Many people may not be aware that there is an exceptional university choir right here in Malaysia, and this choir has won plenty of international awards, and has recently returned to this country from Europe with yet another accolade.
Fewer people are aware that this university choir that has done this country proud is actually led by a music associate professor from Japan, Masashi Kishimoto.
Kishimoto has set a very high bar for his choir members because this is the only way to put the choir at the forefront of the world.
This September, UiTM’s choir was crowned world champion consecutively at international choir competitions in Spain and Italy, and they had already received the congratulations from His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong before they were even back in this country. When they finally set foot on Malaysian soil, they had to start rehearsing again after just a few days of short break.
And that was not the first time the choir had won an international award overseas. As a matter of fact, they have won numerous international awards in recent years, and many foreigners have come to know Malaysia only after hearing the voices from this country for the very first time.
The success of UiTM Chamber Choir (UCC) could be wholly attributed to their conductor and director Masashi Kishimoto, because it was after Kishimoto took over that UCC started to see outstanding improvement in its performances and shine in international stages.
44-year-old Kishimoto from Akashi city in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture has been affectionately called お父さん (Otousan meaning father in Japanese) by his choir members. A doctor in choral conducting, he once taught music at a Thai university, and later came to Malaysia in 2014 because of the recommendation of UiTM’s former dean of music Associate Professor Dr. Ramona.
UCC was only a lesser-known university choir before Kishimoto joined UiTM. His arrival was like injecting a new lease of life into UCC. Before long, UCC won the grand prize in a Bali competition in 2015, followed by major awards in European competitions almost on an annual basis thereafter.
Basically, UCC members are the university’s music students who have passed the audition and been selected.
When she went for the audition, now 23-year-old choir mistress Diana Hashim was instantly shocked that she was told to sing Happy Birthday, and she had to reconfirm that all she was required to perform was only Happy Birthday.
She was finally selected, but then she thought all she needed to do was just to sing a few songs, only to realize later that things were not as simple as she had thought.
Kishimoto has demanded a lot from the choir members. He is not only very particular about the vocal quality of the members but also whether they have put in their best efforts.
He said very sternly, “If my students are only contented with other people’s compliments that they are the best choir in Selangor, then we can just stop rehearsing. But my goal is to be the world’s best. So, we need to keep practicing and nothing else! If other choirs practice three times a week, then we’ll do it five or even six times!
The choir members are well aware of Kishimoto’s style, and they all know he is extremely strict when it comes to time management.
Diana said, “If he tells you to come at ten, it simply means you have to be here at least one hour or half an hour early. Unless you really have something urgent to attend to and he can excuse you for being five minutes late, otherwise you have to be here at least 30 minutes early.
Even though Kishimoto is a very strict man, he is only strict in rehearsal and stage performance. In private, he is actually a very easy-going person who can go to see a show or have supper at a mamak stall with you. Sometimes he will also drive a sick choir member to the clinic. There was once he drove all the way from Shah Alam to Penang to pay tribute to a choir member’s deceased family member.
“He is like our father who will always ask you how things are going or whether we need something or would join him for dinner.
Diana said, “We trust him a lot and call him お父さん (father).”
Under Kishimoto’s stewardship, UCC has so far traveled to countries like Czech, Greece, Poland, Germany, Spain, Italy and Austria.
Talking about their first trip to Europe, Kishimoto said some of the members didn’t even know how a passport looked like before that, and had no idea where Prague was. He even had to help raise funds for them to travel overseas.
Later after the choir had gained some reputation in their performances, more and more people started to know about the choir.
During their latest trip, they stayed in Europe for more than half a month, and came across challenges quite unlike what they had earlier gone through.
“In the past at least 60 or 70% of our members had previous singing experiences but this time, some 90%of the members were new, without any experience, and I had to take the risk!”
Kishimoto said, “We had very limited time but after eight months of practicing, we finally took part in two contests and won both.”
Besides taking part in competitions overseas, very often UCC also doubles as the country’s publicity ambassador. For example, many foreigners have no idea where Malaysia is, but when UCC performs Rasa Sayang or Ikan Kekek, they are stunned by the breathtaking beauty of the country, said Kishimoto.
He has been very impressed by the Malaysian music, in particular the indigestion music. Every country boasts its unique vocal characteristics and Malaysia stands out because of its perfect blend of its multicultural elements, which is absent in other countries.
He feels that vocal tone of Malaysia’s choirs belongs to the “dark and light” category, meaning powerful yet light and fluid. This makes him feel that Malaysia is a very lucky country.
“Where choir is concerned, this country actually has a lot of advantages.”
Choral conducting is where Kishimoto’s professionalism lies. He feels that the main problem of Malaysian choirs is the lack of professional choral conducting, not because they do not have talented singers.
He said, many choirs in this country have been directed by self-taught vocal teachers but this is not a long-term plan because choral conducting is a professional skill that requires all in this line to go through formal training, know how to teach, how to start singing and how to coordinate.
“But this is what’s lacking here!”
He also hopes that those trained overseas would one day come back here and teach at local universities.
Kishimoto said he actually had intended to become a university lecturer a long time ago, and had kept improving himself in vocal performance and choral conducting, having taken up three master’s degree courses and a doctorate.
Additionally, he also plays piano, saxophone and flute. To him, music should be viewed as a kind of science and professional skill, and if we treat it as such, then shouldn’t we keep studying it and perfecting the skill?
Meanwhile, something that we need to pay particular attention in Malaysia is careful handling of any song whose lyrics may touch on religious and cultural taboos, such as changing the word “god” in the lyrics to “sky”, and “Amen” to simply “A-la-la”.
While the choir members may not really be bothered about such religious taboos, the audience will.
“In Europe, we often perform in churches but that does not mean we take part in religious activities. However, after we post the pictures online, some Malaysian will start complaining, saying UiTM should not have performed in such places.”
Luckily, he said, the school authorities have been very positive. Anyway, UCC has made the university proud and the school authorities are very supportive of them.
Kishimoto said he hoped UCC could involve itself in community service in future because he realized that many local children knew very little about choirs and he wanted to sow the seeds of music to more places.