazers for future generations of artists and producers. Achieving a degree of regional recognition that has hardly been beaten by anyone else in Singapore's music history, they have helped to elevate the standing of our local industry in the eyes of the world.
Martin posited that his most important contribution to the scene was being part of the generation that developed the unique fusion of Western and Chinese music elements. Those became the industry standard for Mandopop's sound today.
Stefanie Sun's 'Muttering', arranged by Martin Tang. The song was featured on the Sing • Lang 2021 concert.
"Singaporeans are an interesting bunch, as we listen to and play a lot of Western music. Thus, we were able to reproduce this [Western] sound while also incorporating the Mando[pop] sound into our arrangements. This was something the Taiwanese arrangers were struggling with at that time," said Martin.
"It gave us an edge and helped us break into the market. It also introduced Singapore to the region and brought attention to its next generation of artists, producers, and arrangers. So I do believe, in some way, we contributed by bringing eyes to the pool of talent we have in Singapore."
Kheng Long, too, opined that his work has helped put Singapore on the map in the regional scene. His groundbreaking arrangement on Mavis Hee's 1996 album 'Regret' was a hit in Singapore, but also quickly gained traction in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"It was really a huge surprise for me, especially when my arrangement works on this album were initially turned down by the record company because I was relatively unknown in the scene. I was also very happy that unlike many albums which did well due to just one hit song, this album scored several hits. It was really icing on the cake!" shared Kheng Long.
But the milestones in his career extend way beyond that one particular album. Kheng Long was behind the music of some of Singapore's greatest artists who have flown our flag high all around the world.
"I arranged Stefanie Sun’s first hit song 'Cloudy Sky'. My first collaboration with JJ Lin dates back to 20 years ago when he composed 'Remember' for A-Mei, and I arranged on that song. Till now, I’m still involved in many music-related works with him. I really feel very honoured to have played a part in the journey of these Singaporean artists who have taken our Mandopop works to the international stage," said Kheng Long.
Despite their exceptional achievements and many accolades, the maestros choose to remain modest and ready to learn.
"19 years ago, I received my first international music award for Best Arranger of the Year. I felt I achieved something then, but alas! It was just a mirage," exclaimed Kenn.
"I would probably never arrive [at 'success'], the learning curve just keeps getting steeper! It’s best to just stay humble as I learn and do my best, rather than overstate what I can deliver."
Terence, who bagged a TOP Chinese Music Award in 2005 for his work on F.I.R.'s 'Lydia', chimed in on the topic of winning awards and gaining international recognition: "Definitely, it’s an ego booster. But you soon realize that you are as good as your last project, because your clients will judge you on whether you are able to deliver the next good arrangement."
Lessons to learn from regional music markets
With a wealth of experience gained from years of being in the regional music scene, the four maestros have seen how bigger markets like China and Taiwan push for the development of their own musicians.
Through wildly popular TV programmes like 'Sing! China' and 'I Am Singer', which the maestros have been heavily involved in as the shows' music arrangers, budding artists are groomed to be the next generation of chart-toppers on a large, national stage. Do the maestros believe there is anything Singapore can learn from the way overseas markets grow their pool of talent?
"I think it would be good to get more support from the government for the arts in Singapore. If you look at Korea, they were not even recognised as a viable regional market in the '90s. But with intervention from the government, look at where they are now!" said Martin.
Kit Chan's 'Like You', arranged by Goh Kheng Long. The song was featured on the Sing • Lang 2021 concert.
On the point of having more support to create platforms for artists, Kheng Long agreed. "I feel that sometimes, these budding musicians get cooped up within what they can do with their limited resources and budget. I think it’d be good if bigger platforms, be it through government support or private sponsors, are made available to them to help shape their craft," he shared.
Realistically speaking, however, Singapore's market is but a tiny fraction of the size of China's. While we can certainly have national platforms, it is unlikely they will be as large-scale as those in other countries, as Terence points out: "When it comes to productions, in terms of budget, we cannot compare to the China market."
Terence Teo's acceptance speech after being conferred the COMPASS Award for Artistic Excellence in 2014.
Thus, perhaps the way forward for Singapore's Mandopop scene is to return to something more rudimentary. We should first ask ourselves: what is it that we want others to know us for?
"We need to develop a 'sound' before we even think of exporting our 'product'. A sound is the by-product of culture, which takes even longer to build. We need to instil a sense of culture in the heart of every artist that is focused on building...melodies and soundscapes that are unique and trendsetting," explained Martin.
"It's not always about copying and following others," he added.
Rallying Singaporeans to support homegrown talent
But what Singapore lacks to develop its music scene in terms of resources or market size, it is partly able to make up with the fervent support of fellow Singaporeans. Locals are usually the first audience of our homegrown musicians, and the maestros stressed on the importance of not being prejudiced against artists that come from our own country.
"In our culture, there has been and still is a stigma against homegrown artists. This is not confined to the world of Mandopop, but includes all local practitioners of the arts in general. Rather than show their support, most locals would choose to berate our own acts," lamented Martin.
JJ Lin's 'CaoCao', arranged by Kenn C. The song was featured on the Sing • Lang 2021 concert.
"There needs to be a change in mindset about local and homegrown brands. We should be leaning in as their audience and consumers. Also, we should help circulate good local works online to hopefully make them more prominent," suggested Kenn, when asked what could be done to encourage more local support for our artists.
Conversely, there are some that believe Singaporeans aren't as biased against our own acts as it may seem.
"I think Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, do support local acts — and not just those from the Mandopop scene. They do recognize our musicians are on par with international ones because the standard of our artists' works speak for themselves," said Terence.
Regardless, the consensus is clear that showing our support to homegrown artists is critical for the furtherance of our Mandopop scene. With Singapore having a population size that's more than 200 times smaller than that of China, we also have a significantly smaller talent pool to work with.
Thus, Kheng Long pointed out that there is value in tapping on local talents from other genres and disciplines to explore crossovers into the realm of Mandopop. As a prime example, he cited a recent collaboration that he had put together at Chingay 2021 as the festival's Music Director, where young violin prodigy Chloe Chua and R&B singer Keyana performed the Chinese classic 'Moonlight in the City', despite not coming from Mandopop backgrounds.
Advice for aspiring musicians in Singapore
Having each led illustrious careers in the regional music scene over the past few decades, the maestros have gained a treasure trove of wisdom and lessons that budding musicians can benefit from. We asked the four individuals if they had any advice that they'd like to impart to young artists.
"Improve on your craft and look for opportunities to showcase your work to people that matter," enjoined Terence. "Our local industry is small and there is no room for complacency because everyone knows each other...being humble and willing to learn goes a long way," he added.
Kheng Long reiterated the importance of continual improvement in one's art through practice. Additionally, he touted the value of being diversified and not narrowly focused on one particular style or genre.
Jacky Cheung's 'A Walk With You', arranged by Goh Kheng Long.
"Although everyone may have their own interests and strengths in certain styles, it’s important to explore all genres of music to get a wholer experience and more macro view of music. In my opinion, this would help you tremendously in the industry," Kheng Long advised.
Martin chimed in on the value of expanding one's skill sets beyond what one is comfortable with.
"Talent alone won’t bring you success these days. You really have to be hard working, determined and have the foresight to gauge the market. Today, many indie artistes are singers, managers, video producers and everything else wrapped into one," he noted.
Additionally, Kenn encouraged young artists to be knowledgeable about the competition that exists in the market, and to keep abreast with the latest changes in the industry.
Kenn C's arrangement work for the band Lion on the finals of China's TV singing competition 'Singer' in 2017.
"Be more aware of the current standards that exist, as well as emerging trends. You must realise that the audience have already been pampered with high-quality content," he urged. Kenn explained that he himself had to break weak habits and old standards in order to remain relevant in the certain scenes.
"Pop moves extremely fast. Stay humble enough to grow, but hungry enough to chase the guys right in front of the pack," he added.
But his final word of advice was perhaps the most telling about the kind of attitude a musician should adopt if they were to decide to step into this industry.
"Money is but a by-product. Creative satisfaction has always been my currency."