Interview: Shun Ng on music, dyslexia and finding himself

In an exclusive e-mail interview with Carrybeans, award-winning guitarist and musician Shun Ng talk about music, life and the meaning of Christmas.

Read on to find out how music made all the difference for this talented guy who’ll be performing at the Shun Ng & The Shunettes concert right here in Kota Kinabalu next week!

shun ng, kota kinabalu

Q. What made you dive into the world of music and guitars?

Well, I grew up as a gymnast and was always very active sport-wise. I never really thought of music as anything of interest. I didn’t grow up in a musical family, so music wasn’t something that was around. It was kind of weird for me to dive into the world of music, and sort of happened by chance.

It all happened at a gym. My friend would bring in a guitar to play during gym, and I would sit and watch him. One day, he asked if I wanted to learn how to play the guitar — that blew my mind because I didn’t know someone could learn to play. But I started learning, and it really became real for me when I learned my first two chords.

The first chord I learned was a G chord. With my background as a gymnast, I just thought if I could tahan putting my fingers in that position I would be able to play music. So I played the G chord and it sounded okay! I was like, “Wow, that’s music.” Then life really changed when he showed me a C chord. which was just two fingers below G. When I learned to play the two chords well, I realised if I played C first then G, it sounded different than if I played G then C. It made me see that music is a language.

“It made me see that music is a language… that I could understand the world with.”

At that time, I was struggling with school and dyslexia, so language and reading were challenging for me. So when I found this new language that I could understand the world with, I found I could learn life concepts through music, timing and context.

One life concept I will talk a bit more about is context — a note only sounds as good as the ones before and after it. In a beautiful composition, every note works out for the others and that’s what makes it great. In the same way, if you’re a note working with the people around you, the people that you help, the people you spend time with and the people that you make smile, that’s your worth. Your worth is what you can do for people, the note before you and the note after you. A note in itself doesn’t mean anything unless it has a context.

Q. Your musical style (infused jazz, soul, funk and blues) is very unique, and you’ve been described as dynamic and innovative. How is your personality reflected in your music?

Music saved my life and I love it so much. I probably would have killed myself back then because I didn’t know what to do with my life before music. After finding it, I poured my heart and soul into it because I thought, “If I can get very good at this, it’s okay that I can’t read. Maybe if I get good at this, I can communicate better than others.”

And then I discovered the blues. The blues was crazy because it was just five notes, but with those five notes, great musicians have created unique and different tunes. It was so impressive to me because it was only five notes. But it’s really what they bring to it — the notes don’t matter as much as who’s behind the strings, the notes, the rhythm. Why can a musician make you laugh and cry in the same song? It’s the way he plays. To me, that is the rawest and most visceral form of communication.

“Music saved my life and I love it so much.”

So I took to blues early in my musical development and then got into jazz. Now jazz is more of an intellectual style, but also about feeling. And so I kept discovering music for myself. I had a great friend and mentor, Dr Kelly Tang, who showed me amazing things through music. Jeremy Monteiro, Danny Loong, all these guys who brought me up and showed me what music could be.

I’m the kind of guy who’s crazy. If I’m into something, I’m into it and I will go into it all the way until I can’t take it. Once I can’t take it, I do it even more. That’s the way I like to do things and it feels good to me. So with the guitar, if I can’t do something, that makes me so excited to learn and to explore. I’m a student of music, I love it, I admire it and I’m just very proud of it.

 

Q. Share with us a favourite song of yours, and why it’s so special to you.

Maurice Ravel wrote this piece, Piano Concerto in G major. The second movement is great. All three are great but it’s the second movement that is exceptionally special. It’s a waltz.

Ravel’s piece has no lyrics, only music. It’s nine minutes long and if you listen carefully — really listen to it and give it your time and sit there and just listen — you will hear the love in its entirety, beautiful, selfish, selfless, love. You’ll hear what it is in this world, what it can make us do, how crazy it makes us, how great it makes us. It defines the feeling of love and that is one of my favourites. I can listen to it over and over again. It starts out with a few simple melodies but if you follow those melodies throughout the song, you’ll realise that they’re repeated in different ways. It’s almost like a love that goes through so much stuff in life; it’s really about life and love.

Q. What is the meaning of Christmas for you?

Growing up in Singapore, Christmas was always a very special time of the year to me. I remember being so excited to get our tree and decorate it with ornaments each of us had picked out. Then we’d walk down Orchard Road listening to carols and see the sparkling streets drenched in lights of bright red and green. I would eagerly anticipate the gifts from my parents that I had so carefully written out on my Christmas list, and especially remember the disappointment I felt after opening my last gift. It was then I would know which items on the list I wasn’t going to get. But the saddest day of all for me was the day after Christmas because it was the end of a joyous season for me.

“We didn’t speak the same language but I had never felt more connected to anyone in my life than in those moments.”

But when I was 11, I spent a December in Thailand. There, I met the most incredible children I fell in love with who changed my perspective on the world and life. On Christmas eve, instead of singing carols, we linked arms and danced the traditional Lahu dance around a bonfire deep into the night. We drank plain water, ate porridge, laughed and played together. We didn’t speak the same language but I had never felt more connected to anyone in my life than in those moments. No one had a list but we all shared the greatest gift, the gift of love.

What’s more, the morning after Christmas was even better. Waking up in the field around crackling coals next to my new friends, we boiled plain water over the coals and had bread for breakfast (it never tasted so good). I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of joy and continued to feel that way many days after and then realized that what I thought was “Christmas” never begun nor ended for them. I know this because whenever I returned, no matter which time of year it was, it was always just as beautiful. It made me ask, “Is this the Christmas I know?”

So this Christmas, I wish you love and joy. Love and joy beyond the Christmas we know.

Q. What are some songs we can hope to hear at your upcoming concert in KK this month?

We love to keep our shows spontaneous because we love to surprise the audience and ourselves in order to create a completely unique experience for everybody, including ourselves! So if you really want to know, you’ll really have to come for the concert and find out for yourself.

Q. If your audiences could take back one memory from your KK concert this year, what would you want it to be?

We hope that they’ll take away more than one memory and we are looking forward to creating many fond memories with all our friends and the lovely people of KK.

Presented by Rhythms of Christmas, Shun Ng & The Shunettes will be performing on 17 and 18 November 2017 at Black Box KK, Suria Sabah.

Tickets range from RM80 – RM200; click here to get yours today! 

To catch Shun Ng & The Shunettes, click here.

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