Touched by Iskandar's music

Touched by Iskandar's music
Iskandar Mirza Ismail’s music was responsible for raising funds for many charity shows, including ChildAid concerts.

His name might not be as easily recognisable as the singers and stars that he made music for, but if you have been living in Singapore for the last three decades or so, chances are that Iskandar Mirza Ismail's music has touched you in some way.

Remember Love At First Light, the official theme song for the 2012 National Day Parade? That was one of his most recent high-profile compositions.

Iskandar, who died of cancer last Saturday morning at the age of 58, had been music director for numerous National Day Parades from 1988 to 2012, as well as Chingay street parades.

At the Esplanade's new year countdown shows in the past, the music accompanying the fireworks show were his original compositions.

He was responsible for the music heard in some of the biggest sports events held in the region in the last few years - he produced and directed music for the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and the inaugural editions of the Asian Youth Games in 2009 and the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, both held in Singapore.

Even though he did not speak Mandarin, his involvement with music labels Warner Singapore and later Warner Taiwan saw him compose, produce and arrange music for many marquee Mando-pop stars such as Aaron Kwok, Sandy Lam and Jacky Cheung.

When Heavenly King Cheung decided to come up with his own Broadway-style musical, Snow.Wolf.Lake, Iskandar was roped in to orchestrate its musical score. The 1997 production has since been hailed as Hong Kong's first modern musical. Besides Hong Kong, it has also been staged in Chinese cities, both in Cantonese and Mandarin. It also played in Singapore, tweaked with Malay, Hokkien and Singlish dialogue and phrases.

It was not his only musical to be staged overseas, he also did orchestral arrangement for the 1997 Singapore musical Chang & Eng, which became the first English-language musical to be staged in China.

One of his trademark styles was to merge different styles in his arrangements, which he said was inspired by living in the multi-cultural city of Singapore.

In an interview with Life! in 2007, he said: "I started experimenting during National Day parades. Until today, I'm still trying to refine the work and make it accessible. We do have something to offer the world."

Fans of live music in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s would have seen Iskandar perform. He played jazz with the Louis Tan Trio at the Hilton Hotel and, later, a more eclectic mix of jazz, rock and pop with his band, Hangloose, in local clubs.

His mother is Nona Asiah, a Malay singing and acting legend who was one of the most famous singers from the films made during the golden age of Malay cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

She later played a pivotal role in Malay television here by talent-spotting and grooming young talents. Many of them had their start in long-running children's television show Mat Yoyo.

Discovering that he had perfect pitch, Nona had the then eight-year-old Iskandar take piano lessons from late music icon Zubir Said, the man behind national anthem Majulah Singapura.

Iskandar would later hone his craft at one of the world's most acclaimed contemporary music schools, Berklee College of Music in Boston, the United States.

The talented pianist would become a teacher himself too. At the age of 15, he was already teaching the electone organ at local music school Yamaha.

Iskandar looked beyond himself and his music was responsible for helping to raise funds for many charity shows. Chief among these are the series of ChildAid concerts, which feature young and up-and-coming music talents. He had been the artistic director for the annual concert since 2006 and was still working on this year's upcoming edition when he died.

For his exceptional work, he had been feted with many accolades, most notably Singapore's highest arts award, the Cultural Medallion in 2008 and the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year in 2003, given to outstanding individuals in the Malay community.

While the public knew him from his music, his close collaborators would attest to his genial nature and laidback charm.

According to veteran singer Rahimah Rahim, who had worked with him since the 1970s, Iskandar was one of the nicest professionals one could work with.

She said: "Even if things weren't going right, he never lost his temper. His favourite word to me was 'Wonderful!'

"Sometimes, I'd make a mistake and he'd go 'Don't worry, it's wonderful!' and I would say to him, 'What do you mean, wonderful? It was terrible!' He would then reply, "Don't worry, it's only music.'"

More about Iskandar Mirza Ismail's life can be found in his biography, Iskandar Ismail: The Music Man, written by Monica Gwee and published by Epigram Books last year.

This article was first published on Nov 3, 2014.
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