Music can take you Around the World in 80 Minutes using various “vehicles”, with interludes to enjoy compositions from various countries. The itinerary ITA (Irama Tanah Air) Ensemble has mapped out for guests over four days from Sept 7 includes several “stops” where the traveller gets to experience stories and music at each destination.
ITA Ensemble is akin to an extended family of musicians brought together by Bernard Goh, founder and artistic director of Hands Percussion, the producer of this upcoming concert. Six composers have adapted 14 classic pieces, with which they will take audiences on a musical journey from Asia to the Middle East, Scandinavia and South America.
Ten musicians will perform the songs using instruments such as the bamboo flute, zhong ruan, pipa, erhu, sanxian, guzheng, Malay drums, cello, harmonica, piano and keyboards.
“We thought, why don’t we use our own music language to show a Malaysian sound.
You have to aim high. After the last three years, when you want to do something, you just do,” says Goh, who has worked with some of the musicians, regulars at Hands’ shows, for decades.
Yuan Leow Yunn, the music director for Around the World, arranged five of the pieces, adapting them for different instruments and even the way the musicians play. To get a feel for the music — one such piece being the Love Theme from Italian Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso (Best Foreign Language Film, 1990) — she watched it and cried buckets.
“It’s quite fun to work with different composers because they tend to have different styles.” What also delights Yuan is how, when given pieces that she sees as difficult, the musicians rise to the challenge and deliver.
Two of her original compositions, Wings of Light and Horse Dance, are on the programme. With Malaysia Day coming up, the evergreen Rasa Sayang is a rousing inclusion, while popular Thai number Loy Krathong will have the audience tapping to its beat.
Items lined up for the show include Freddie Aguilar ’s Anak, which brought Filipino folk music to the world stage; Duel in the Mist, the soundtrack from Realm of Tranquil Eternity, the album for Japanese action role-playing game Genshin Impact; Jazz Suite, Waltz No 2 by Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich; Caprice of the Western Region (China); Celtic Duelling Violins; Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman) from the French musical romance written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard; and Ka Bohaleng (On the Sharp Side), a traditional African song which references the saying that a woman holds the sharp end of a knife.
Rebab player Matdin Hussin, who is also adept at various other instruments, will sing Kâtibim/Alangkah Indah Di Waktu Pagi, a famous Turkish tune, in Arabic and Malay.
With all this variety packed for Around the World, feeling the music is important because the language for each composition is different, says Howzie Yong, who plays the ruan, bamboo flute and sanxian. This food science graduate studied and worked in Taiwan for a decade before returning home to Malaysia.
Eight years ago, he turned professional because “music has always been a very important part of my life”. Informing his parents of his decision took time, more because knowing how tough it would be to make a living with music, Yong wanted to “take action first then tell them”. For the first five years, it was a struggle, he adds.
The odd thing is there has been a surge of concerts post-pandemic and this freelancer has been getting more job offers, a new experience for Yong, who also teaches music. Following the musical route too, Goh formed ITA two years ago. “We have our own jobs but I think the passion and will to form a quality and good ensemble was there — everyone was on the same path. That’s why I thought, ‘Okay, let’s take a risk and get it all together.’
“In one sense, I think some of our players don’t know how good they are. They don’t believe because sometimes in the environment they are in, they teach, come and play, and then go back to teaching. Sometimes, it’s also hard if you want to get down to some really serious music business — things can turn out differently, right? That was why we decided that if there are negative things or thoughts, to say them outright first.”
It looks like the ITA team is done with that. With the air clear and the wind at their back, there is only the way forward as they prepare to whisk viewers on a memorable musical journey.
'Around the World in 80 Minutes' runs from Sept 7 to 10 at PJPAC, 1 Utama E, Petaling Jaya. Showtime is 8pm nightly except for Sunday (3pm). Tickets at RM128 and RM188. For enquiries, call (012) 779 8009. Book here.
This article first appeared on Sept 4, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.