Local media's music man

He might not be as immediately recognisable as the artists that he makes music for but musician, composer, arranger and conductor Rufino Soliano was a giant on local television and radio from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

The retired head of the now-defunct SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation) Orchestra played a pivotal part in the music heard on the shows produced by the broadcasting company now known as MediaCorp.

On Friday, one month shy of his 83rd birthday, a tribute concert celebrating his life and music will be held at the Drama Centre.

It could well be the last time that Soliano, who has played with local singing icons such as Kartina Dahari and Anita Sarawak, as well as international legends who performed here, including Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr, performs in public as he is in frail health.

He has heart ailments dating from the early 1990s and had three strokes in the last four years. Today, he moves with the aid of a wheelchair and walking frame. But as Life! finds out in an interview with him last week, he perks up and comes alive when he talks about music.

He still has the chops too. When asked to pose at a drum set for the photo shoot, he instinctively picks up the drumsticks and starts playing a vigorous rhythm, complete with elaborate rolls and fills.

And while Friday's show features many local entertainment veterans who had worked with him, including Brian Richmond, Max Surin and Jacintha Abisheganaden, Soliano himself is keen on performing, if his health permits.

"When I feel down, I turn to music and it picks me back up again," he says at an interview conducted in the music room of the Church of Divine Mercy in Pasir Ris. He and his family are active in the church's praise and worship group.

The concert is the brainchild of two of his five children, daughters Kathleen Francisco, a 56-year-old housewife, and Jacinta Glass, 50, who works in the hospitality industry.

Mrs Francisco says: "His health was deteriorating and he had started to become very quiet, like he had nothing more to look forward to. So I asked him, what do you miss the most? He replied, 'I miss conducting an orchestra again.'"

The two sisters then set out to organise the $35,000 concert, financing it with a $10,000 grant they received from the National Arts Council as well as money from their own pockets and contributions from friends.

At first, they invited several artists and musicians who had worked closely with him. Word soon got out and more volunteered to sing, perform and set up the show. Many offered to do so without pay.

There are now 13 singers, including family members who are also prominent artists, such as soul singer-songwriter Michaela Therese, his grandniece. The 15 musicians that make up the orchestra include accomplished names such as Indra Ismail, who is also the show's music director.

The set-list includes the 12 Latin- inspired compositions from Endlessly, the debut album that Soliano released last year. Once the gig was confirmed, he kept himself busy - and happy - arranging the songs for the concert's orchestra. Music is in his blood. He was named after his grandfather, who emigrated with his family from Cebu, the Philippines, to Singapore in the years before World War II, to work here as a musician. He played the piano live at screenings of silent Bangsawan (Malay opera) movies, and taught all his sons, including Rufino's father Concordio Alibong Soliano, how to play various musical instruments.

Rufino was the first child born after his father married his Eurasian mother, Esmeralda Varella. Carrying on the family tradition, his father taught all his 10 children music.

"My father had a habit of putting musical instruments all over the house. He told my mother not to put them away as from there, they could see which child would take to which instrument."

His only formal academic education was primary school at St Anthony's Boys School, and his father gave him his first lessons at the age of eight.

He passed his Grade 8 violin examinations four years later, after which his father, very much aware of Singapore's multi-cultural landscape, got him to learn various instruments in Malay and Chinese operas. His music career began at 13, when he had his first paid public performance, playing alongside his father in a Malay opera.

While he played jazz, big band and Latin music in several groups in popular venues such as The Shackle Club at Raffles Square, The Great World Cabaret and Raffles Hotel throughout his teenage years, Soliano says it was his background in local music that got him his most important gig, as a percussionist for Radio Singapore Orchestra in 1960.

As the broadcaster went through major changes in the next few decades - introducing television in 1963 and changing its name to Radio And Television Singapore (RTS) and in 1980 to Singapore Broadcasting Corporation - Soliano rose through the ranks.

In 1978, he became band leader of the 36-strong RTS Orchestra and was in charge of it until his retirement in 1995. By that time, the broadcaster had split into Television Corporation of Singapore, Radio Corporation of Singapore and Singapore Television Twelve.

While he never got into rock music, which he dismisses as a lot of noise, Soliano kept up with the changing music landscape throughout the decades.

In the 1980s, for example, he arranged songs by pop acts of the time, including Whitney Houston and Bananarama, for the orchestra to play in a bid to reach out to younger audiences.

He also made his mark regionally, representing Singapore at music conferences and events in neighbouring countries, and co-writing the winning entry in an ASEAN songwriting competition in the early 1970s.

Radio and television veteran Brian Richmond, who will host Friday's concert, says Soliano is one of the most passionate and dedicated musicians he has worked with.

They first met when Richmond, then a singer, took part in Radio And Television Singapore's talent competition, Talentime in 1968. Soliano was one of the musicians who would back him up.

Over the years, as both rose through the ranks in the company, the pair became close, working together on shows and events and hanging out at the canteen together.

"He had an easy way about him and he was always smiling. But once he started playing music, he was dead serious," Richmond says.

"He is such a professional and a perfectionist - he would not be happy until he got everything right. And when everything turns out well, he'll come up with that big smile."

Vocal coach and singer Ann Hussein says Soliano played an important role in her early years as an entertainer.

She was a finalist at Talentime 1980 and her medley of jazz/soul singer Natalie Cole's Inseparable and Lovers had impressed Soliano, who was tasked to arrange her music. She eventually won that year.

She says: "I was only 17 years old at the time and a lot of the professionals in the music industry were intimidating to me then. But he was different, he was friendly, polite and gentle and he put me at ease. That's what struck me the most because at that time, he was already a person of high calibre in the music industry and I was just a newcomer."

At the show on Friday, she will sing the same Natalie Cole medley again.

Today, Soliano lives with his 79-year-old wife, Shirley, in a two-room HDB flat in Tampines. The couple, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year, are fiercely independent and insist on living on their own. Most of their children live nearby in Pasir Ris and take turns to visit them regularly.

They are a loving couple, sharing the same cup of coffee throughout the interview and gently teasing each other.

Both smile as he recounts their first meeting. He was walking to a friend's house when Shirley almost hit him with her bicycle. They met again when mutual friends introduced them at a party and a relationship soon began, despite the fact that her father disapproved because he did not like musicians.

"But my father soon came around because Rufino would come over to our house in his dad's Ford V8 and drive our family to mass," she said.

They dated for three years before tying the knot in 1955.

Like his father before him, Soliano nurtured the love for music in the couple's five children. Mrs Francisco remembers growing up among various musical instruments which she and her siblings were free to play with.

"When we were small, we would often laugh at my uncles and my dad whenever they had a conversation because when they talk about music, they don't use words, they voice out tunes and melodies instead."

While Soliano gave music lessons to all his children, only the youngest, Mrs Glass, took them seriously. She is the only one among them who can read and write music. The rest were too impatient and were interested only in learning how to play their instruments quickly without getting into the rudiments of music.

She says that learning music under her father was not easy.

"He teaches it the Spanish style, the way he was taught by his dad. He wrote down all the different notes and scales, gave it to me and told me, 'Go and learn. When you know, come and see me.' I had to figure it all out by myself and I was only nine years old."

Soliano is fine with the fact that none of his children chose music as a career. His three sons chose careers in the military. "For me, it's good enough that they can play instruments and use that as a way to relax and enjoy themselves."

His eyes twinkle when he talks about his 10 grandchildren and four great- grandchildren, some of whom are already showing talent for music. Grandson Jordan, 14, for example, will play the bongos at the upcoming concert.

"I teach them how to feel the music, how to be passionate about music. You can learn all the music theories in the world, but it's not enough if you play without love and passion."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg

Book it

CELEBRATE WITH RUFINO!

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building, Level 3, 100 Victoria Street

When: Friday, 8pm

Admission: $45 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)


This article was first published on December 8, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

 

Purchase this article for republication.

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