Raffles Jazz Concert ‘19: Manha de Carnaval

By Sophia He (20S03H), Huang Beihua (20A03A), and Kwee Qiao Ying (19S03K)
Photos by Syu Rui Ying (20S06M) and Jensen Huang (20S06T) of the Raffles Photographic Society

It was 5.30pm on the 4th of May, 2019. Outside the Performing Arts Centre (PAC), all was calm. The Gryphon Square lazed under the afternoon sun. Students, one or two, broke their concentration on vector equations to laugh at their friends’ Star Wars puns of questionable quality, and Teddy was being petted (we know it was a Saturday, but let’s face it, when isn’t someone petting Teddy?)

Inside, though, was a wholly different sight: cymbals clanged and the saxophone sang, smartly dressed jazz members shuttled between stagefront and back, and decor team members worked their magic on balloons and duct tape, about to meet the concert that would be the culmination of many months of hard work by Raffles Jazz—Manha de Carnaval.

The tireless effort undertaken—spanning the entire length from late February right to the big day itself—was justifiably a source of pride. Alvan Png (20A03A), the incoming chairperson of Raffles Jazz, enthused, “It was great seeing everybody in top form working together to practise for a great concert, practis[ing] dry runs, decorating this place, putting in their 110% to get everything done… It was fantastic.”

It was understandable, then, that we entered the PAC later that night to an atmosphere of anticipation. Recordings of classics like “Fly Me To The Moon” by Frank Sinatra suffused the hall, whilst the string of blinking fairy lights that draped across the stage lent itself to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the night.

Finally (after four long paragraphs of preamble, no less), 7.40pm rolled around. Under the dimming lights, the show began with an evocative rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come”. Originally appearing in the 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the song carried forward the tender love and gentle nurture so celebrated by the fairy tale. The pellucid voice of Chiew Chern Faye (20S06N) took to the stage, immersing the hall in a lullaby praising a time when dreams could always come true.

A short but indelible improvisatory phrase on the keys.

Next in line was “Flor de Lis”, a “beautifully tragic” piece written by Brazilian singer Djavan. Where the Portuguese lyrics hindered our appreciation of the song’s pathos, the performers made up with their effusiveness. A resplendent smile on her face, vocalist Rayna Mak (19S03O)’s layered, rich voice, and the flawless coordination of the instrumental accompaniment, drew the audience into the effervescent atmosphere of the catchy tune. When the vocals gave way to piano and drum solos, the notes shined too, dancing from one to another jubilantly.

The professionalism of the Jazz members that put our shower-singing to shame was of little coincidence. Indeed, as Ho Hong Wei (19S02A), described, instructors would be invited to “come down and listen to [their] pieces” in a routine process known as the “quality check”, just so that the CCA could present their very best on this very day. So confident was Jazz in their skill that, in fact, seated among the audience were two of Singapore’s finest Jazz musicians Ms Aya Sekine and Mr Felix Phang, specially invited to witness the progress of the music scene in schools.

And, as we entered “There Will Never Be Another You”, it was only made clearer that the confidence was by no means unfounded. The mildly sorrowful tune unfurled its brilliance in its contemplative melody as, taking to the microphone once again, Chern Faye transfixed the audience in the song’s sentimental plea to the lover that “there will never be another you”. And how could said lover not listen, when it was made by a voice like hers?

A lighthearted piece was sorely needed at the end of the song—and there “Sway” was. Ushered onto the stage by a regrettably relatable joke on misplaced water bottles, this standard in jazz and pop repertoires was upbeat and lively: its bubbly tunes underlined by drums kept afloat a casual yet expressive spirit that animated every jazz song.

An unexpected yet no less delightful stick flip.

Indeed, the sheer number and variety of subgenres that come together under the nebulous heading of “jazz” necessarily engendered some trepidation in the less informed among us, the writers ourselves included. Could we, with so little knowledge on a genre so vast, really enjoy the music to its fullest? Hong Wei was forthcoming yet reassuring when asked about this: whilst he did not deny that jazz was “something you need to understand to fully appreciate”, he also stressed that even without knowing all its intricacies, “the layman can still enjoy jazz, because it’s so groovy.”

With that knowledge, we entered the next number of the night, “You Stepped out of a Dream”. It was a lively piece starring not one, not two, but three guitarists, featuring impressive, seamless changes between major and minor keys. With the absence of vocals this time round, the audience were able to fully appreciate the harmonious melody embellished with numerous complex trills.

Stepping out of a dream and into Manha de Carnaval – is there really a discernible difference?

The groovy, jubilant mood continued into “Pretend”, a hopeful, optimistic tune that comforts a melancholic listener to “Remember anyone can dream/And nothing’s bad as it may seem”.  It was an innocent and sweet message delivered immaculately in a lilting, tender soliloquy presented with sincerity and grace. Even as, in times of war, musicians were drafted to the frontlines, the quintessential buoyancy of jazz endured. Songs emerging from ever smaller ensembles remained jovial and cheerful, and “Daahoud”, a tribute to the era, carried the spirit forward effortlessly. The performers swayed to the beats as the song flowed and leaped happily from the stage note by note, mesmerising the audience in its frothing currents.

The swinging melody of the next song hinted at its title—”Manha de Carnaval” (Carnival Morning), the titular song of the night that bathed an audience fresh from the intermission in the idyllic, lighthearted joy of a Brazilian morning. As the ensemble “s[a]ng to the sun in the sky”, the music radiated the hall with the carefree warmth of a morning indulgent in celebration, and in the opportunities day would herald.

The audience members were then showered in passionate love with “It’s Almost Like Being in Love”, a jubilant tune that sailed boldly forward alongside the chords as the three vocalists finally came together to lend their voices to enrapturing jazz harmonies. With soft side-glances and gentle smiles, they snapped along to the virtuosic improvisations of the pianist, ceding their well-deserved spotlights to showcase the talent of their fellow instrumentalists.

The vocalists of Raffles Jazz, Rayna, Alicia and Chern Faye, finally standing together under the same spotlight.

Leading the repertoire toward a more emotional direction was “In a Sentimental Mood”, a jazz classic made a radio theme song on no fewer than nine occasions. The music delivered was charged with impressive raw emotion, as powerful vocals—interweaved between pensive strokes of the violin—echoed across the hall in confessional, and ultimately soothing, nostalgia. Such a theme continues into the next number, “It’s Alright with Me”. The intimacy of the tender melody bestows upon the music suffusing the air an almost conversational tone—only with words cushioned afloat by a melody of earnest elegance.

Back before the beginning of the concert, Alvan pointed us unequivocally to “Spain” as the highlight of the night: “It is such a good song by a set of such talented people; good Lord!” was his exclamation. Our expectations were naturally high, then, as the projector announced the next song in line, but Spain (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the talent at play) still exceeded them with ease. Guest performer Lim Shao Yong adorned the instrumental piece generously with long swathes of the flute’s lilting song, pulling the audience into the wandering, reflective solitude of its gentle cadences. Yet, the flute readily joined the other instruments at a moment’s notice, blending seamlessly with them into one joyous, fluent tune that caught the audience in its arms and skipped forward, carefree.

This carefree feeling carried into the next item, “Feel like Makin’ Love”, a song which encompasses diverse dynamics. The performers showed off their polished skills under the spotlight during their respective solos; yet, their teamwork and easy rapport, evident from how they seemingly communicated through music, was a further testament to the effort the Jazz members had put into practicing.

With that, the curtains drew to a close. However, devoted supporters could not get enough of the talented Jazz members and chanted enthusiastic choruses of “Encore! Encore!” Roaring cheers sounded when the departing Y6 batch took to the stage yet again to deliver a final performance. The guitarists showed off their dexterity and passion, contributing to an almost infectious energy on stage echoed by the audience’s applause. Indeed, the flawless hair flip coupled with the exuberant leap into the air (befitting of Raffles Rock) brought the concert to end on an undeniably high note.

The Y6 batch’s swansong.

Raffles Jazz might have concluded their annual performance, but few were ready to leave just yet. Flowers that had been seen in the hands of eager supporters two hours ago were now in the well-deserving hands of Jazz members. Exhilarated supporters rejoiced with their musician friends below the stage—in conversations, as they posed for photos, or just through an overjoyed embrace. Perhaps the finest symbol of friendship came when one Jazz Year 6, fresh from her performance, found herself serenaded by an entire row of supporters in an exultant “Happy Birthday”—the sweetness of it all was heartwarming even for onlookers, for strangers to their lives.

And so, as we took our leave from the PAC, from the cymbal and the saxophone, from the friendships and the love songs, from Jazz’s toil and the jovial tunes, we could not help but think of what Hong Wei told us earlier in the evening: “just feel the music—[Jazz] is a form of music that touches your soul.” Indeed, there may be still plenty that we have yet to understand but, our brief foray into the realm of jazz has been nothing but pleasurable.

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