Dec 18, 2010

Our Minister Mentor sang this song .... in his bath!

Do you sing in your bath? Not many people will readily admit they do, down to the song name. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to read the confession by our Minister Mentor in his memoirs. He was candid about the episode and I thought it was even a little hilarious after I listened to the song online. Do you know the title of that song?

To frame the episode in its historical context, the story goes that our then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was invited by Tunku Abdul Rahman to stay at his official residence in Kuala Lumpur. As Lee were to find out later (but not from the Tunku), Tunku's real intention was to assess him; his personality, habits and character. Our Prime Minister performed admirably, if you read the following narrative from his memoirs (abridged edition):

I sang in my bath and he approved of my songs, like the lilting Indonesian Burung Kakaktua (The Cockatoo), which was then a hit; I played golf and poker; and I drank beer, wine and even took whisky and a little brandy - Three Star Hennessy was the Tunku's favourite drink. He decided I was not a dangerous communist. Indeed I was very human and an agreeable companion - young, a little too smart for his liking, and always too full of ideas, but otherwise all right. I got on with him. One great advantage was that I could speak Malay and I was completely at home talking to his wife, Puan Sharifah Rodziah, an Arab-Malay woman affectionately called Engku Pah, who was also from Kedah, the Tunku's home state. To add to the impression that I was of sound background, Choo also spoke good Malay. This proved to him that we were Malayans at heart and not Chinese chauvinists.

In the end, the Tunku concluded our Prime Minister was "not a bad fellow".

Intrigued by what exactly is a "burung kakaktua" (cockatoo covers 21 species of birds), I googled "white cockatoo" to try my luck after reading the Chinese edition of the memoirs translate "The Cockatoo" to 白鹦鹉 (white cockatoo). I was lucky. This wiki entry shows white cockatoo is endemic to Indonesia Maluku/Moluccas. The fabled spice islands! I remember we were taught in our history lesson that Malaya was a meeting point for the trading of spices - nutmeg, cloves and pepper obtained from the spice islands.

White Cockatoo (source: Wikipedia). I found out the English "cockatoo" was actually derived from the Malay name for these birds - "kakatuwah". In fact the scientific name for White Cockatoo is Cacatua alba.

According to MM Lee, Burung Kakaktua was a lilting song. Intrigued by what made the song so singable in a bath, I searched for the lyrics:

Burung kakak tua
Hinggap di jendela
Nenek sudah tua
Giginya tinggal dua
Lechum lechum lechum ooh la la
Lechum lechum lechum ooh la la
Lechum lechum lechum ooh la la
Burung kakak tua

Translation for the first four lines:

Old sister bird
Perched on the window
Grandma already old
Her teeth only two left

It rhymes suspiciously like a Malay pantun (1st and 3rd line, 2nd and 4th line) and is presented as such (a pantun usually has a disconnect; note the disconnect between bird on a window and grandma with two teeth). I am not sure what "lechum" means. Could it be the sound made by a burung kakak tua?

Today the song is categorized as "lagu anak" (children song) and, for decades, taught by parent to child (in the case of Jerome, his maternal grandmother taught him).The first time I heard the song on YouTube, I had a good laugh. The song is like a nursery rhyme and you can tell the video is targeted at kids. Can you imagine a grown up singing the song in his bath?

Most of the YouTube videos have Burung Kakaktua sung by children. Here four little girls will sing it for you. The child singer is invariably female, how come? Is it because little girls are cuter? Videos like this one of a 7 years old boy giving live performance of Burung Kakaktua are rare.

The most famous adult to sing Burung Kakaktua is Anneke Gronloh who turned the song into a hit in the early 60s. If you are an oldie like Andy Lim, you probably know her very well. Few months back, I watched her sing Terang Bulan on YouTube. That was my first contact with her.

The Dutch singer is also known for her songs Surabaya and Asmara. I think Burning Sand remains her most popular song as she was named "Singer of the Century" in 2000 because of it.

For some reason, the title of her song is not Burung Kakaktua but Burung Kaka. I checked the lyrics for other differences. I found only one significant: hinggap is replaced by menclok on line two. According to this site, the two words are synonyms.

Our Minister Mentor told us in his memoirs the lilting song was then a hit. As he did not tell us exactly when he stayed with the Tunku, only that it was in mid-December, I had to check the archives. From a Straits Times article dated 14 December 1961, I confirmed the homestay took place during the preceeding four days.

Here comes a little problem. In December 1961, was Burung Kakaktua (or Burung Kaka) already a hit? Unfortunately Burung Kaka by Anneke Gronloh is dated 1962 and the hit did not happen until December 1962.

The Straits Times, 29 December 1962

International singing star Anneke Gronloh had a surprise today when she was told  that one of her hit records had created a record sale in Malaysia.

Since being introduced to the local market early this year, Boeroeng Kaka, sung by her in Malay, has had a sale of more than 100,000 copies.

I can think of three reasons to explain the "discrepancy": the song sung by Anneke Gronloh was broadcasted over the air before December 1961 and became a hit; the song was sung by another singer before December 1961 and became a hit; the nursery rhyme became a hit with adults. How can the third reason be true?

What do you think?

No Burung Kakaktua article is complete without its rendition by Anneke Gronloh. Enjoy Boeroeng Kaka (1962)!


Dogcom said...

Thanks for the post. You really go into great details. I read with much interest because I grew up at a time when this song was a hit; also not forgetting Bangawan Solo.

me said...

we usually use "tek dung" instead of "lechum" , the same as anneke's song

tek dung is the sound made from kakatua when hoping (hinggap / menclok) from one point to other point.

if you check wikibooks.."tek dung" become "trek jing"

there's another kids song with the same melody as "burung kakaktua" named "topi saya bundar"

So where LKY learn this song? Malaysia claim this song as their song... maybe it's true? :(

Icemoon said...

Thanks Dogcom. Maybe you can tell us whether the song was that popular, did you sing it in your bath too?

Hmm, how does a kakatua sound? Lechum or even Lek trung sounds funny, like a bird down with flu, haha. Maybe should go Jurong Bird Park to confirm its "noise signature".

Will check out topi saya bundar.

I think LKY learnt it from radio or recording. TV that time not popular yet. The mystery for me is that according to timeline, LKY sang it before it was released on record. For things to "make sense", they must have broadcasted it over the radio and it became a hit, before the recording was released. Any of you like to confirm?

Victor said...

It would be awkward for me to sing about an old bird in my bath, especially at my age.

yg said...

victor, no burong kakatua to serenade to, can serenade to burong kuku. old bird can also enjoy(a)song, now and then.

Lam Chun See said...

Icemoon. I think you got it all wrong. This song was a popular folk song. In primary school we already learnt it. Hence, MM did not have to wait for it to become a pop hit before he learnt it.

At least that's what I think.

yg said...

chun see may be right. i remember singing the song in primary school. in 1961, i was in primary 6.

Icemoon said...

Chun See, why didn't I think of that?!

Icemoon said...

Maybe the oldies can tell us what other songs they learnt in primary school. Don't think there was Di Tanjong Katong or Dayong Sampan yet.

Lam Chun See said...

I think I blogged about it before when I blogged about my primary school. Songs like Yellow Bird, Red Sails in the Sunset, Little Dutch Girl, and Fraulien come to mind. When you read my post on the Yellow Bird, be sure to read the comments where several oldies also shared about the songs of those day. Of course, don't forget Andy Young's blog on Sixties music.

peter said...

London Bridge Is Falling Down, Daisy Daisy,

Victor said...

Songs I learnt in primary school (1963-1968) were:

1. My Bonnie ("lies over the ocean...")

2. 500 miles ("yes, I am 500 miles away from home...")

Sorry, that's all I could remember because old bird liao.

Victor said...

Oh yes, now I remember. We also learnt songs from The Sound Of Music starring Julie Andrews which was shown around that time.

Doe a deer, a female dear, Ray a drop of golden sun...

Icemoon said...

Seriously I can't remember the songs I learnt in primary school other than our national songs and school anthem.

Lam Chun See said...

There's also the Chinese songs like; Cha Cham Bo by Ge Lan and 雪人不见了, 姑娘十八一朵花, 母亲你在何方 (hope I got the words right)、、 etc.

peter said...

chun see , you mena MM Lee sang Cha Cham Bo in the toilet? Cannot b but if u tell me its the former minsiter Jek Yuen Thong I believe.

Anonymous said...

Some songs I sang during my primary school days in the 70's:

1. Where have all the flowers gone?
2. Edelweiss
3. Que Sera Sera
4. If you are happy and you know you clap your hands
5. Pack up your troubles

Lam Chun See said...

For a moment there, I thot Victor has come up with a new 'old song'; namely:

2,500 miles.