Band of Strangers

A motley crew of public officers from various agencies is orchestrating a melody of their own.

Jan 6: In a room full of traditional music instruments at Republic Polytechnic (RP), a few people are learning to play the gamelan. But these are not students. They are public officers in prim office wear, meeting one another for the first time.

These six public officers make their own brand of music in different styles. Now, they are combining their talents to produce a song, complete with a slick music video.

Leading the group for the moment is Joyce Teo, 45, Assistant Director (Academic) at RP and a qualified gamelan instructor who has created fusion music with the traditional Indonesian instrument.

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Band of Strangers Joyce Teo, Assistant Director (Academic), Republic Polytechnic - She pursued a Masters degree in ethnomusicology after her bosses encouraged her to do what she loved. Her current role is in “academic quality assurance”, upholding education standards at RP.

They are trying out the gamelan to learn its quirks when played with the other instruments.

Responding to an email from Challenge looking for public officers with a passion for music, they ‘auditioned’ separately by submitting video clips and audio files of past performances.

The initial team was picked but they lacked a drummer so Mohd Shahril Othman, 37, from the Housing and Development Board was roped in just a day before the first meet-up on January 6. Performing with his band Ossuary, Shahril channels drummers from heavy metal bands Metallica and Pantera. He was recommended by bassist Mohammad Budiman Jamail, 38, from the National Parks Board.

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Mohammad Budiman Jamail, Development Executive, National Parks Board - Budiman occasionally takes his wife and daughter along for his jamming sessions in the studio. His recent work projects are the Punggol Park Connector and Xtreme SkatePark @ East Coast.

Budiman, who saw Shahril perform at the Ministry of National Development’s Family Day in 2009, gushes: “You have to watch him to know what I am talking about!”

Strumming alongside him is Kenny Goh, 29, from the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He plays lead guitar, and regularly performs in a church band to a large audience. “I’m used to being filmed live now; it helps with steadying the nerves.”

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Kenny Goh, Economist, Ministry of Trade and Industry - He enjoys listening to guitar virtuosos like Joe Satriani, and owns a blog on guitar techniques. In the Economist Service, he conducts research for energy market and climate change policies.

Keyboardist Katherine Soh, 38, from the Ministry of Health, has also performed in church. Trained in classical piano and electone organ, she is an aspiring singer and wants to try playing the gamelan.

The Ministry of Finance’s Don Shiau, 30, considers himself more of a singer-songwriter and composes music using software synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. Self-taught, he learnt by listening to music “at an atomic level”, breaking music pieces down to component parts.

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Katherine Soh, Manager of Healthcare Standards, Ministry of Health - When not singing songs by Taiwanese pop diva A-Mei and taking speech-level singing classes to improve her vocal technique, she applies her other interest in writing to draft healthcare standards.

A week after they first met, the six left their work behind to let their alter egos shine through in a professional photoshoot. They broke into spontaneous jamming as they posed with their instruments, with Don ad-libbing lyrics, making it easy to pretend they were an established band.

But the project will take more than looking good for the camera: the complexities of working with many people, not to mention a band of strangers, cannot be underestimated. Besides getting their schedules and instruments in sync, their upcoming practice sessions will reveal if they can strike the right note as a band.

“The gamelan is deliberately off-tune to produce an exotic sound,” says Joyce. That could create some dissonance when played with other instruments. Guitars may have to be downtuned, or songs played out of their original key.

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Mohd Shahril Othman, Higher Technical Officer, Housing and Development Board - With regular gig performances, he is thankful for supportive bosses who even come to watch him play. At work, he attends to residents’ requests in the Sengkang and Punggol estates.

“If the group gels well, we could keep playing together, not just for the Public Service, but in pubs and play ‘live’,” says Katherine confidently.

Surrounded by imposing drums and gongs, the officers huddled around their smartphones to browse YouTube videos to decide on a song. Will it be an original composition, or a popular song remade? Having taken several days off for the photoshoot, recording and music video filming, they know that no matter what they get out of this, they’ll never forget the experience.

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Don Shiau, Senior Associate, Ministry of Finance - His New Year’s resolution is to improve his guitar-playing skills to live performance standards. In the office, he handles the budget allocations for the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

The Band

  • Bass: Mohammad Budiman
  • Drums: Mohd Shahril
  • Gamelan: Joyce Teo
  • Guitar: Kenny Goh
  • Keyboard: Katherine Soh
  • Vocals: Don Shiau

Curious to know more about these talented individuals? Be a groupie and read up on them in our Band of Strangers - Musician Profiles online exclusive. And they're not the only ones! Read up on other bands in the Public Service in Other Bands in the Public Service.

Watercolour sketches - by Don Low
Cover Photography – Lumina
Art Direction – Ashik
Recorded at – Republic Polytechnic
Special Thanks – Public Service Division

Missed this chance to perform? If you have a smidgen of talent and want your 15 minutes of fame, get ready for the Public Service Talent Competition!
    Mar 16, 2011
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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