Jazz - soul food to go

After spending 11 years in law school and the Singapore legal service, Rani Singam gave it all up to become a jazz singer. Here is her story.

By Serena Tan

Anyone who knows Rani Singam would also know that she was born to sing. Back when she was in Raffles Girls’ School, she was already known as “The Nightingale of RGS” and for obvious reasons. Her clear, powerful vocals, on-stage charisma and winning personality helped raise the bar for the school’s Talentime competition, as well as for the school’s annual musical production at the Victoria Theatre.

Her passion for singing followed her right through her undergraduate years, where she won the NUS Battle of the Bands for her hostel and the Rolling Good Times Love Duets contest. Outside school, she performed at community functions, corporate dinners and weddings.

However, Rani heeded the call of duty and put academic excellence first and passion second, graduating with a 2nd upper Honours Law degree. For the next seven years, she was by turns a deputy public prosecutor, a legal advisor to the Government on civil law matters, and Head of the Compliance Division with the then Registry of Companies and Businesses (now ACRA).

During that time, career demands won out over music and passion, and the Nightingale was silent.

The making of a jazz star

Then in 2001, Rani’s re-awakening began. It started innocuously enough with the arrival of the new love of her life — her son Logan. It was a perfect reason to say goodbye to law and to focus on being a stay-home mum. In between milk feeds and nappy changes, Rani tuned in to the Oprah Winfrey show and found herself enchanted by Oprah’s positive take on life, which seemed to challenge her own inner restlessness. In 2002, Rani finally surrendered to her calling, took “a leap of faith” and started pursuing her passion for music full-time.

With the blessings of her husband, who never understood why she hadn’t made the most of her talent sooner, she started hanging out at Jazz@Southbridge, a jazz bar at Boat Quay, every second Sunday of the month. She jammed with the bands that played there and cut a demo tape “just in case”. That single act of courage was to pave the way for her to be touted as “the next big thing” in the Asian jazz scene just one year later.

Her big break came when her friends played her tape to local jazz maestro and Cultural Medallion winner Jeremy Monteiro. Monteiro thought he was listening to a young Billie Holliday, the legendary jazz vocalist, except that “the recording was too clean”. A few nights later, he had the opportunity to see Rani in action. He felt the world needed to hear her “unique jazz voice”, and suggested that they record an album together. Since then, they have built up a strong collaboration and performed at numerous gigs together.

She even stood in for Monteiro at short notice when he developed a bad cough and had to give up singing two songs for a 2003 concert at the Esplanade with Malaysian jazz pianist Michael Veerappan. Rani received a standing ovation for her performance.

In June 2004, Rani flew to Los Angeles and spent two days there recording her debut album. The 10-track album, With A Song In My Heart, was launched in December that year at Jazz@Southbridge, and it has sold 3,000 copies to date, both locally and abroad.

What is jazz?

Historically, jazz is thought to be an African-American genre that originated in New Orleans around 1900. It is characterised by syncopated rhythms, distinctive performance techniques and improvisation, which distinguishes it from most other scored forms of music.

A jazz performance is like none other. At any moment, the vocalist can turn a familiar number into something quite unrecognisable, by putting her own spin to the song. This is usually an opportunity for the instrumentalist to do a solo and showcase his proficiency. But the vocalist has to know exactly when to come back in and continue the rest of the song, without the benefit of a score or a fixed number of beats, as in classical music. This requires the team members to know when to harmonise and when to give way so that the music moves seamlessly as a whole.

No jazz vocalist can manage without the backing of at least one talented instrumentalist. In this aspect, Rani is doubly blessed. She gets to work regularly with seasoned pros like bassist Tony Makarome and guitarist Andrew Lim, both of whom were instrumental in helping her put together the demo tape that launched her career. The constant collaboration means that they are able to intuitively understand each other’s style.

Becoming a singer

Rani’s sees music as no different from any other career. “Challenges are everywhere in life, so it’s a question of perspective whether you see the glass as half full or empty,” she says. “As long as you are authentic and true to your purpose, you will succeed in anything you do.”

At the same time, passion is no substitute for hard work, persistence and sheer guts. Rani is quick to admit that if she had shied away from the idea of making that demo tape because of fear or self-doubt, she might not be where she is today. Even a “lucky break” has to be backed by substance.

Currently, Rani is also an entrepreneur with her own lifestyle and beauty business, which not only provides her with the income to sustain her passion, but also gives her an opportunity to develop business management and leadership skills. In a given day, her appointment book could be filled with back-to-back meetings for her music or her business, or she could just as easily be doing other “normal” things, such as spending quality time with Logan, experimenting with recipes or exercising.

So what advice does Rani have for aspiring musicians in Singapore? Just two words: “Dream” and “Do”.

“When you love what you do and do what you love, life is magic.”

Tips for succeeding in the music industry

1. Get yourself noticed. It’s no point having talent if no one but you knows about it. You have to make yourself and your passion known to people. Everyone knows someone, and that someone could open doors for you.

2. Hang out with the pros. Be humble and open enough to learn from those who have been in the profession longer than you. They can teach you what you might never learn on your own, and their experiences could even help shorten your learning curve.

3. Develop a reputation for excellence and dependability. If you want to go far, you have to put in the hours and keep practising till you’re perfect – and then practise some more! You also need to be known as someone who can be counted on, whether it is in terms of punctuality or taking the trouble to go through the score before a recording.

4. Be open to serendipity. Whether you call it chance or a lucky break, you have to be ready to move when opportunity knocks, because if you miss it, you might have to wait a really long time before it comes by again. Worse still, it might never come again.

5. Dare to dream. Better yet, dream big dreams. “When the dream is big enough, the facts don’t count!”

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