Major music festivals in Singapore

by Ho, Stephanie

Music festivals play an important role in developing audiences and Singapore’s music scene. Grouping music events into a festival results in an intense and exciting audience experience.Music festivals have been staged in Singapore since the early 20th century. In recent years, major music festivals such as World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD), Mosaic Music Festival and Baybeats present a diverse range of music that has attracted both local as well as international audiences.

Early music festivals
Music was a part of life in colonial Singapore with concerts frequently held at the Town Hall (now known as the Victoria Theatre), St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Victoria Memorial Hall (now known as the Victoria Concert Hall).2 An event that generated much excitement was a music festival held in conjunction with the ceremonial opening of the St Clair Organ on 17 September 1931 at the Victoria Memorial Hall. The programme for the opening consisted of mainly British classical music, which was repeated on two other evenings.3

In 1949, a Festival of Music sponsored by the Singapore Music Circle and The Straits Times in association with Radio Malaya was organised.The festival featured the Batavia Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and French pianist Jacques Genty performing in a series of concerts held at the Victoria Memorial Hall from 6 to 10 November.5 The concerts were well received, as it was the first time that Singapore audiences were treated to a live performance by a professional symphony orchestra.6 The response to the festival was so positive that it led to public discussions on whether Singapore should establish and maintain its own symphony orchestra.

A follow-up festival was held in 1951. It comprised three recitals by Romanian violinist Lola Bobesco and her husband Jacques Genty as well as two performances by the Singapore Musical Society symphony orchestra.8 Subsequently, small music festivals were organised by various entities such as the Singapore Chamber Ensemble and St Andrew’s Cathedral.

In the 1950s, various arts and cultural festivals with a substantial music component were held to promote music appreciation among audiences in Singapore. These festivals included an annual youth drama and music festival organised by the Singapore Teachers’ Union in May 1950 and a Festival of Arts sponsored by the Singapore Arts Council in April 1959.10

Festivals from the 1970s to 1990s
In the 1970s, the then Ministry of Culture organised and supported several major music festivals. In 1979, the ministry launched a Festival of Choirs with the objective of promoting group singing, providing local choirs with the opportunity to perform as well as raising the standard of these choirs.11 The inaugural festival brought together 30 local choirs in five performances held over 11 days from 9 to 18 May.12

On 14 March 1981, the Ministry of Culture and the National Theatre Club launched the Chinese Instrumental Music Festival as an annual music event to showcase Chinese music groups in Singapore. The inaugural festival featured ensembles such as the Radio Chinese Orchestra, the People’s Association Chinese Orchestra and also dialect-based groups like the Siong Leng Musical Association.13

In 1982, the Ministry of Culture and the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation organised the International Jazz Festival to provide jazz fans with the opportunity to enjoy foreign and local jazz acts at affordable prices. The inaugural festival was held at the Victoria Concert Hall from 12 to 30 September.14

These three music festivals continued until 1987 when the then Ministry of Community Development, which was responsible for art and cultural affairs, announced that it was consolidating the festivals into a biannual music festival that would alternate with the Singapore Arts Festival. The ministry viewed that combining the festivals would ease the load on its staff and free up theatre space for cultural groups.15

The inaugural music festival held from 23 June to 23 July 1989 aimed to encourage cross-cultural appreciation of music among Singaporeans. It was ambitious in scope, as it sought to encompass the National Music Competition, fringe and core performances as well as music workshops and masterclasses.16

In 1991, the National Arts Council took over the responsibility of developing the arts in Singapore. Rather than have separate festivals for the various art forms, the council concentrated its efforts on an all-encompassing arts festival.17 

In May 1998, the Singapore Arts Festival introduced Singapore audiences to world music through the WOMAD, an outdoor music festival featuring more than 100 musicians from over 20 countries.18 The positive response to the inaugural event led to it becoming an annual stand-alone festival from 1999 to its last edition in 2007, attracting large crowds to its Fort Canning Park venue each year. In 2006, almost 20,000 people attended the event.19  The festival also became a tourist draw and earned a Best Event Experience award at the 2005 Singapore Tourism Awards.20 

Festivals since 2000
The opening of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in 2002 saw the entry of a new performing arts centre in Singapore. By the end of its first year of operation, the Esplanade had already made a significant impact with 32 percent of performing arts activities in Singapore held there.21 

Since its launch, the Esplanade has been proactive in developing music programmes that cater to Singaporeans of all ages and income groups. The centre focuses on providing quality music – by notable as well as less familiar groups – to draw in audiences.22 Two of the centre’s biggest music festivals are Baybeats and the Mosaic Music Festival.

Baybeats was launched in 2002 to provide a platform for independent (indie) rock musicians, expose local audiences to quality groups in that genre as well as to develop the industry.23 In its inaugural year, the free festival attracted a crowd of around 9,000. In 2006, about 69,000 people attended the event and in 2009, the festival attracted around 100,000 fans.24  
Covering different music genres, including folk, pop, metal, post-rock and punk, Baybeats has now become one of the biggest indie music festivals in the region. Over the years, the festival has incorporated new elements such as backstage workshops and meet-the-artist sessions to increase youth engagement.25 The festival has also introduced a mentoring programme and now provides opportunities for young music journalists, photographers and entrepreneurs to pursue their creative interests.26

The Mosaic Music Festival is the Esplanade’s annual 10-day jazz and world-music festival held since 2005. The first edition of the festival featured eclectic performances by musicians from around the world through collaborations with the Montreux Jazz Festival and world-music label Putumayo.27 Despite interruptions such as latecomers and technical glitches, Sujin Thomas of The Straits Times newspaper deemed the inaugural Mosiac festival “a worthy entry to the local music calendar” that helped promote Singapore as a platform for premier music showcases.28

Since its launch, the festival has been credited for bringing fresh music acts to Singapore as well as exposing audiences to a diverse range of quality music through free and ticketed events. The festival attendance grew from around 60,000 in 2005 to 135,000 in 2012.29 

In addition to the festivals organised by the Esplanade, other music festivals emerged to cater to a growing audience for such events. In 1999 and 2000, artiste management company Music and Movement staged the Singapore Music Festival, which brought Chinese popstars such as China-born Na Ying and Hong Kong singer Sandy Lam to Singapore.30 

Events organiser Midas Promotions staged SingFest in 2007, 2008 and 2010 at Fort Canning Park.31 The first edition in 2007 featured international pop artistes such as Pussycat Dolls, Pet Shop Boys and Cyndi Lauper as well as local bands like The Great Spy Experiment.32

In 2009, the F1 Rocks concert was organised in conjunction with the Formula One (F1) Singapore Grand Prix. With a star-studded line-up that included international pop artistes such as Beyoncé, Black Eyed Peas, A-Mei and Jacky Cheung, the concert attracted some 30,000 people over the three-day affair.33 The music event was dropped the following year, although artistes like Mariah Carey and hip-hop singer Missy Elliot staged concerts as part of the F1 Singapore Grand Prix festivities.34

In 2011, St Jerome’s Laneway – an indie music festival from Australia – staged a Singapore edition. The festival was well received, attracting an audience of 6,000 in 2011 and 7,800 in 2012.35 It has since become an annual event featuring global and emerging indie performers.36

Another festival featuring international stars is the Singapore International Jazz Festival (Sing Jazz) launched in 2014. Organised by Orbis Festival Productions in partnership with Marina Bay Sands and the Java International Jazz Festival (Java Jazz), the festival aims to revitalise the local jazz and music scene while at the same time encouraging the development of Singapore’s jazz talent.37 The inaugural jazz festival held from 27 February to 2 March featured overseas performers such as multiple Grammy winner Natalie Cole38 and British jazz singer Jamie Cullum39 as well as local singers like Michaela Therese, Alicia Pan and Dawn Ho.40   

Stephanie Ho

1. Esplanade Co. (2004–2005). Annual report. Singapore: Esplanade Co. Ltd, p. 22. (Call no.: RCLOS 791.095957 ESP-[AR])
2. Singapore Philharmonic Society. (1900, December 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 3; Singapore musical festival. (1908, November 12). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Opening of the St. Clair Organ. (1931, September 18). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Colony’s great music festival. (1949, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Ticket sales top $16,000. (1949, October 28). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Music from Batavia. (1949, November 10). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Colony symphony question. (1949, November 13). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Music festival and after. (1951, April 2). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. British music festival is arranged. (1953, May 11). The Straits Times, p. 7; Church music festival. (1953, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Drama festival in Singapore. (1950, January 6). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6; Festival of Arts begins tonight. (1959, April 1). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tang, G. (1979, January 5). Choir pageant planned as sequel to Arts FestivalThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Choir festival opens on a high note. (1979, May 11). The Straits Times, p.12; Choir fest. (1979, May 1). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. A magnificent beginning. (1981, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. All that jazz at prices most fans can afford. (1982, August 25). The Straits Times, p. 34; Let there be…All that jazz. (1982, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 61. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. New 'catch-all' music fest from next year. (1987, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Month-long festival to bring music to the masses. (1989, March 2). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. National Arts Council, Singapore. (2012–2013). Annual report. Singapore: The Council, p. 15. (Call no.: RCLOS 700.95957 SNACAR-[AR]); Phan, M. Y.  (1999, May–June). To the edge of dreams. In Esplanade: The arts magazine. Singapore: Singapore Arts Centre Co. Ltd, p. 10. (Call no.: RSING 791.095957 E)
18. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2008, March 18). Big jump in ticket prices a major bugbearThe Straits Times, p. 50; Oon, C. (1998, May 28). Let the 100 musicians playThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Wee, T. (2003, August 19). Travelling WomadThe Straits Times, p. 5; Zul Othman. (2007,July 5). Womad’s big ‘10’Today, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. 
20. Chen, T. (2005, March 2). Singapore’s music fest: All the world’s on stageToday, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Esplanade Co. (2003–2004). Annual report. Singapore: Esplanade Co. Ltd, p. 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 791.095957 ESP-[AR])
22. Lim, C. (2009, November 13). Rocking the music scene.  The Business Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Mathews, K. (2014, June 26). Benefitting from Baybeats. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website:
24. Zul Othman. (2006, July 11). 
Beats’ backToday, p. 36; Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2010, January 22). Indie music for the peopleThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Esplanade Co. (2006–2007). Annual report. Singapore: Esplanade Co. Ltd, p. 19. (Call no.: RCLOS 791.095957 ESP-[AR]); Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. (n. d.). Baybeats 2014. Retrieved from Baybeats website:
26. Esplanade Co. (2012–2013). Annual report. Singapore: Esplanade Co. Ltd, p. 26. (Call no.: RCLOS 791.095957 ESP-[AR])
27. Esplanade Co. (2004–2005). Annual report. Singapore: Esplanade Co. Ltd, p. 12. (Call no.: RCLOS 791.095957 ESP-[AR])
28. Thomas, S. (2005, March 23). Chips in the mosaicThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Thomas, S. (2006, March 21). Pieces all in placeThe Straits Times, p. 3; Chan, B., & Seow, B. Y. (2014, March 20). Perfect 10 for MosaicThe Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Tan S. E. (2000, November 17). Music on the move. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2009, June 11). SingFest postponedThe Straits Times, p. 60; Toh, C. (2010, June 25). The return of SingFestToday, p. 73. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Zul Othman. (2007, July 6). The sound of music.Today, p. 54Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. 30,000 people attended three-day F1 Rocks concert at Fort Canning Park. (2009, September 27). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website:
34. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2010, September 3). Pop stars vroom inThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Yeow, K. C. (2012, February 15). Laneway, you’re a hit; now just keep it real. MyPaper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website:
36. Noor Ashikin Abdul Rahman. (2014, January 22). Making to Laneway.
The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website:
37. Toh, C. (2013, November 30). Top jazz stars to perform here. 
Today; Toh, C. (2014, February 22). Jazzing up the scene. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website:
38. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2014, February 27). Late dad still inspires Natalie ColeT
he Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Cheong, S-K. (2014, March 1). Cheeky, cheerful classic CullumThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2014, February 22). Women jazz up a festivalThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The information in this article is valid as at 19 September 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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