The next time someone asks how you are and you don’t feel like the ‘standard’ pandemic reply -- I’m okay lah. I’m still alive. Life sucks. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m depressed – try “Yolala”.
It is gibberish, catchy and bound to have someone say, “Eh?”
The phrase “yolala yola” played in the head of singer, producer and music educator Winnie Ho when she wanted to write an original song in the vein of Que Será, Será (Spanish for what will be, will be) during the dark days of Covid. Ho is a member of local jazz vocal trio the Shang Sisters (TSS), together with Mian Tan and Janet Lee.
“It was a time when we didn’t know what the future would bring but wanted to have a sense of hope and faith, to let go, be in the moment and take whatever comes,” Lee says. “It was difficult to explain the emotions we all felt during the lockdown -- anticipation mixed with anxiety and depression. Sometimes we didn’t want to.
“Winne wanted to break that [chain] with a song that’s easy to sing. Everyone was texting each other so, instead of a quick answer, give it in a song.”
Yolala, written by Ho and Wong Siew Jie, is one of 18 tracks in the eponymous The Shang Sisters, released last month. TSS has made the spirited number its anthem as it highlights the “need to persevere, post-pandemic, with determination and hope”. The music director for the album is Tay Cher Siang, who led his band WVC Jazz Ensemble in the recording.
A music video for Yolala invites fans to tap along as the Shang Sisters ride a retro pink Volkswagen van around the heart of Kuala Lumpur, stopping to sing and dance at colourful and iconic locations. Fashion designer and plant dyer Eric Choong styled the gals’ snazzy wardrobe to reflect their vivacity and the beauty of traditional wear. Chic makeup and bop hairdos complete their modern Asian woman image.
Ho produced the album featuring popular Southeast Asian tunes in Chinese, Malay and English – such as Nona Nona Zaman Sekarang, Let’s Twist Again, Give Me a Kiss, Love and Passion, and the evergreen Sukiyaki (a Japanese hit song from 1963)– as well as as snatches of sounds and conversations , with Pearlly Chua, on what was expected of traditional Chinese brides (needlework skills and a dowry), Nyonya kuih, ABC (air batu campur or shaved ice drizzled with syrup) and aromatic Nanyang coffee, that take listeners back in time.
“It’s kind of like singing old songs and giving them a twist, adding a bit more character and sense of location, belonging and story. Not just three women doing covers. There is also the pride of enjoying the music that we do,” Lee says.
The whole package connects the spirit of jazz and the wealth of Nanyang culture by the group that started in 2014 as The Shanghai Sisters, to reinterprete Shanghai classics through song and dance. They performed in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and released a self-titled album in 2019 before reemerging last year with their new name. Confident about its Nanyang roots, TSS is sailing at full throttle to fuse East and West with jazzy imagination, tight harmonies and strong vocals.
People often ask what their music is about. “I prefer to describe it as rojak,”Ho says. “It has a good mix of local cultures; it is multilingual and contains musical influences from different regions of the world. We grew up with such a rich myriad of cultures and we’re proud to be products of that milieu. Naturally our music bears all the hallmarks of this unique imprint of our environment – a uniquely Malaysian brand of Nanyang jazz.”