Street spirit: Documentary shines light on Singapore buskers (VIDEO)

‘Singapore Minstrel’ examines the lives of street-savvy performers who have long entertained the public and enlivened public spaces in the island nation.  — TODAY pic
‘Singapore Minstrel’ examines the lives of street-savvy performers who have long entertained the public and enlivened public spaces in the island nation. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 25 — You’re rushing to your next appointment through the Orchard Road underpass when, all of a sudden, you hear a familiar song that unexpectedly lightens up your mood during an otherwise hectic day. You don’t quite realise it but it’s all thanks to that impassioned busker you’ve walked past almost every day.

Yes, those romantic troubadours, one-man bands and street-savvy performers have long entertained the public and enlivened public spaces — even in Singapore.

And Ng Xi Jie is making sure you hear all about it with her debut feature film titled “Singapore Minstrel.”

The multi-disciplinary artist’s film is making its world premiere next week under the Singapore Panorama section at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), which opens tomorrow.

At the heart of the documentary that shines the spotlight on the local busking community is pioneering busker Roy Payamal, who has sometimes been dubbed the “Silver Man”.

“Singapore Minstrel’s” kaleidoscopic approach ranges from interviews to fantasy sequences to raw footage of everyday life, which Payamal captures on his mobile phone.

“Singapore buskers are harmless, lovely people who want to perform for others. Being a busker in Singapore is unconventional and being unconventional in Singapore takes courage and belief,” shared Ng. “However the busking scene could be more innovative, as the acts get repetitive sometimes. In some other countries, buskers are always reinventing and improving — that’s what busking is about — making magic on the streets. Roy is constantly challenging and improving himself like a wild inventor, which is why I had to make a film about him.”

Being in a romantic relationship with Payamal could very likely have pushed the 28-year-old Ng into making “Singapore Minstrel” on a deeper, more personal level. But that’s certainly not the only reason — for Ng, he’s an inspirational figure.

“(He) doesn’t feel of this world. Through him I met a whole community of buskers, who were fascinatingly eccentric, discovered the busking scene and realised it had an interesting, little-known history,” she said.

The film was a collaborative process, revealed Ng. “He contributed some wonderful ideas to the film from a refreshing perspective. And now that the film is coming out, it’s a special moment for us.”

The movie was originally conceived as a short film, for which Ng received a Singapore Film Commission short-film grant. She started filming Payamal’s work a few years ago “because it was so wild and changing so fast that I felt compelled to document it”.

“For me, it has always been like witnessing a little revolution on the streets. I was working at the National Arts Council some years back and was in the same department that handled busking. It was fascinating that there were auditions and processes and I told myself that one day I’d make a film about it; (even) though the film is primarily about Roy and we see busking by entering his universe. Three years ago, Roy was kicked out of Orchard Road and it felt like an injustice. This added to our conviction to make this film and say something about busking, art and culture.”

“Singapore Minstrel” also shines the light on original music by Payamal, visual artist Lee Wen and AhLian Rok Minah Rolll.

“I had an archive of tunes Roy would record on his iPhone and send to me. I love them because they’re very whimsical, heartfelt and evidently come from someone who can’t sing well but enjoys making up these little wonderful, strange ditties.”

As for tunes from Lee and AhLian RokMinah Rolll, Ng said that for the longest time, she was looking for original music to create the feeling of the film. In the end, she interviewed Lee, who had known Payamal from the early days of what was then The Substation’s garden space.

“I suddenly remembered Lee Wen’s archive of original music — very raw, poetic, soulful songs reminiscent of Bob Dylan. I loved them and knew that was it: His songs are like the musical soul of Roy in the film. He was generous enough to grant us access to his huge archive and from there I picked songs.”

Meanwhile, AhLian Rok Minah Rolll had been the co-music director of the film Azmy, together with Singapore Minstrel’s sound designer Dennis Tan. The two would team up to compose more tunes for Ng’s film during the final stages, giving it a “shiok kick and a local vibe from Malay songs they had sourced”.

As a first-time documentary film-maker, Ng reckons everyone can use their iPhones to make a film. “It is, to me, a valid device for film-making. I don’t think films necessarily have to be polished; they just have to have a soul and a feeling,” she said.

At the same time, she noted, it can be quite difficult getting people in Singapore on camera. “Being on record with one’s views, or showing people your personal spaces can be intimidating in our culture. For example, National Arts Council declined for their spokesperson to have her face filmed, which is why we only have a voice interview with them.”

With this being her debut feature, what about going through the film-making process has surprised Ng the most?

“Having made a few short films, I don’t have a lot of experience with film-making and I’m amazed I jumped through the right hoops at the right time. Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it. At the same time, it felt like I knew it would be something special one day. It felt like I was birthing a baby with a lot of contractions.”

So what does she hope audiences take away from “Singapore Minstrel”? The idea of simply doing what you want to do.

“Singapore is a complex country. It is adorable, eccentric and idiosyncratically unique. At the same time, there exists an amount of fear, apathy about human rights and some level of state control. It can be a repressive place to live in if you’re a certain type of person. But I hope people have a desire to live their lives, whatever that means to them,” she said, citing her favourite line from the film — a scene where Japanese female busker Yukari Yoneda says “I want to say to people, please try something for your lives”. — TODAY

* “Singapore Minstrel” will be screened on November 30, 9:30pm, at National Museum of Singapore. For more information on the Singapore International Film Festival, visit http://sgiff.com/

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