Sunday, June 18, 2006

Bamboo at Fort Canning Park, Singapore

Rating: 11110
Rock D'Fort wasn't quite the Woodstock I had imagined it to be. Although the bands were rocking, it was hard to get into the 'mood' with all the people seated on the grass and clapping politely after each song.

It was a lazy Sunday night so what better way to spend it than to listen to some rock? And so I took the MRT to City Hall and walked to Fort Canning Park during the last day of Rock D'Fort's three-day music festival as part of Singapore Arts Fest's Pop Agenda.

I got there just in time to catch Zero Sequence and Ezal Sani's wicked synth stylings. He plays with his keyboard tilted towards the audience and it was pretty cool to watch his fingers move across. The crowd was a bit dead though and the band got the loudest applause when vocalist Ming surprised us with Eraserhead's Para Sa Masa! It turns out that bassist Reuel Ramos is Pinoy and a majority of the people that were at Fort Canning were Pinoys waiting for Bamboo! Great move by Zero Sequence as it was a warm up for this night's main event.

The moment Bamboo (the Band) stepped on stage, the Pinoys (who comprised most of the audience) stood up, trooped towards the stage and cameras started flashing. Screams of "Will you marry me Bamboo!", fists in the air, the collective jumping up-and-down, shouting "Hoy! Pinoy Ako!", shouts of "More!"... Fort Canning began to look like a real rock concert. There was still hope after all! Nathan Azarcon even stepped off the stage and started playing the bass right on the grass! Yeah!

I've seen Bamboo perform before and this time was no different-- the power, energy and presence on stage is so infectious that he had the Fort dancing and grooving in no time. They played standards FU, Noypi, Hallelujah and my favorite Much Has Been Said. I couldn't quite figure out how they did some of the songs because I could definitely hear an electric piano but I couldn't see anyone on stage playing it! Must be magic. They capped the set with the classic Hinahanap Kita.

Four pawikan points for Bamboo! A great set on a cool night under the stars. Pop Agenda could learn a few lessons from Fete de la Musique which would draw some pretty wild crowds back in the Philippines but that's another story altogether.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rock Opera The Musical, Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Rating: 11100

A preachy, cheesy, roll-your-eyes, oh-my-gosh give-me-a-break script waters down the rock from the fun music and rocking orchestra of this show.
Last night, i caught the last performance of IMG Promotions' Rock Opera the Musical - A Rock Anthology which played to a house that was at best just a quarter full.

At first I was surprised at the sparse audience-- hey, the whimsical Vegetable Orchestra was sold out so why not this one? It was pretty unforunate since the Esplanade theatre is definitely world class! After the first few lines of dialogue were spoken, it finally dawned on me-- this words and all the songs were not in English but in Melayu!

It's a good thing that they provided subtitles using the large LED signboards on either side of the stage or else my $50 would have gone to waste. It's no wonder they couldn't pack a crowd as this was definitely a niche market-- how many theatre goers are there in Singapore? Of those theatre goers, how many appreciate rock music? And finally, how many of them can speak Malay? Uhhh... apparently not a lot. The plus side is that they bumped all of us nosebleed seats to the $80 section so I had an excellent view. That was a class act from the Esplanade staff!

The plot (what plot?)

The story is pretty bizarre (spoiler alert!)-- it's basically a flashback about Romli (Sulaiman Ekbah) who was a struggling rocker who had a homegrown Malay band* called RIM . They finally made it big by sticking to his roots and not selling out. Then the love of his life (played by Azyza) dies in a fire that starts in a kitchen because the dish she was cooking for Romli was left unattended. (I didn't see that one coming. Delicious irony.)

(**on a side note, I emphasize "Malay band" because one of the themes was that Malay music wasn't making any headway in the club scene because most preferred Filipino bands. They repeated this a couple of times and it made me proud that Pinoys were recognized as good musicians!)

Written for kids?
The characters are poorly developed and the story just felt too goody-goody for my tastes. It lacked the cheekiness, the bite, the "raw-ness" of rock. Mini lessons were incorporated such as "don't steal", "don't smoke marijuana", "don't get pregnant" that did nothing to their main 'be true to your roots' theme. The dialogue read like a never ending litany of cliches with such gems as: "I am a sparrow with small wings-- how can I fly with the falcons?" Ugh. It was too in-your-face and lacked the subtlety that would just let the audience read between the lines. Or then again maybe the meaning was simply lost in translation!

The real stars of this musical
It was apparent even from the moment the lights went out that the star and showpiece of this play would definitely be the music. All throughout the show and without fail, the orchestra flexed their musical muscles masterfully-- combining a solid catchy beat, electric guitar lead, subtle ethnic percussions, strings, the barely-there ooohs and aahhhs of a choir and playful keyboards into a refined and surgically precise rock and roll. You know that music director Amri Amin did well because his music was talking. I understood the music even if I could not speak a word of Malay. Ever heard the saying that music transcends borders? His work is proof.

The verdict
Three pawikan points for Rock Opera The Musical- A rock anthology. Minus points for the too-long title and that distracting drum set in the middle of the stage-- the actor playing the drummer wasn't doing a good job of "lip-synching" the drumming and I found it very distracting.

Bonus points for the backup dancers from the ERA Dance Theater even if I thought that their ballet-inspired choreography was a tad inappropriate for rock and roll. They looked like they were having fun and were dancing with a lot of spirit-- which I think is what rock is really all about.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Taste the music of The Vegetable Orchestra from Vienna

Rating: 11110
When these people say that they've got taste in music, I can assure you they're not kidding-- It's because the Vegetable Orchestra uses vegetables (and a couple of kitchen utensils) as their instruments and after the show, serves a hot vegetable soup for the audience to enjoy.

After last Sunday's Death and the Ploughman I was lucky enough to get a seat at the sold-out Raffles' stately Jubilee Hall for the orchestra's final performance as part of the Singapore Arts Festival.

Even if I got the cheapest $20 tickets, I think they were the best in the house because to my surprise, there were only 16 of these plush balcony seats which felt very exclusive!

From the moment they started their first piece Ur-Gem-X, i had a funny grin on my face because of the novelty of it all. In a nutshell, these serious looking guys on stage came all the way from Vienna to make funny sounds with vegetables and we serious looking folk paid some good money to hear them do it!

A pumpkin with a mic inside it provided a solid bass beat, carrots were flutes, chopping knives were snare drums and coupled with the crisp successive snaps of lettuce stalks, grated carrots, beans rubbing against each other and hollowed out stalks that were horns-- everything coming together made for an eclectic sound. There was even a soloist using a leek! Eek!

The predominant sound is some sort of tribal house music dominated by different percussion sounds. As expected, not all of what they played are actually "songs"-- they did a piece about the rainforest and if you closed your eyes, it sounded eerily real! The swishing of leaves, gurgling rain, complete with the sounds of fighting primates that escalated into a rousing cacophony of question and answer was pretty intense specially when you realize that all of the sound is produced by ordinary veggies.

The obvious favorite of the night was their house-music inspired (and aptly named) Greenhouse! That distinctive electronic thumping bass of dance music was faithfully reproduced by what looked like an avocado and I was so impressed that i grabbed an mp3 recording of it with my trusty mobile phone. You can have a listen here. (Better quality audio clips of their other music are available at their website.)

No modern concert would be complete without visualizations and the vegetable orchestra is not an exception! The group's video artist, Volker Piringe, combined "live action" of the instruments being performed on top of an overheard projector with some trippy visuals (complete with fog machine!) on a huge screen. Psychedelic beans, thinly sliced carrot slices swirling around and a first person perspective of a camera moving through a sea of lettuce gave me a sense of what it's like to be a vegetarian on ecstasy!

Coming from a third world country, I don't usually approve of seeing so much wasted food but I guess they redeemed themselves because at the end of the hour long show, a hot soup was served so we could "enjoy the instruments a second time around."

Four pawikan points for this unique all-senses experience. You see the trippy visuals, hear the music, taste the vegetables and if you're quick, you can even come up to the stage after the show and bring home some of the musical instruments!

Plus points because as the show ended and most of the vegetables had been crushed, shredded and chopped, I could smell the fresh vegetable aroma and I felt part of the huge caesar's salad of life.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Death and the Ploughman, Singapore Drama Centre

Rating: 1110.50
"The moment we enter this world, we are old enough to leave it."

Sometimes I forget how fragile human life is and it takes three people, a stage and $20 to remind me again that one of these many days will be my last.

I caught the final show of SITI Company's performance of Death and the Ploughman at the splendid Singapore Drama Centre. These actors flew in all the way from America as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2006.

Death and the Ploughman was written in German almost 600 years ago by Johannes von Saaz and was translated by playwright Michael West.

This is a serious debate (trial?) between Death (as in the grim reaper) and a ploughman who has lost his wife. The first scene alone had the ploughman throwing non-stop curses and expletives at Death for taking his wife. I've never heard such well mannered cussing that seemed to last forever!

The script has a lot of "gems" of wisdom and i wish i brought a notebook with me so i could write down those lines! There's a lot of ear candy and was littered with a lot of what I call litany-style speech which is enumerating all the different ways to refer to something as if reading from a list.

I specially liked Death's discourse (who was by the way, very dapper in his suit and bowler's hat!) on the duality of everything-- how if you want love, you must also be ready for pain and after pleasure comes the absence of pleasure etc...

In my opinion, it's the script that makes this play. You could actually close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue that was delivered with such power and conviction. I was even pleasantly surprised when Death broke into song! His rough, gruff voice doing some bluesy riffs was a refreshing interlude to the dialogue. Death's take on women and marriage brought chuckles from the audience but the Ploughman put up an equally strong defence!

This was pretty deep stuff so I had to concentrate so that I wouldn't miss a thing. What I couldn't quite get was the significance of their movements along the stage-- slow-motion, with what seemed to me as ballet inspired twists and turns with the actors rarely seeing eye-to-eye.

Three and a half pawikan points-- plus points for the great delivery of lines and how the play got me thinking which led to some pretty intense introspection while on the MRT on the way home.