Alex Abisheganaden

by Chang, Tou Liang

Alexander S. Abisheganaden (b. 31 January 1926, Singapore–) is among the most prominent guitarists in Singapore.1 A recipient of the Cultural Medallion for music in 1988, Abisheganaden has dedicated much of his life to teaching and popularising guitar playing.2 Although his fulltime career was in education, he developed a reputation as a highly versatile musician who is equally adept in classical, popular and traditional genres.3 Besides the classical guitar, Abisheganaden also plays the double bass, bass and piano accordion, among others, as well as sings, composes and acts. He is the father of Jacintha Abisheganadan, an accomplished actress, entertainer and jazz singer.


Early life
Abisheganaden was born into a family of nine children comprising seven boys and two girls.4 His family was English-speaking, English-educated and embraced Lutheran Christianity.5 His father played the violin while his older brothers, Paul, Gerard and Geoffrey, were all musical as well.6 Abisheganaden was no different.

Abisheganaden credits his late brother, Gerard, a fine amateur pianist and cellist, as his greatest influence in music.7 His first memories of music were of hearing his father play Christian hymns on the violin in the early hours of the morning, and of classical singing on Geoffrey’s gramophone records in their Buffalo Road home.8 At 15, he taught himself to play the guitar using the textbook, Ellis’ Thorough School for Guitar9 He also learned the piano accordion, which he performed in his spare time as a musician for hire to earn pocket money.10

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), Abisheganaden played the guitar in an Indian orchestra for Azad Hind Radio Station, which broadcast pro-Japanese, anti-British propaganda in support of the Indian National Army.11 Although he had neither nationalistic nor political leanings, the stint provided gainful employment that kept him occupied from evenings until the wee hours of the morning at its broadcast station in the Cathay Building. Impressed by his singing and mastery of the Japanese language, the Japanese authorities invited him to sing Japanese folk and propaganda songs over the radio.12 After World War II, Abisheganaden completed his Senior Cambridge examinations and began a career in teaching.13

Musical career
In 1950, Abisheganaden became a member of the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra and later the Singapore Chamber Ensemble and Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra, playing the double bass.14 He was provided with a double bass for free and received formal lessons from Hungarian cellist Feri Krempl.15 In 1960, he became the first person in Southeast Asia to receive a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music for performance on the double bass.16 He also attained Grade Eight for both guitar and voice, thus paving the way for a very versatile career in musical performance.17 In 1961, Abisheganaden received a grant for further studies in the United Kingdom.18 He spent a year at London’s Royal College of Music, where he studied voice, bass and guitar.19 His guitar teacher was famous Australian guitarist John Williams.20 In 1967, Abisheganaden founded the Singapore Classical Guitar Society and was its main driving force for 25 years.21

The teaching of classical guitar playing in Singapore took on a new dimension with Abisheganaden’s programme, Music Making with the Guitar, which was broadcast on the national Education Television (ETV) in 1970 and 1971, as the government sought to encourage teenagers to engage in meaningful activities rather than loiter the streets.22 He also wrote the two textbooks that accompanied the series.23 The television programme marked the first time the teaching of a musical instrument was disseminated through mass media, thus raising the profile and popularity of the classical guitar.24

Abisheganaden also composed popular songs for mass singing and various government campaigns. In 1976, his “Salute to Singapore” won the national songwriting competition organised by the National Theatre Trust.25 “Read for the Future” was the theme song for the National Reading Month in 1984, commissioned by the National Book Development Council of Singapore.26

In 1981, Abisheganaden founded the NUS Guitar Ensemble (GENUS) at the Centre for Musical Activities of the National University of Singapore (NUS), introducing the Niibori method with a guitar ensemble comprising instruments of different registers and ranges.27 GENUS remains Singapore’s premier guitar ensemble and the first Niibori guitar orchestra in Southeast Asia.28 Its annual public concerts invariably include original works and music transcribed for guitar ensemble by Abisheganaden.29

Abisheganaden was also actively involved in theatre. He has appeared in stage productions by TheatreWorks and YMCA Sceneshifters, as well as NUS Society’s opera productions.30 One of his notable performances was as an Alzheimer’s disease patient in Robin Loon’s Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, staged in 1992.31 He made a cameo appearance accompanying harmonica player, Yew Hong Chow, on the guitar in Tan Pin Pin’s 2006 documentary feature Singapore GaGa.32

Abisheganaden has composed works for the guitar, including original pieces; transcriptions of popular songs; and pieces for didactic and instructional purposes.33 One popular work is the 16-measure-long Katong Blues”, which has much scope for variation and improvisation.34 Larger-scale works include “Huan Yin – Vanakam”, scored for sitar and erhu soloists and guitar orchestra, which explores common threads in Indian and Chinese music,35 and “Gela Nexus” (an amalgamation of GENUS and his name, Alex) for guitar orchestra.36 Both works were performed by GENUS in 2007 in Singapore and Germany.37

In 2007, Abisheganaden received the Cultural Medallion Grant from the National Arts Council – a scheme that supports the development and promotion of new works by Cultural Medallion recipients as well as raising their international and national profiles. He used the grant to present popular ASEAN folk songs as well as his original compositions, performed by a new ensemble of more than 100 guitarists.38

Family39
Wife: Eileen Wong

Daughter: Jacintha Abisheganaden
Son: Peter Abisheganaden

Timeline
1941:
Learns guitar by himself.

1942–45: Attends Japanese-language institute Syonan Nippon Gakuen, and plays guitar for Azad Hind Radio Station.40
1946: Completes Senior Cambridge Examinations at St Andrew’s School.41
1947: Joins the teaching service, with concurrent pedagogical education at Teachers’ Training College.42
1947–57: Teacher at Rangoon Road Primary School.43
1950: Begins lessons on the double bass; performs in the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chamber Ensemble.
1957–63: Principal of various primary schools.44
1960: First person in Southeast Asia to receive a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music (LRSM) for double-bass performance. 
1961: Receives a grant to study music at London’s Royal College of Music; becomes a student of Australian guitarist John Williams.
1964–81: Inspector of Schools, Ministry of Education.45
1967: Founds the Singapore Classical Guitar Society.
1970: Formulates the series and writes textbooks for Music Making with the Guitar, aired on Educational Television (ETV).
1976: Conferred the Government of Australia Cultural Award and National Day Award (Public Administration Medal, Bronze)46; wins the national songwriting competition organised by the National Theatre Trust with “Salute to Singapore”.47
1981: 
Founds the NUS Guitar Ensemble (GENUS) and develops the first Niibori guitar orchestra in Southeast Asia. Conducts the ensemble in annual concerts.

1983: Retires from teaching.48
1988: Awarded the Cultural Medallion;49 conferred Meritorious Award by the Composers and Authors Society Singapore (COMPASS).50
2006: Makes a cameo appearance in Tan Pin Pin’s documentary feature Singapore GaGa.
2007: Receives Cultural Medallion Grant.

Selected recordings
1968: Music Making: The Guitar with Alex Abisheganaden (video recording)51
1995: Huan Yin – Vanakam
1971: Katong Blues
c. 1971: Three Elizabethan songs52
2000: Flamenco Rhapsody53

c. 2007: Gela Nexus

Publications
Abisheganaden, A. (1970). Music making with the guitar. Vol 1. Singapore: ETV Service. (Call no.: RSING 787.6151 ABI)

Abisheganaden, A. (1971). Music making with the guitar. Vol 2. Singapore: ETV Service. (Call no.: RSING 787.6151 ABI)

Abisheganaden, P. (2005). Notes across the years: Anecdotes from a musical life. Singapore: Unipress.
(Call no.: RSING 780.59597 ABI)



Author
Chang Tou Liang



References
1. Tang, K. F. (1988, March 1). Top artistes relax to get their ideasThe Straits Times, p. 1Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Koh, T. T. B. (Ed.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopaedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/1, pp. 5–6, 9]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
3. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/5, p. 6]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
4. Chua, C. H. (Interviewer). (1993, March 9). Oral history interview with Paul Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001415/1/48, pp. 6–7, 10–11]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
5. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/4, p. 33]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
6. National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]Retrieved from NORA; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/4, pp. 33–34]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
7. Abisheganaden, A. (1983, June 12). 60 years playing the high notesThe Straits Times, p. 24; Lum, M. (1993, October 3). Look, it’s Alex in a dressThe Straits Times, p. 4Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lum, M. (1993, October 3). Look, it’s Alex in a dressThe Straits Times, p. 4Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]Retrieved from NORA.
9. Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS]); National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]. Retrieved from NORA.
10. Nanda, A. (2011, October 17). Strings of passionThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/3, pp. 22–23]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
12. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/3, pp. 22, 28]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
13. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995 March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/1, pp. 2, 4, 9]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
14. Abisheganaden, A. (1983, June 12). 60 years playing the high notesThe Straits Times, p. 24; Nanda, A. (2011, October 17). Strings of passionThe Straits Times, p. 4Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore: Singapore Tatler, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST); Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS]); Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/4, pp. 8–9, 38–39]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
15. Abisheganaden, A. (1983, June 12). 60 years playing the high notesThe Straits Times, p. 24Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS]); National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]. Retrieved from NORA.
16. Abisheganaden, A. (1970). Music making with the guitar. Vol 1. Singapore: ETV Service, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 787.6151 ABI); National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]. Retrieved from NORA.
17. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/5, pp. 46, 48]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
18. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/1, pp. 4, 6]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
19. Abisheganaden, A. (1983, June 12). 60 years playing the high notesThe Straits Times, p. 24Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abishegenaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]. Retrieved from NORA; Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/1, pp. 4, 6]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
20. Abisheganaden, A. (1983, June 12). 60 years playing the high notesThe Straits Times, p. 24; Chang, T. L. (2007, March 23). The guitar manThe Straits Times, p. 80Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
21. Chang, T. L. (2007, March 23). The guitar manThe Straits Times, p. 80Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); National Library Board. (2008). Alex Abisheganaden, Cultural Medallion Award, 1988, Music [Interview]. Retrieved from NORA; Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural Medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 84. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
22. Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Singapore: Singapore Tatler, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS]); Abisheganaden, A. (1970). Music making with the guitar. Vol 1. Singapore: ETV Service, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 787.6151 ABI); Nanda, A. (2011, October 17). Strings of passionThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS])
24. Abisheganaden, A. (1970). Music making with the guitar. Vol 1. Singapore: ETV Service, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 787.6151 ABI)
25. Koh, N. (1977, August 21). Alex says he took great painsNew Nation, p. 9Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS]); Hedwig, A. (1984, August 13). Reading month to start on FridayThe Straits Times, p. 11Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Chang, T. L. (2007, March 23). The guitar manThe Straits Times, p. 80; Chang, T. L. (2015, April 6). Sword-fighting or serenading? The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts. (n.d.). NUS Guitar Ensemble. Retrieved from National University of Singapore website: https://cfa.nus.edu.sg/explore/talent/music/nus-guitar-ensemble/
28. Chang, T. L. (2007, March 23). The guitar manThe Straits Times, p. 80Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Abisheganaden, A. (1995). Huan yin – Vanakam [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
30. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/6, pp. 57–58]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
31. Tan, T. H. (1992, April 13). It needn’t be experimentalThe Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Ho, A. L. (2006, March 16). Discordant notes from out-of-tune policiesThe Straits Times, p. 26Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Abisheganaden, A. (1995). Huan yin – Vanakam [Music score]; Abisheganaden, A. (n.d.). Gela nexus; Abisheganaden, A. (1971). Katong blues [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
34. Abisheganaden, A. (1971). Katong blues [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
35. Abisheganaden, A. (1995). Huan yin – Vanakam [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
36. Chang, T. L. (2007, March 23). The guitar manThe Straits Times, p. 80Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Abisheganaden, A. (n.d.). Gela nexus [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
37. Abisheganaden, A. (n.d.). Gela nexus [Music score]. Retrieved from NORA.
38. The mark of masters. (2007, May–June). Instep. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 IS)
39. Nanda, A. (2011, October 17). Strings of passionThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Nanda, A. (2011, October 17). Strings of passionThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Esplanade Co Ltd. (2016). TributeSG: Alexander Abisheganaden. Retrieved from Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay website: http://www.esplanade.com/tributesg/performing-arts/alexander-abisheganaden
41. Lum, M. (1993, October 3). Look, it’s Alex in a dressThe Straits Times, p. 4Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/1, p. 3]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
43. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/2, p. 19]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
44. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/2, p. 19]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
45. Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1995, March 9). Oral history interview with Alex Abisheganaden [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001461/11/3, p. 20]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
46. National Day awards for 374. (1976, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Low, Y. L. (1988, July). Plucking the strings to his heart. Singapore Tatler. Hongkong: Illustrated Magazine, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ST-[HIS])
48. Tay, S. (2009). The music man. Singapore, Oct–Dec, pp. 12–13.
49. Tang, K. F. (1988, March 1). Top artistes relax to get their ideasThe Straits Times, p. 1Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
50. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
51. Abisheganaden, A. (1986). Music making: The guitar with Alex Abisheganaden [Video recording]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
52. Abisheganaden, A. (c. 1971). Three Elizabethan songs [Audio recording]. Retrieved from NORA.
53. Abisheganaden, A. (2000). Flamenco rhapsody [Audio recording]. Retrieved from NORA.




The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 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.

 

 

Subject
Guitarists--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Music
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Music)
Arts>>Music>>Musical instruments and ensembles>>Guitar
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Abisheganaden, Alex--Biography
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Music
Award winners

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