The Siong Leng Musical Association traces its roots back to 1901 when it was first known as the Heng Yun Association and established a reputation as the most active Nanyin (literally “The Music of the South”) group in then-Malaya. Forty years later in 1941, the Siong Leng Musical Association was formed with the aims of preserving, developing and promoting Nanyin and Li Yuan opera.
In the 1970s, the association’s new chairman Teng Mah Seng (1915 – 1992) sought to augment the repertoire by composing several hundred new styles of lyrics which expanded and revolutionised the expressive range of an ancient musical art form (see below). An indefatigable champion of Nanyin, Teng’s efforts to revitalize the art form included the organization of a Southeast Asian Nanyin Conference in 1977. These conferences gave impetus to Nanyin and stimulated a revival of the art in its country of origin: Quanzhou, China.
In 1983 the group participated in the Llangollen Musical Eisteddfod in Wales and won Third Prize in Folk Song Solo and Fourth Prize in Ensemble Performance. Four years later in 1987, Teng received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for artists, for his work in the field of music.
Yet, despite the recognition and the tireless efforts of its members, Siong Leng Musical Association, not unlike many traditional art societies today, faces the challenge of securing a place for Nanyin and Li Yuan Opera in the modern milieu. As artistic director of Siong Leng Musical Association Lin Shao ling, tells Asia on the Edge 2011: “There is no doubt Nanyin songs and music, being serene and elegant, are reflective of an age where the pace of life is slower and more leisurely. In the 21st century Singapore the pace of life is hectic and fast changing, some may ask where is the place for Nanyin and there is no doubt that here is the challenge of searching for a space for such music.“
Such challenges however in no way displace the relevance of tradition and art form to contemporary society. Rather, the challenges have only spurred the determination of the group to continually search for innovative means to grow audiences for Nanyin.
In fact, that in the first half of 2011 alone Siong Leng Musical Association has already appeared in the Esplanade’s annual festival of sacred music, Tapestry and the Singapore Arts Festival is a testament to both the achievements of the group as well as a continued fascination and demand for Nanyin.
As Lin elaborates: “For us, it is all the more important that in a society and living environment that is fast changing, we need art that can soothe, nourish and heal the soul. Man can only be wearied by the clamorous demands of life in a fast paced society. And Nanyin music provides the means to regenerate his spirit. Thus, by turning to tradition and our heritage, we find an alternative to the challenging present and perhaps another path for the future.”
THE WORLD OF NANYIN: AN INTRODUCTION
Nanyin, which literally means “The Music of the South”, can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when it was originally performed as court music although even then, it had already preserved characteristics of music of the pre-Han era. Civil turbulence then forced court musicians to migrate south with one group settling in Sichuan in South-west China while another group moved to the South-Eastern coastal province of Fujian.
It was in the historical city of Quanzhou that Nanyin flourished and evolved into the form as it is known today. Nanyin has been ascertained by musicologists to be among the oldest and best preserved of musical art forms in the world, having a complete musical system and a unique set of notation of its own.
The chief musical instruments used in a Nanyin performance have not changed in form or appearance for hundreds of years. They are namely: the erxian (a two-string fiddle); the dongxiao (a vertically-held six-hole bamboo flute); the pipa (a pear-shaped four string lute, said to have originated from Persia); and the sanxian (a long-necked three-string fretless string instrument whose sound box is covered with python skin).
The singer usually takes her place at the centre of the ensemble, holding a clapper in her hands to mark the first beat of every measure. A full array of Nanyin musical instruments would include hand-bells, gongs, cymbals, woodblocks, as well as a set of short hand-held bamboo pieces know as sibao which are made to vibrate against each other at high velocity. The sibao is unique to Nanyin and is not known to exist in other musical art forms.
Nanyin can be grouped into instrumental ensemble music, music which may either be played or sung, and songs. In performance, a piece may be as brief as two minutes in duration, or stretch up to forty minutes in full.