Iskandar Mirza Ismail



Iskandar Mirza Ismail (b. 23 July 1956, Singapore–d. 1 November 2014, Singapore) is a prominent figure in Singapore’s music scene. A multitalented and versatile musician, Iskandar has worked as a composer, arranger, conductor, music director, recording producer, performer and educator in his long career.1 In 2008, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Music in recognition of his contributions to the local music scene.2

Early years and education
Iskandar is the eldest of five children born to singers Ismail Kassim and Nona Asiah. His mother, a protégé of Zubir Said (the composer of Singapore’s national anthem), saw the musical talent in her children.3
 At the age of eight, Iskandar was sent to Zubir for weekly music lessons that lasted three years.4


When he was 12, Nona enrolled Iskandar for electone keyboard classes. The lessons paid off when he clinched the first prize at the Singapore Electone Festival in 1975. At the age of 15, he became the youngest teacher at the Yamaha Music School.5 Encouraged by Zubir, Iskandar decided to pursue his dream to study music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States, in 1976. While studying at Berklee, Iskandar won the John Lewis Jazz Masters Award for his excellence in jazz music in 1978. A year later, he graduated with a Degree in Professional Music.6

Artistic career
Iskandar’s musical signature is his ability to turn melodic or rhythmic motif into a distinctive tune. He creates a rich melting pot between East-West, classical and pop music and is always in search of new timbres, musical styles and traditions. Iskandar’s eclectic musical career has seen him being involved in stage musicals, theatre, Western and Indian classical music, as well as Chinese instruments, orchestras, choirs and performers.7


Known for his versatility and ability to work across different musical genres, Iskandar even wrote and produced songs for Chinese artistes when Warner Taiwan engaged his studio for 15 years – this despite the fact that he did not speak a single word of Chinese. “Our sound was so different, they wanted us to do all their recordings. I think it was because we were coming into Chinese pop music with Western training – it gave a different dimension to the sound,” recalls Iskandar. “We arranged music for big [Hong Kong] stars like Sandy Lam, George Lam, Aaron Kwok, [and] Jacky Cheung”.8

Iskandar has collaborated with other Asian artistic talents like Dick Lee, Ken Low, Anita Sarawak, and Ekachai Uekrongtham. He did the musical arrangements for stage musicals such as Kampung Amber (1994), Sing to the Dawn (1996), Snow. Wolf. Lake (1997), and Chang & Eng (1997).9

Accomplishments
Iskandar’s hand is in almost every national music work. Since the 1980s, he has written music for more than 10 opening and closing ceremonies for the Singapore Youth Festival. The year 1988 saw the first of his many musical productions for and direction of the National Day Parade. Besides composing songs for the annual Chingay street parade held as part of the Lunar New Year celebrations, he also took charge of the musical production and direction for the Asian Games in Doha (2006), as well as for the inaugural editions of the Asian Youth Games (2009) and Youth Olympic Games (2010) held in Singapore.10


Iskandar’s music has taken him beyond the shores of Singapore. For the musical Selamat (2011), which premiered in Cape Town, Iskandar had to work with South African musicians. He used multiple instruments for the musical: the Chinese erhu, Western flutes, the cello, Malay percussion, Western drums and piano, as well as South African instruments like the marimba. The music was sung by a South African singer.11 His other international stage musicals have travelled widely to places like China, Qatar, Japan, Thailand, Russia and Slovakia.12

On top of his many professional accomplishments, Iskandar dedicates himself to the nurturing of the next generation. For seven consecutive years, he participated in the annual ChildAid charity concert to raise funds for the Budding Artists Fund. Since becoming the music director for the National University of Singapore Jazz Band in 2006, Iskandar has strived to inspire young amateur musicians and create opportunities to showcase their talent.13 He does this by adopting the mentor’s role without using intimidation or having a “know-it-all” disposition. Amni Musfirah, a young singer, remembers her first meeting with the musical director“. He did his own make-up! Next to us! We didn’t believe it. He was the big guy in charge of the programme, but it was so comfortable to be with him, he was so easy to get along with”.14

In 2010, amid intense pressure during his involvement in organising the Youth Olympic Games, Iskandar was diagnosed with lung cancer. He did not allow the illness to slow him down and continued with his involvement in the event. Iskandar had his tumour removed and was soon back working on the ChildAid concert that same year. He was later put on chemotherapy for 25 months. Despite feeling tired, he continued keeping long hours in his creative work with ChildAid in 2012 and in other work commitments. The completion of his third round of chemotherapy in 2013 revealed him to be in the clear.15

A highly disciplined professional, Iskandar is meticulous in his musical craftsmanship. He constantly challenges himself by experimenting with different instrumentations, musical styles and genres. He can do rock as readily as he can do lyrical music.16

Theatre director Jeremy Choy recalls bumping into Iskandar one day: “I saw Iskandar in the school canteen with a score sheet in front of him. He was arranging for an entire orchestra without a keyboard or any other instrument – it was all in his head. And the speed at which his pen flew over the score sheet was extraordinary. It was like watching an artist paint. I was completely floored".17

Kevin Nair, Iskandar’s early mentor and business partner, recalled that the “Singapore music industry in the 1970s was not an industry, it was mostly people messing around wanting to be musician”.18 Nair, who first met Iskandar in 1979, challenged the idealistic fresh graduate by saying to him “So what if you went to Berklee? You have to create something and here is an opportunity to do so”.19 Iskandar took up the challenge and has forever changed the landscape of the local music scene.20

Death
Iskandar succumbed to brain and lung cancer on 1 November 2014. He left behind his wife and two children.21


Family22
Wife:
Ernawaty Sorainto (married in 1985).
Son:
Emil Daruwin.
Daughter: Valerie.

Education

1979: Graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States, with a Degree in Professional Music.23

Awards24
1975: First prize winner at the Singapore Electone Festival.
1978: Won the John Lewis Jazz Masters Award.
2003: Honoured as the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year.
2007: Awarded Honorary Fellowship, London College of Music, Thames Valley University, United Kingdom.25


National Day Parades26
1988: Composer and music arranger, National Day Parade.
1994: Music director, National Day Parade.
1998: Composed City for the World
for National Day Parade.
1999: Composed for the National Day Parade.
2000: Music director, National Day Parade.
2001: Music producer, National Day Parade.
2004: Music director, National Day Parade.
2008: Music director, National Day Parade.
2012: Music director, National Day Parade.

Musicals27

1994: Singapore Festival of Arts Musical Kampung Amber with Dick Lee.
1995: Big Bang!, composed by Kenneth Lyen.
1995: Mortal Sins, composed by Dick Lee.
1996: Sing to the Dawn, composed by Dick Lee.
1996: Hotpants, composed by Dick Lee.
1997: A Twist of Fate, composed by Dick Lee.
1997: Snow. Wolf. Lake and Chang & Eng.
1999: Chang & Eng restaged at the Kallang Theatre.
2000: PCK The Musical, President’s Star Charity Show.
2001: Chang & Eng restaged at the Victoria Concert Hall.
2002: Composed songs for Perahu – Memecah Ombak – at the opening of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.28

2006: ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent.
2008: Beauty World staged at the Esplanade Theatre.

2009: ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent performed at Resorts World Sentosa.
2012: ChildAid, Singapore Press Holdings charity concert for young talent performed at Marina Bay Sands Grand Theatre.

International works29
1997:
Orchestral arrangements for musical, Chang & Engstaged in Beijing, China.
2004: Orchestral arrangements for musical, Snow. Wolf. Lake staged in Mandarin in Hong Kong and many cities of China.
2006: Iskandar was commissioned Music Producer for the opening ceremony of the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. He worked alongside Dick Lee who was given the honour to write the music.30

2006: Composer of multicultural performance, Generations, performed in Tokyo, Japan, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.
2002: Orchestral arrangements for musical, Chang & Eng staged in Bangkok, Thailand.

2008: Composer of multicultural performance, Generation/s, performed in Moscow, Russia, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.
2011: Composer of multicultural performance, Selamat, performed in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.
2012: Composer of multicultural performance, Living Dreams, performed in Bratislava, Slovakia, as part of The Old Parliament House Spotlight Singapore Series.



Author

Angeline Koh



References
1. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 1, 10, 14. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE); Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2014, November 1). Singapore music maestro Iskandar Mirza Ismail dies of cancer. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

2. National Arts Council. (2013). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Music. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/music/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-music; Chia, A. (2008, October 18). Music to his ears. The Straits Times, p. 79. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Zubir, R. (2012). Zubir Said: The composer of Majulah Singapura. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 163. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 ROH); Foo, J. (1989, October 29). Iskandar and the Chinese connection. The Straits Times, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 24, 26. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
5. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 28–29. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
6. Zubir, R. (2012). Zubir Said: The composer of Majulah Singapura. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 165. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 ROH); Jazz master's award. (1978, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Press Holdings. (2003, August 6). Veteran composer is Achiever of the Year. Retrieved from http://www.sph.com.sg/article.display.php?id=69
7
. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 77–80, 92. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)

8. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 60–62. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
9. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 69, 71, 78, 99, 100. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
10. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 69. 71, 78, 81–82. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
11. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 103–104, 118. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
12. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 71, 74, 77, 78. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE); Singapore sound at Asian games. (2006, December 1). Today, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 16, 81. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
14. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
15. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 125–156. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
16. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 91, 102–103. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
17. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 91. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
18. Foo, J. (1989, October 29). Iskandar and the Chinese connection. The Straits Times, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. 
19. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 39, 101. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)

20. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 35. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
21. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2014, November 1). Singapore music maestro Iskandar Mirza Ismail dies of cancer. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
22. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 30, 41, 117. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)

23. Singapore Press Holdings. (2003, August 6). Veteran composer is Achiever of the Year. Retrieved from http://www.sph.com.sg/article.display.php?id=69
24. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 16, 34. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE); Singapore Press Holdings. (2003, August 6). Veteran composer is Achiever of the Year. Retrieved from http://www.sph.com.sg/article.display.php?id=69
25. National Arts Council. (2008). Iskandar Mirza Ismail: Multi-talented and versatile. Retrieved from MusicSG.

26. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 69, 70, 71, 75, 76. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
27. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 69, 70, 71, 74, 78, 80, 100. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
28. Singapore Press Holdings. (2003, August 6). Veteran composer is Achiever of the Year. Retrieved from http://www.sph.com.sg/article.display.php?id=69
29. Gwee, M. (2013). Iskandar Ismail: The music man. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 38, 71, 74, 77, 78. (Call no.: RSING 780.92 GWE)
30. Dick Lee. (2010). Profile. Retrieved from Dick Lee website: http://www.dicklee.com/image/dicklee.pdf



The information in this article is valid as at 1 November 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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