Songs in memory of MM Lee

Songs in memory of MM Lee
PHOTO: The Straits Times

After home-grown singer and songwriter Kelvin Tan completed the recording of a new album early this year, he was stumped for ideas on what to call it.

Then Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March and he knew that the songs would be perfect as his tribute.

The Prophet Transcends; An Exploratory Eulogy For MM Lee, one of three new albums that he recently released, is a collection of eight improvised, experimental instrumental tunes with him on guitars and his frequent collaborator Tan Boon Gee on drums.

"As much as the album is dedicated to MM Lee, I didn't want to compromise my integrity and record something contrite or over- sentimental," he says.

"So I stuck to my improvisationally eclectic style. My idea is that as much as MM Lee was an idealist in the way he built our nation, I should be the same in my music. I think, in that sense, my tribute to him is unique."

He acknowledges that listeners who expect him to have an anti-establishment stance due to the non-mainstream nature of his music might be surprised by his unabashed support for Mr Lee and the Government.

"I know the system is far from perfect but it works in many other ways too. I'm not your typical flag-waving patriot, I just love my country and I am giving credit where credit is due," he says. The other two albums are far less political.

Like his tribute to Mr Lee, Far Into The Grammatologies is also a collection of improvised, eclectic instrumentals, with titles inspired by subjects such as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Altimira, a historical Spanish site famous for its cave paintings.

The third album, Songs For An Unfair World, sees him playing more conventional songs - it is the only one among the three on which he sings, with improvised lyrics inspired by the people, environment and situations around him. If It Wasn't For Her... (For Jacq), for example, is dedicated to his long-time girlfriend, who owns a bicycle tour company, while An Unfair World (For Krishnan) is a tribute to his best friend, a vice-principal at a primary school here.

"All the songs were done in one take," he says. "I was purely improvising and I had to plunge in and see where my instincts took me."

One of Singapore's most prolific indie musicians, Tan, 51, has self-released more than 130 solo albums in the past two decades.

These exclude the works he does as guitarist for home-grown indie elder statesmen The Oddfellows. In 2011, he released a music/film DVD, Reconfiguring Axioms (2011), a collection of experimental videos and animation his collaborators produced and set to his music.

Previously, he released his past discography on elaborate, often hand-made, CD packs. However, he is releasing the new batch of songs only as digital copies on the music website Bandcamp, due to budget constraints.

Besides his music, Tan is a part-time lecturer at The Puttnam School of Film in Lasalle College of the Arts; and the author of two books, All Broken Up And Dancing (1992), a coming-of-age novel, and The Nethe(R) (2001), a novel with a non-linear narrative.

He also co-owns Room For Dessert, a bakery in Waterloo Street.

"It's been a wonderful life. I don't regret a single thing," he says. "My wish is that in time, I would be able to make a bigger difference with my art and vocation in Singapore."


This article was first published on July 13, 2015.
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