For former jazz pianist Peter Ng, the past year has been one of great change. Set up in mid-2019, Maduro was envisioned to be a jazz lounge and a whisky bar, but Ng quickly realised – hastened by the pandemic – that it needed to evolve.
The venue will soon be featured in an online jazz concert with music by latin jazz band Project Ra on 27 December, as part of a series of nightly free concerts, Jazz at Play: 7 Songs at Christmas by Singapore International Festival of Arts, which runs till 30 December. These concerts, which also feature music by Namie and the Waves, Jordan Wei Trio and Joanna Dong, shine a spotlight on jazz and music clubs in Singapore that cannot currently have live music due to the pandemic restrictions.
When ArtsEquator visited Maduro in Dempsey Hill, Ng was spotted at the establishment’s baby grand piano, tinkling the ivories quietly. Despite this being a far cry to its pre-pandemic days, where jazz celebrities would play at its weekend soirees, the scene is one of quiet strength rather than melancholy.
Ng’s fervent attempts to adapt to the current COVID-19 conditions include collaborating with partners such as Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and SIFA, and organising its own Facebook concert series hosted by radio personality Michelle Martin. ArtsEquator speaks to Ng on his thoughts about running a jazz bar during a pandemic, and how he bridges art and business in Singapore.
[The interview below has been lightly edited.]
When did Maduro start doing livestreaming?
October. I tried to do it regularly, but at the same time, I find that livestreaming has resulted in quite a fatigue. And though we were given a grant, I didn’t finish spending the grant, for the simple reason that it just loses its meaning.
From the artists’ point of view, there is that survival instinct. How do you anticipate a move into the future? How do you present yourself? Because visuals, from a commercial point of view, you need to have that. I see all the livestreams, everybody just plays – it doesn’t (involve) communication skills, presentation skills. And production is very important. That presence to make people want to watch you. Something that is enticing, not just playing from the home.
Did it require some change in perspective for you as someone who is used to live performances?
Streaming is a very new skill. It’s a new discipline, but challenging. We just have to live within those limitations and put in as much effort as we can. This is the only way we can stay relevant.
But ultimately just challenge your mind because if you look at the business point of view – most jazz bars, they cannot make money.
All jazz bars. In Singapore, and one or two in New York have closed down already. You can be specialised but learn other things, give yourself a wider spectrum of music to cater to your customers. A purist can only have that (narrow) market. Let’s take for example, classic FM in London, they play excerpts of small sections of the best part of the movement – it can be opera or classical music. From there, people who don’t know classical music, they listen and slowly get into it.
Jazz is the same. As a musician you (have to) be able to cater to your customers or your audience. Also to enrich yourself, in terms of experience and interpretation – like how you can play Bach as a jazz trio.
Since the video is going to be online, do you have recommendations for how people should enjoy jazz at home when they’re watching a video?
Have a drink. (laughs)
For the audience, it’s in their interest to know what they’re listening to. What do you like about it? Do you like the rhythm? Do you like the acoustics? Do you like the sound of the instruments? So all the different things, if you can pick one part of it, try to find a bit more explanation (about why you like it) and engage your senses.
Do you see Maduro as part of the arts scene or is it more of a commercial outfit?
Music is always my passion. It’s not about making money here. I mean, it is a combination of business and arts, but bringing it to a level where there is sophistication and yet it is affordable for people to enjoy.
You opened last year. How’s it been?
Everybody wants to come back here for the music, but unfortunately we can’t. So we have to recreate ourselves. We brought in a guy who does bespoke cocktails. We bring in some food, because we have to run as a snackbar place until we’re able to have live music. We also got a DJ to curate music for different vibes.
The cocktails are the focus, and the food is the accompaniment. The USP (unique selling point) for the place originally was music. Now we try to add on all of these, so that people come in for a more total experience.
Would you still consider Maduro a jazz bar?
I would say it’s a venue for good music. I rather it be known for different things, than just have a narrow perspective.
I think the purist part of it is a dream, but we don’t have the population size. And the size of the market where we can survive on that. And also the audience coming through – people who love music may not necessarily love drinking. They may want to listen to the music, and the whole night they just have one Coke. These are real-life situations. When people say, “oh why are they charging so much?”. I have to pay for rent, I have to pay the musicians.
I mean, everybody craves live music. But please pay for it in real terms. Everybody needs to pitch in to give it that moral support, the financial support.
What are your hopes for next year?
No idea, because we don’t know how long this will last. In the meantime, we’ll have to find a way to survive and wait for the market conditions to change.
From 27 to 30 December, enjoy free jazz concerts online from your own homes, as part of Jazz at Play: 7 Songs at Christmas by SIFA:
27 Dec, 9pm: Project Ra
28 Dec, 9pm: Namie and the Waves
29 Dec, 9pm: Jordan Wei Trio
27 Dec, 9pm: Joanna Dong
This article is sponsored by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.