If you’re familliar with Malaysia’s The Shang Sisters, you would know that they pull out all stops to exude that old world glamour of Nanyang Jazz.
Don’t ask me why, but since being released in June 2022, the second album by the Kuala Lumpur-based vintage-pop female vocal trio has stayed under the radar of music critics. But for those familiar with both Malaysia’s melting pot and the problems it ensues, listening to the trio’s eponymous album is highly recommended — it may as well be the proverbial glue to “stick it all together”.
Flying under the banner of Nanyang Jazz (Nanyang is the Mandarin Chinese term for Southeast Asia), the Shang Sisters’ mixes originals and cover versions of old Malay and Mandarin language classics. Like a well-oiled time machine, the record is interspersed with snatches of sounds and conversations from the old times of Malaysia. Word may still spread slowly to most Malaysian music press, but in July 20,2022 the album already made it straight into the top ten bestseller list at Hong Kong’s Singer Channel. Not surprising, given that the girls’ bob cuts, high heels, and flamboyant stage dresses all hint at the tradition of Chinese Shidaiqu music (literally meaning “songs of the era”).
Born in the back alleys of 1920s Shanghai, Shidaiqu was a Chinese re-appropriation of Western pop and jazz. When the Cultural Revolution came to grab China by the neck, zeroing down on all cultural practises — especially those influenced by the West— Shidaiqu performers migrated to Hong Kong, where the genre not just survived, but thrived until the 1970s, when it slowly succumbed to the novel sounds of Canto and Mando pop.
Back to the present and The Shang Sisters: the band formed in 2014 as The Shanghai Sisters, reinterpreting old Shanghai jazz classics and releasing an acclaimed self-titled album in 2019. In 2021, they changed one member and cut their name shorter. Today, the trio is formed by singers Janet Lee, Winnie Ho and Mian Tan, who are backed by the talented WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble, helmed by Kuala Lumpur pianist extraordinaire, Tay Cher Siang.
“Nanyang Jazz is a term coined by our team and means a multilingual repertoire from Southeast Asia, paired with musical influences from different regions of the world,” explains Lee. This revivalist-conservationist vision, says Lee, is also shared by a few other Kuala Lumpur-based artists like Ida Mariana, who sings nostalgic Malayan oldies dressed in traditional kebaya, Yudi Yap, and the retro glam Malaysian big-band Tarakucha.
The rationale behind Nanyang Jazz is to perform covers of old classics with jazz rearrangements. “It is our way of connecting with our past while reaching out to contemporary audiences,” says Tan. “We are often told that our music connects multiple generations — songs that remind a young person of what their grannies used to listen to,” says Ho.
The beauty and the uniqueness of The Shang Sister’s repertoire of Nanyang Jazz is certainly language: from Malay oldies to Mandarin and English songs, The Shang Sisters are well used to sing in the whole lot — and to listeners, it all conjures a veritable, contemporary Malaysian lingo.
“The decision to be a multilingual band is a no-brainer as it is our cultural and artistic narrative – it is how we live,” says Lee. To evoke this “life” even more, language and music are not the only dimensions of the album. “The inclusion of sounds and conversations on yesteryears’ stories adds layers and substance, complementing our music with a cultural narrative for the listener”, she says.
In a way, the Nanyang Jazz experiment then digs into the past to recover emotions that are timeless. “Nanyang Jazz to me is pretty much the spirit of jazz: the fusion of various influences, tastes, sounds, regardless of old or new,” says Tay Cher Siang.
“What we are doing is to take a piece of good music, and put on a new presentation. We introduce this music to people who weren’t even born yet when it was popular back in the day. Sometimes, our young audience finds an affinity with their parents and grandparents via this experience”.
By using a backing band of men, The Shang Sisters honours the tradition of foxy Shanghai Jazz performers.
“Our working process and relationship with our all-male backing band, and our full-blooded male band leader, Tay Cher Siang, has always been smooth – with ample room for discussions, ideas from both sides are often shared and executed well,” says Ho.
Mian says that the band’s focus is not on exploiting the sensuality of their gender. “Rather, our emphasis of who The Shang Sisters are is rooted in values like freedom, free-spiritedness, wisdom, strength and grit”.
I would add, a resolution to play live and bring Nanyang Jazz to the masses. After having graced the stage of George Town Festival 2022, played at many of Kuala Lumpur jazz and rock venues, such as Bobo KL, rocked the Crockfords Hotel at Genting Highland, and a headlining appearance at Pangkor Island Jazz Festival 2022, these sisters (and brothers) really do seem hellbent to keep bringing on Nanyang Jazz to the masses. Go and have a listen.
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All images supplied by The Shang Sisters.
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