Voice of Malaysia Members of the SP Winds Ensemble with their band's conductor Raja Muzafar Shah Image Credit: Supplied

The contrast in weather could not have been more glaring for the 69 members of the all-girls ensemble who had recently arrived from Malaysia to perform at the Carnegie Hall in New York: from the tropical heat and sunshine that are characteristics of the Southeast Asian nation to the blizzard that was pounding New York City in what has been one of the coldest winters on the east coast.

Yet the all-female Malaysian ensemble was undeterred by the “deep freeze”, as meteorologists called the steep drop in the city’s temperature; the girls, aged between 13 and 17, smiled and giggled as they hurried past New Yorkers attired in their thick winter coats and other paraphernalia.

As for the New Yorkers, they could hardly take their eyes off the group, which was clad in the long, traditional Malaysian silk dresses and pink hijabs.

The girls, members of the Malaysian music band SP Winds Ensemble, were participating in the prestigious New York Wind Band Festival at Carnegie Hall. Like the other competitors, they too had to audition before being allowed to compete in the festival.

All the girls are students of the Seri Puteri High School, a residential boarding school for girls in Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s Silicon Valley, with its cluster of IT and hi-tech firms.

While it is not uncommon for female participants from around the world to take part in such ensemble competitions in the United States, the unusual sight of girls attired in the pink hijab and playing instruments in a classical music competition seemed to arouse the interest of the discerning public, which gave the band members a thunderous applause.

“The performance by the SP Winds Ensemble is something very unique in the history of the Carnegie Hall. It makes Malaysians really proud,” Malaysian Ambassador in Washington DC, Awang Adek Hussni, who was among the guests in the audience, told the Weekend Review after witnessing the unusual interest and enthusiasm shown by the audience for the ensemble.

Siti Rogayah Yahya, the principal of the school, who was accompanying the girls, stated in an interview with the Weekend Review in New York, that although the girls were making their debut in New York, they had, to their credit, a number of “highly successful performances” at other international venues such as the 2012 International Band Festival of Singapore, where they received the coveted gold medal. That was followed by an invitation from the organiser, World Projects, to participate in the Australia International Music Festival of 2013 at the Sydney Opera House, where also they won a gold medal.

“The Sydney performance was followed by the 2014 Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, where the girls’ ensemble won the second-highest Gold Award and was also the sole recipient of the Encouragement Award from Jeunesse Austria,” Siti Rogayah said.

Winning the awards proved to be the key that unlocked the door for the band to compete in the New York Wind Band Festival at the Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall.

“Admittance to the competition was by audition. Of the many applicants, only eight ensembles passed, including the SP Winds. To qualify was an achievement in itself,” Siti Rogayah said, adding that the ensemble’s overseas visits were financed through funds raised by the parents of the girls, the school and the support of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Mohiyudin.

The Seri Puteri schoolgirls have had a background in music from a young age and, as Siti Rogayah explained, about 15 per cent of the students already have such a background by the time they are admitted to the school.

“We train them further after giving them an aptitude test to determine their feel for music,” the principal said. The older girls, usually about 16 or 17, acquire a high level of proficiency in music and, in many cases, even mentor the younger pupils.

Explaining how the band acquired prominence, Siti Rogayah said the group attracted international attention after its Sydney debut. The principal, who credited the World Project organisation for making all the arrangements for their performance at Carnegie Hall, said the girls were competing against eight other teams. However, she added, “the Malaysian band is the only one made up of girls” while the other bands had a male-female mix.

But the SP Winds was led by a Malaysian male conductor who had been training the girls and had flown to New York to conduct the ensemble.

“This has been a great opportunity for my girls to show their talent. New York has given us an opportunity to profile our school and also my country. People here can see that we are equally modern and culturally advanced,” Siti Rogayah said, while alluding to the modern outlook and tolerance of other faiths in the predominantly Muslim country.

The group had brought more than 75 instruments, mostly clarinets, along with them, though the big, heavy instruments were provided by Carnegie.

Raja Muzafar Shah, the conductor, has been preparing and coaching the girls for the Seri Puteri Symphonic Ensemble in Cyberjaya. “This is my first visit not only to New York but to the US. We are playing the ‘Overture to Candide’ by Leonhard Bernstein, the Extreme Beethoven, a metamorphosis of Beethoven’s works. We are playing classical music,” he said.

The conductor, although at present based in London, where he is pursuing his higher studies in music, frequently visits Kuala Lumpur to be with his pupils and mould them into future talents.

As a pioneering ensemble in the local wind orchestra scene, as the principal Yahya Siti Rogayah put it, the band members are being trained to become Malaysia’s “most visible ambassadors of culture and youth performance”.

Raja Muzafar also highlighted some of the “touching moments” of the performance at Carnegie Hall, which was a “unique experience” both for him and the schoolgirls.

“The packed auditorium gave a thunderous applause. In fact the audience was clapping even while we were playing. I suppose they were very happy to see that an all-girl ensemble from Malaysia could play as well as Westerners. The ‘Overture to Candide’ is an all-time American favourite. The audience was highly impressed with the girls’ professional playing. I am very pleased with the outcome of the competition. We won the silver medal but, more importantly, we also won the hearts of the people,” Raja Muzafar said.

Malaysia’s tourism promotion agency, Tourism Malaysia, has also recognised the positive impact of the ensemble’s performances abroad, as it helps correct a somewhat distorted image of the Muslim country; many in the West, unfamiliar with the cultural and social realities of the nation, often form perceptions that are at variance with the true picture of the nation.

The SP Winds Ensemble had won the hearts of the audiences and critics alike, with many in the audience cheering them with cries of “Bravo”.

The successful debut of the girls has also brought cheer to Malaysians who last year were griefstricken by three aviation tragedies.

“The fact that the girls could qualify and compete in the Carnegie Hall competition was, in itself, a big achievement. It was a very positive event for us after the aviation tragedies of last year. The ensemble’s participation helped bolster Malaysia’s image after the negative media publicity over the aviation tragedies. We were also able to invite some leading professionals and operators from the tourism and travel trade, and they enjoyed the schoolgirls’ performance,” Ahmad Johanif Mohammad Ali, Tourism Malaysia’s vice president in New York, told the Weekend Review.

Tourism Malaysia’s top representative in New York claimed that the all-girl ensemble had demonstrated that “Malaysia has plenty of talent in the field of classical Western music”.

Shirley Weissman, a classical-music aficionado from New York who frequently attends concerts, was also present in the auditorium during the SP Winds’ performance at Carnegie.

“I was amazed and deeply moved by these schoolchildren — mind you, all girls — wearing their traditional headscarves and performing before a fastidious audience some of whom had never before witnessed Muslims performing Western classical music. I believe that such performances abroad by these young players will be a good way to promote people-to-people ties and also remove prejudices about each other,” she said. Weissman added that “the way to a man’s, and also to a woman’s heart, is not just [through the stomach], but also music.”

The ensemble will be participating in July 2016 in the World Music Contest in Kerkrad, Netherlands. The group also plans to perform with Khadija Ibrahim, “Malaysia’s nightingale”, as she is often called by her fans, at the Istana Budaya venue in Kuala Lumpur in January 2016.

Khadija Ibrahim is revered by the ensemble members because of the proactive support she gave the group in raising funds for their participation. Khadija, renowned for her haunting rendering of the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” theme song, captivated the audiences with her singing at a fund-raising dinner a few months earlier in Kuala Lumpur where Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak donated RM200,000 (Dh201,978) for the girls upon Khadija’s plea. Also, the tabs for the catering charges of RM60,000 were picked up by the Malaysian government.


Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.