Singaporean duo create chicken rice and ‘uwu’ bird operatic songs, which were performed in US recitals
The humble chicken rice – which many consider to be the Republic’s unofficial national dish – was the inspiration behind one of the songs written and composed by two Singaporeans and performed at recitals in the US.
The dramatic and upbeat song simply titled Chicken Rice, was composed by pianist Nicholas Ho, with the lyrics written and sung by soprano Janani Sridhar, as one piece of a four-part song cycle SingBites, which was inspired by the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Singapore.
Speaking to The Straits Times over a video call on Tuesday, the duo said the iconic dish is something they have missed and found hard to come by while studying or working in the United States.
“I lived in the Midwestern states when I was in the US for seven to eight years, there was no chicken rice there,” said Dr Ho, 31, who returned to Singapore after graduating with a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music earlier in 2023.
He is an artiste signed to US-based Arabesque Records and has released two albums of his own in 2020 and 2022.
“Even if you bought chicken rice paste, you just couldn’t replicate the dish. It was something I always missed.”
With lyrics such as “Aunty, roasted chicken rice, da pao (take away) please. Extra chilli, xie xie ni (thank you)!’ sung in an operatic manner by Dr Sridhar, a snippet of the song uploaded to TikTok last Friday has garnered close to 120,000 views and 8,000 likes.
One netizen joked: “It’s for the arts but can we get it on the charts?”
Another commented: “This made me realise how much I missed chicken rice.”
The viral performance has prompted some people to contact Dr Ho about purchasing the musical score to perform at their own recitals.
The song cycle, which took around four months to complete, also comprises three other pieces –The Uwu Bird, The Bus Stop and Singapore River.
The songs contain lyrics such as “Dear little uwu bird, I hear you calling me... Dressed in black, with ruby red eyes”, and “I’m running late for the bus again!... He’s stopped for me! Wait! He’s going! He’s taking off again!”.
“Uwu” is a reference to the shrill sound from the Asian Koel that is often heard in Singapore. Dr Ho says while the sound can be “irritating”, it is also a unique experience that Singaporeans can identify with. But to Dr Sridhar, the sound of her favourite bird is “comforting”.
Dr Sridhar, 33, left Singapore for the US when she was 17 to complete her undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate studies, while her parents remained in Singapore.
She serves as the chair of the voice area in DePauw University in Indiana, is an active freelance performer and has been trying to get grants to commission a collection of Singaporean songs since 2019.
She said: “When I chat with my parents in the night where I am but it is morning in Singapore, I can hear the birds in the background. Even if the birds are far away, the sound really picks up.”
Yet despite her love for the koel, which can be found all across Singapore in forests, parks and urban areas, Dr Sridhar has a soft spot for the song Singapore River, which she says is her favourite among the four.
“There is a line in the last song that’s my favourite – ‘My home, my home to all who come,’” she said.
“Every time I sing it, I put my hand to my heart.”
By writing these songs about the core experiences of being Singaporean, Dr Ho hopes they would appeal to Singaporeans from all walks of life and take local music to the global stage.
He said: “Most people would not step foot into an art song recital, so I was thinking: How do I make this accessible to Singaporeans?”
“The goal was to write something that people can hum when they walk away from a concert,” said Dr Ho, who added that after the performance went viral, his colleague remarked that her son was trying to sing and play the songs on the piano.
With plans to expand upon the success of these songs, the pair have begun collaborating on a larger compendium of Singaporean art songs.
Said Dr Ho: “We hope to do a concert series where I play the piano and Janani sings. We would also love to record the songs commercially... we are thinking of applying to organisations for funds as it can get expensive, especially since we are not living in the same country.”