Playing for home and heart

SINGAPORE - Violinist Kailin Yong left Singapore in the early 1990s and spent more than two decades playing in Europe and the United States, in places ranging from concert halls to the streets.

But the 1985 National Music Competition winner is back. And he has been slowly making his mark on the music scene here in the past year.

Tonight, the 41-year-old violinist will perform at the Esplanade Recital Studio. The performance will feature his newest band, Qilin Group, which comprises acclaimed jazz pianist Weixiang Tan, 34, bass player Felix Phang, 30, and drummer Pablo Calzado, 29.

A mixture of world, jazz and folk music, the setlist will showcase the wealth of cross-genre music experience Yong has amassed on his travels.

On the programme, too, is an original tune inspired by regional folk tune Dondang Sayang. Titled Dondang Sayang Alegria, it is described as "a little flamenco done in a Peranakan setting".

Says Yong: "It was inspired by local Peranakan culture. Although I'm not Peranakan myself, it's kind of like my tribute to my country."

He originally did the tune as a theme song for home-grown dance company Flamenco Sin Fronteras' adaptation of The House Of Bernarda Alba, staged at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre in March.

The version played by the Qilin Group is slightly different because of the jazz background of the musicians in the band.

"One of the most attractive qualities about working with this group of musicians for me is that imagination just runs rampant among us," says the violinist.

"Weixiang, Pablo and Felix are such creative players and the whole process is so interactive. Everybody's just doing what they do and there is a lot of trust and bouncing of ideas off each other."

Yong started his violin training at the age of six and first came into the spotlight when he won the National Music Competition at the age of 13.

The Raffles Institution alumnus was also part of the Asian Youth Orchestra, a cross-country group which brings together budding musicians from all over the continent and played shows throughout Europe and Asia.

"It was like a mobile global village," he says of his time with the orchestra. "It was a huge eye-opening experience for me. Not only did I get to travel, but I also met a lot of young musicians from different countries. My time with them was a wonderful testament of what music could do."

He was accepted to study engineering at Nanyang Technological University in the early 1990s. But after a successful audition, he decided to go to Musikhochschule Wien, or the University of Music and Performing Arts, in Vienna to pursue his love of music instead.

In 1999, he moved to the US and spent the next dozen years in San Francisco and, later, Colorado.

He describes his time in the US as the most inspiring period of his musical development. A job offer to play with a quartet in San Francisco fell through so he took to playing his fiddle in the streets.

"I didn't have a penny in my pocket, I didn't know anybody so that was the only way I could eat and pay rent," he recalls.

"To this day, it was one of the most illuminating and liberating experiences in my life. For the first time, I really understood that music transcends all boundaries."

As a busker, he learnt that it was not the material or the type of music he played that brought the most income, it was the level of energy that he put into his performance.

"After a month of doing classical or even pop and show tunes, I started improvising and playing whatever I felt like playing. I translated my emotions into notes."

While he did not make much, he said that it was enough for his meals and to rent a room in San Francisco's Lower Haight, a notoriously rough neighbourhood.

In Colorado, he played in numerous groups that performed a diverse mix of genres, ranging from American roots and Brazilian music to North African music and jazz.

He came back to Singapore in December last year as he had been missing home. His Uruguayan- American girlfriend, Elisa Garcia, 29, also a musician, joined him here and will sing and dance at the Esplanade show.

Besides playing music, he is also now a part-time violin teacher at Lasalle College of the Arts. He is relishing spending time again with his parents - both retired secondary school teachers - and two younger sisters and has not decided when or if he will be returning to the US.

"Embracing life, you cannot predict anything. The only thing I can tell you is that I am encouraged and strengthened by the support that I have been getting in Singapore. I want to do as much as I can for the community while I am here."

Book it LATE NITE @ ESPLANADE What: Kailin Yong's Qilin Group featuring Weixiang Tan, Pablo Calzado, Felix Phang Where: Esplanade Recital Studio When: Today, 9.30pm Admission: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

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