Dama Asia — a bigger stage

NOSTALGIA is bound to be part of the menu as Dama Orchestra spreads its wings to the rest of Asia, come October, as Dama Asia Productions. With an office in Singapore, as well as its Kuala Lumpur base, the homegrown performing arts company will soon stage shows from slightly north of the equator to through the Chinese wall.

“Yes, it’s a long way from where we began,” says co-founder Khor Seng Chew, at a chat in Plaza Damas where Dama has its office.

Looking a fresh 60, the Penang native grins gleefully at co-founder Pun Kai Loon when revealing details about the expansion and the upcoming show, Yours Musically, The Dama Favourites.

The excitement may also have something to do with Khor possibly wearing a wig, as the original Dama Quintet – with long-time collaborator and erhu master Gan Boon We — takes centrestage again for the show. That’s how Dama Orchestra began, before becoming the Dama Chinese Chamber Orchestra. Dama, by the way, is a short form of Malaysia in Mandarin.

It was a Chinese instrumental ensemble but its 1994 debut concert, An Evening of Chinese Chamber Music, was sold out. “It was held on July 17 during the Fifa World Cup final between Brazil and Italy in 1994, and yet there was not one empty seat in the hall,” recalls Khor, who played the pipa.

Pun also vividly recalls that event at the Thean Hou temple in Taman Seputih, because he was the doorman for the show. “I didn’t know who was who, as in the VIPs. So, I stood at the door, and didn’t allow anyone who came after the show had started to enter. That’s the practice overseas for shows,” the former vice-president of a financial house says with a wicked gleam in his eyes, implying a reprisal of his role for Yours Musically, The Dama Favourites.

“We had to teach people show protocol then. Of course, everyone knows better now,” he adds.

That interest in Dama was heaven-sent for Khor as London, where he had studied classical guitar, was never far from his mind. Artistes were better paid there, he knew. But, with that response, Khor and Pun, also Dama’s artistic director took heart and soon Dama Orchestra expanded to take on musical theatre productions.

Malaysians will remember many of the ensemble’s productions over Dama’s 22 years in the performing arts arena. The 1997 production, Spring Kisses Lovers Tears, which presented those lovely Chinese old songs but in a newer format, still stands out for some while for others it could be the 2006 show, Butterfly Lovers, as the composers and music arrangers were all Malaysian. However, the latter is also memorable because, as one fan called Zhen recalls, “the butterfly didn’t fly every time I saw the show”. Khor and Pun said they wanted to ban this particular fan of theirs, but things worked out well eventually on the set.

Spring Kisses Lovers Tears, the first of the Chinese Oldies (shi dai qu) showcases, was staged across the Causeway and even Shanghai. By 2016, the show had been staged more than 100 times, most of the time to sold-out theatres and rousing applause.

Nevertheless, in 2000, Dama started incorporating non-Chinese musicals and music, with Tan Soo Suan as its resident singer, into its show arsenal.

Unfortunately, Dama suffered a terrible setback when a massive flood in 2003 destroyed its premises called Dama House, in the basement of Dataran Merdeka, which housed its music reference library and CDs. In one interview after that, Khor sadly told me that Dama would never recover from that flood because, “everything – instruments, manuscripts, music notesheets – is all gone”.

The ensemble held a few fundraisers to help it get back on its feet. I remember attending one such show on the first floor of the Old China Café in Petaling Street, on the behest of a fellow journalist, Johnni Wong. The bittersweet emotions melded strongly with the repertoire of 1960s Mandarin lovesongs, heard back then on vinyl, on radio or in Shaw Brothers movies, that formed the musical memory bank of all music-loving Malaysians of a certain age. The songs included Lovers’ Tears, Bu Liao Qing (Love Without End) and even When Will You Return, a 1979 hit by Teresa Teng.

The ensemble bounced back from that flood and soon had an office in Bangsar Baru before moving to Plaza Damas in Sri Hartamas, and in 2014, started a niche theatre venue called TLC across the road.

Dama now has “departments”, explains Pun, including opera, musical theatre, orchestra, and academy with a playhouse in the works. “It’s about developing the arts and forming a professional platform for those interested in a career in the arts,” he said in an earlier interview.

Pun and Khor have always lauded Dama’s loyal legion of fans as well as the many corporations and people who helped fund the production company. The support is relied on as the people on and off stage in the myriad shows produced over the 22 years – Verdi’s La Traviata last year, Empress Wu – The Musical in 2012, The Moon Speaks For My Heart featuring the legendary Teresa Teng’s songs, in 2011, September Tale (2005), Le Cabaret Shanghai (2004), Fragrance of the Night (2002)  – also hold day jobs to pay the bills.

But, says Pun: “Sponsorship has dried up. So, we have to look at other markets for our work so that we can produce new productions, and we are seeking collaborators for this venture.”

Yours Musically, The Dama Favourites will feature excerpts from most of Dama’ past shows, with guest artistes including Tria Aziz and Evelyn Toh. It promises to be a big a blockbuster with a 30-strong cast and crew.

“In future, the cast for shows will be smaller but we won’t compromise on quality,” assures Pun.

Often hailed as Malaysia’s music ambassador abroad, Dama Asia Productions is marking a milestone in its musical journey with Yours Musically, The Dama Favourites. The butterfly has found new wings, indeed.

** this article appeared in the new straits times.

** cover photo is the 2014 show, Larger Than Life 2014, by Low Mei Ling.

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