The Shang Sisters’ eponymous album mixes jazz spirit and Nanyang culture

Next time someone asks how you’re doing and you don’t feel like the “standard” pandemic response, I’m fine. the H. I am still alive. Life fears. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m depressed – try “Yolala”.

It’s gibberish, catchy and bound to make someone say, “Eh?”

The phrase “yolala yola” played in singer, producer and music educator Winnie Ho’s head when she wanted to write an original song in the vein of That Will will (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), with Mian Tan and Janet Lee.

“It was a time when we didn’t know what the future held, but we wanted to have a sense of hope and faith, to let go, to be in the moment, and accept whatever comes,” says Lee. “It was hard to explain the emotions we all felt during lockdown – the anticipation mixed with anxiety and depression. Sometimes we didn’t want to.

“Winne wanted to break this [chain] with an easy to sing song. Everyone was texting each other so instead of a quick reply give it in a song.

yolala, written by Ho and Wong Siew Jie, is one of 18 titles by the eponymous The Shang Sisters, released last month. TSS has made this high-spirited issue its anthem as it stresses the “need to persevere, post-pandemic, with determination and hope.” The album’s musical director is Tay Cher Siang, who led his band WVC Jazz Ensemble in the recording.

A video clip for yolala invites fans to follow the beat of the Shang sisters aboard a retro pink Volkswagen van through the heart of Kuala Lumpur, stopping to sing and dance at colorful and iconic locations. Fashion designer and dyer Eric Choong styled the girls’ stylish wardrobe to reflect their liveliness and the beauty of traditional clothing. Chic makeup and bop hairstyles complete their modern Asian female image.

Ho produced the album with popular Southeast Asian tunes in Chinese, Malay and English – such as Nona Nona Zaman Sekarang, Let’s dance the twist again, Kiss Me, Love and passionand evergreen foliage Sukiyaki (a 1963 Japanese hit song) – plus snippets of sound and conversation, with Pearlly Chua, about what was expected of traditional Chinese brides (sewing skills and dowry), Nyonya kuih, ABC (air batu campur or shaved ice drizzled with syrup) and aromatic Nanyang coffee, which transport listeners back in time.

“It’s kind of like singing old songs and giving them a twist, adding a bit more character and a sense of place, belonging and history. Not just three women doing covers. There’s also pride in enjoying the music we make,” says Lee.

The ensemble connects the spirit of jazz and the richness of Nanyang culture by the group which debuted in 2014 as The Shanghai Sisters, to reinterpret Shanghai classics through song and dance. They have performed in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and released a self-titled album in 2019 before reappearing last year with their new name. Confident in their Nanyang roots, TSS cruises full throttle to merge 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 rojaksays Ho. “There is a good mix of local cultures; it is multilingual and contains musical influences from different parts of the world. We have grown up with such a rich myriad of cultures and we are proud to be products of that milieu. Naturally, our music bears all the hallmarks of this unique imprint of our surroundings – a unique Malaysian brand of Nanyang jazz.

TSS, in collaboration with WVC, will host Penang’s Majestic Theater at the George Town Festival on July 9 and 10. For more details, see here. Order the band’s new album here.

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