The Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) invited Orkestra Sri Temasek (OrST) to perform at the inaugural Hari Warisan (Cultural Heritage Appreciation Day) organised by the foundation in late 2021. Co-Founder and Music Director, Megat Muhammad Firdaus, led OrST in showcasing lively, upbeat, and energetic traditional Malay music pieces creatively arranged and given a modern twist.
Megat Muhammad Firdaus, Dip. LCM (B.85), also known as Megat, 37, is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and music director from Singapore. Despite a diverse range of traditional instruments, Megat is known for his performance on the accordion. Since his music career started almost two decades ago, he has travelled and acquired knowledge from around the Malay Archipelago and conducted and performed with various groups in Asia.
Megat has helmed several national and international groups as music director or conductor over the past two decades, including the Warna-Warni Assemblage (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysian Traditional Orchestra, Singapore Malay Youth Orchestra, Marsiling Malay Orchestra, Darul Takzim Orchestra and Sekolah Tun Fatimah School (both Johor Bahru).
An active leader in the local music community, Megat is currently the ambassador for Gemadah, a Malay Traditional Music Festival, an associate member of the Singapore composer’s society, Music Director of Sinar Fusika, Music Director of Permaisuara, a local Malay Choral Group and co-founded OrST, the first entirely acoustic Malay Chamber Orchestra in 2011.
Megat recently graduated with first-class honours, BA (Hons) from the London College of music. His intense focus on Malay Traditional music sets the foundation for his studies and research work aiming to be the first Singaporean as a Malay Traditional music performance researcher. We recently hung out with the pleasant and ever jovial Megat to learn what he is up to nowadays.
Q: Hi Megat, how are you? What keeps you busy nowadays?
Hello! Thank you for asking. I am doing well, and since we are returning to pre-covid days, classes and performances are picking up. What has kept me busy the past year are my studies and creating new online works with several groups in Singapore under the Self-Employed grant scheme that NAC gave out to help local artists in Singapore continue creating new jobs in these uncertain times and, of course, helping to prepare and organise the first Hari Warisan in 2021. What an honour!
Q: How early did your passion for music begin, and what made you realise it was something you wanted to pursue?
Music has been in my family since I was born, as my father is a gigging musician playing the guitar and bass. I recalled following him to community centres to watch him practice, and I started playing the tambourine, just keeping the rhythm and adding my hits when the music calls for it. And guess what? The music that I was introduced to was Hindustani music, as it was a hit amongst the Malays in the 80s. I then got acquainted with the drum set, where I learned and played from my father and eventually played on my own at wedding performances under the void decks. So, to say it’s a passion might not be as accurate, but it is already built into me to want to learn, play, and perform music in general and my father is the reason behind it.
Q: As a young instrumentalist, what influenced you to perform traditional Malay music?
(Smiling) I am glad to be still referred to as young. Thank you for your kind acknowledgment (Laughs). My knowledge and influence on Malay music came from my Late Grandfather, Tengku Jaafar Bin Tengku Muhammad. In 1999, I recalled watching a performance back then on TV12 where Singapore Malay Orchestra performed at the Singapore Conference Hall. My grandfather, who was affectionately known as “Bapak”, was also watching it with me and mentioned that I should join them as a musician since I did learn the violin in primary school and to learn and play traditional Malay music. But back then, I was too young even to know and differentiate the genres of Malay music. So, I just shrugged it off and enjoyed the music as it was. But for sure, the music is captivating with this piece titled “Langkisau si Marantang” and “Terbang Garud”, where I got to perform and conduct the music in the future.
It was only during my NS days that I plucked enough courage to check out the OMS (Youth Wing) in 2005 and joined as a flute player for their inaugural concert. From there, I was noticed by the late music director Abang Jais Minsawi. I was brought into the Marsiling Malay Orchestra as one of its musicians and then took over as Music Director in 2008.
Q: You are very versatile, Megat. You are known as an instrumentalist, arranger, composer, and conductor. How do you juggle between these roles, and which one is your favourite?
As the saying goes, jack of all trades, master of none but better than one. I am a person who is always intrigued to learn new things (music only) and consistently tries to fill up the gaps in a music ensemble or an arrangement of music. Hence, I picked up many different instruments to help fill that void in a Malay ensemble. During those times, there were not enough Malay musicians who could play specific instruments like the violin, cello, double bass, and oboe. As for arranging and composing music, these are needs in the Malay community where there is not enough music written in the Malay genre for Malay Orchestras or ensembles.
So, I stepped up and began writing music for them and eventually found that I enjoyed writing music, and getting it played live by an orchestra is just mesmerising! But the love of my life is conducting and directing music. Since my secondary school days, I have always tried to organise small groups to rehearse and work with what little knowledge I have.
Directing and conducting music are two different experiences altogether. Getting to input your ideas and vision of the outcome of the music pushes me to be creative in how to achieve it. Each group I work with has its unique sound and styles and will create different outcomes even with the same piece of music! As I grow with my music, there are other roles, responsibilities and requirements that I would give out these roles based on individual projects. So, one day I could conduct and the next, play the accordion! Keep it fun and healthy!
Q: We also understand that you like to infuse a modern touch into the music pieces. Could you share more with us?
The modern touch is a new addition that so happens right before covid. I have been toying with the idea of mixing and having cross-genres since 2010. Co-founder Afi Hanafi also reciprocated this and we have been discussing it since OrST began in 2011. The opportunity came for us to realise this in 2019 when Esplanade approached us to perform something unique that reflects Malay traditional and western classical music in their program series called “Cool Classics”. We immediately jumped on board and started with our first “Classically Malay” series. The performance got rousing applause and a standing ovation with Fireworks to end our performance set. It so happens they were celebrating Chinese New Year and River Hongbao was on (Laughs).
Q: What made you decide to form OrST?
In 2010, the Marsiling Malay Orchestra (OMM) that I was helming had to close due to unforeseen circumstances. And that year also, I got to know Afi Hanafi, who joined OMM as a singer. We clicked well and had similar interests and understanding of the need for Malay music and culture to be brought to greater heights. We considered a few things on why we should start a new group: instruments, rehearsal space, name and many others. But the main thing that kept us going and immediately starting OrST is the pool of OMM musicians who have followed us since day 1. They were the main reason for making OrST a reality. Without them, we are just a name. Their dedication and commitment are why Orkestra Sri Temasek came to live.
Q: Which is your favourite musical piece you composed/arranged and why?
There are too many arrangements and compositions that I am proud of. I must be fair to all my music (Laughs). Among the few I can recall is a composition titled Temasek and an arrangement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony crossing over with the Joget Hitam Manis.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish to continue championing Malay heritage?
I hope to create the first Malay music academy in Singapore where students of any age or race can learn and study a Malay Traditional instrument of their choice and continue to preserve the Malay Arts, Culture and Heritage through music.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the music scene in Singapore, especially for the local artists and practitioners? Any advice for young Singaporeans considering a music career?
My hope and aspiration for local artists and practitioners are never to give up even when the going gets tough. What we are doing is different from a regular day job. We have a duty and responsibility to preserve Malay Arts. It will take years to achieve what we want, but the outcome will be fruitful and amazing. Those considering a music career always ask around and constantly strive to do better and better in whatever you set your mind to. And yes, what people say is true. If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. I learned it the hard way. Again whatever it is, DO NOT GIVE UP!
Q: Describe yourself in three words.
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