A heart for other arts: Erhu is like people humming a song

Manufacturing engineer Muhammad Shafiq Iskandar has a ready answer for those who wonder why a Malay would play a Chinese musical instrument.

"I tell them, the guitar is a Western instrument but nobody questions when a Malay or Chinese plays it. I don't see why it should be any different with the erhu."

The 27-year-old picked up the two-stringed instrument by chance.

His mother had signed him up for classical guitar classes when he was 11, so he naturally thought of joining a guitar ensemble when he was in Marsiling Secondary School.

But there were only two co-curricular activities related to music in the school - the band and Chinese orchestra. He says: "I heard that the band members sometimes had to march in the sun, which my parents felt might be taxing during the fasting month."

So he joined the Chinese orchestra instead as its practice sessions were held indoors. He was the only non-Chinese in the group. "The other students were very eager to teach me Chinese. They would talk to me in Mandarin and would not stop until I replied in Mandarin."

He wanted to play the pipa as "it seems more similar to the guitar", but the section was full. So he joined the erhu section instead.

At first, he struggled with the language. The conductor spoke in Mandarin and the technical terms on the score were written in Chinese.

For the first few months, he had to train separately with a senior player so as not to "hold back the rest of the orchestra".

But he grew to love the erhu as "it sounds like people humming a song". He still plays the guitar in his free time.

Playing the erhu has yielded a bonus - he recognises simple Chinese music terms and can hold a simple conversation in Mandarin.

The bachelor has been playing with the Marsiling Chinese Orchestra, a collaboration between Marsiling Secondary School and the Marsiling Citizens' Consultative Committee, since it was set up by music director and conductor Low Cher Yong in 2004 .

Mr Low, 40, says Mr Shafiq is one of his key erhu players and often takes a prominent seat during concerts.

In recent years, Mr Shafiq has started playing traditional Malay songs on the erhu and is learning to play the oud, an Arabic instrument often featured in Malay music.

He says: "I find myself being more interested in Asian music as I grow older. As an Asian, I feel I should know how to play Asian music. Otherwise, it's very malu." Malu is Malay for embarrassing.

This article was first published on April 10, 2016.
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