Q&A: The TENG Ensemble talks heritage and concerts

Updated on September 1 2016

Founded in 2009, homegrown music group The TENG Ensemble is known for its fusion style of music, inspired by Singapore heritage. Think folk ditties and National Day tunes such as Di Tanjong Katong, Chan Mali Chan and Munnaeru Vaalibaa, but with a contemporary spin and reinterpreted through a mix of Chinese and Western music instruments.

These will take centre stage tonight at the ensemble’s concert Stories from an Island City at the Esplanade Concert Hall and features original compositions accompanied by film and dance performances. The show, which is directed by Glen Goei, is the group’s latest major gig following two sold-out concerts in 2012 and 2013. Their impressive (and ever-growing) portfolio also includes playing at the Youth Olympic Games and Shanghai World Expo in 2010, and last year, they were even commended in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech for “[injecting] new elements into traditional culture”.

The homegrown ensemble’s signature sound features Western and Chinese instruments such as the pipa, played by Samuel Wong.

Made up of six members, Pipa player Samuel Wong, Sheng player Yang Ji Wei, guitarist James Fernando, sound artist Huang Peh Linde, countertenor Phua Ee Kia and cellist Gerald Teo, we chatted with The TENG Ensemble at the newly-opened, Peranakan-inspired Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, where they shared about the importance of preserving Singapore heritage and what to expect at their next gig.

LSA: How would you describe The TENG Ensemble’s signature style of music, and how have audiences responded to it?

Samuel Wong: We take old local pieces and folk songs, and merge them with new and contemporary influences. We want to reinvent the music for a modern audience, while preserving these folk and heritage pieces so younger generations will know them in years to come.

Yang Ji Wei: Many of our fans find that our work creates a sense of nostalgia, and see it as an opportunity to introduce heritage songs to their children.

Huang Peh Linde is The TENG Ensemble’s keyboardist and music arranger.

LSA: You’ve done everything, from a medley of Adele songs to a reinvented version of Malay folk song Semoga Bahagia. How do you come up with ideas for your music arrangements?

Huang Peh Linde: I’m the resident music producer and arrange all of our music. I usually start by imagining the sounds I’d want to hear and form a story around. For instance, if the song is about a day in a Malay kampong, I’d think of traditional Kompang drums, an accordion and street sounds, and try to translate that into music.

Samuel Wong: We want to strike a balance in the type of songs we create. Besides heritage aspect, we’re doing an Evolution series of songs — like the one we did with Adele’s hits — to showcase the capability of our ensemble. We have quite a number of Evolution songs in the pipeline.

Teng Ensemble Photoshoot-9887
Guitarist James Fernando is the newest member of the band and is versatile at the electric and acoustic forms of the instrument.

LSA: Do you have any special rituals before going onstage?

Phua Ee Kia: I might have the most unsociable way of preparing myself. On the performance day, I try not to talk or sing, otherwise my voice gets tired — it’s not like most instruments or voices where, the more you warm up, better it gets. My [countertenor voice] is a little more fragile, so I try not to talk until the performance. Sometimes I feel like a hermit in a corner! But that’s part and parcel of delivering my best during the concert.

LSA: What’s your most memorable experience as a performer? 

Gerald Teo: I can’t pick just one, but I’ve really enjoyed our international performances. Sharing our music with a global audience is a great feeling. We recently came back from a 12-day tour in Hong Kong, where we worked with a singer called Vincy Chan. That was quite memorable.

James Fernando: I just joined the ensemble in March, but I really enjoyed the trip to Hong Kong too. It’s nice to know that the music we play, touches people. We also performed at this year’s Star Awards ceremony, which was wonderful.

Cellist Gerald Teo will play a folk tune at the ensemble’s upcoming concert.

LSA: What can audiences expect from your upcoming concert? 

Samuel Wong: We’ll be showcasing 10 original songs, which draw inspiration from Singapore folk songs and old pieces which were popular here in the past. It will be a mix of unique sounds with featuring familiar tunes like Chan Mali Chan and Di Tanjong Katong, which have been reinvented and reworked.

Gerald Teo: I’ll be performing a solo piece — a folk tune, which is in an awkward key that’s not very suitable for the cello, which makes it quite exciting. I’ll be keeping the song a secret until the concert.

www.thetengcompany.com