SHE bubbles over with enthusiasm but lyrical soprano Syafinaz Selamat is decidedly cool under pressure, whether performing on stage before a crowd of thousands or tackling the ferocious loop-de-loops of an indomitable roller coaster. She even conquered Mount Kinabalu on an almost eleventh-hour invitation — without having time to first train for the quest.
“I don’t think I’ll be doing that again,” she laughs, relating how out of breath and bone-tired the experience left her. “While it was a fantastic opportunity and reaching the summit was very rewarding, my advice to would-be climbers is to definitely go into it well prepared.”
The challenge would have left anyone else bedraggled but Syafinaz must have still looked her chic self to have been recognised by fans during the descent, though there really is no mistaking that slender frame and mile-long legs. It is her voice, however, that keeps the spotlight on the songstress; a powerful soprano that rings clear and triumphant as she fluently climbs octaves and manipulates chords.
Trained in music at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Syafinaz completed a short course in Germany with an opera singer before taking on her current commitments: she lectures in voice at her alma mater, the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) and the International College of Music (ICOM), as well as holds the positions of quartermaster with the National Choir of Malaysia and choir director at Permata Seni Negara. Her expertise and experience have also landed her on the judging panels of several reality shows, including Mentor, Who Will Win, and two seasons of Akademi Fantasia, in addition to numerous prestigious hosting spots.
Bolstering her eminence in the national arena are two nominations in the Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM) awards for Best Female Vocals in an Album, but recognition of her talent began when Syafinaz was still in the single-digit age group. “Everyone in my family loves music,” she confides as we settle in for the interview at Ben’s in Publika, Solaris Dutamas. “My mom is 82 and has her own karaoke console with mics, which she sets up every time the family gets together. My late father loved singing too and sent me for music lessons — I picked up the electronic organ at seven and the piano at 10.”
Syafinaz began performing at events around Batu Pahat with her friend Eliza as a seven-year-old and did her first “real” show two years later when she auditioned for a talent search hosted by Angkasapuri. She quickly became a regular face on national television children’s programmes soon after and a future in music seemed natural.
Not everyone was as convinced about her chances in an uncertain industry, however, and Syafinaz was devastated to discover her father — until then her biggest supporter — disapproved of her pursuing music as a career. “We had a huge fight about it after SPM,” she recalls. “He wanted me to study medicine and was furious when he found out I’d only applied for music courses in university.” The arguments grew so ferocious and frequent that she even ran away to her sister’s home in Johor Baru before moving to KL to live with another sister. It was then that her mother agreed she take a year off to decide on a course of action and Syafinaz was ultimately accepted into UiTM.
“My father eventually came around and was very proud of me. I strongly believe that if you’re good at something, it is possible to forge a career out of it,” she says. “It comes down to whether you have the perseverance to stick out the inevitable difficult patches.”
She performed consistently throughout university after the launch of her first album — “I didn’t know anything about the recording industry at 16 and just sang whatever I was given” — and in 1999 was spotted by the Asian director of the World Championship of Performing Arts. “I was invited to participate in the competition in Los Angeles,” says the singer. “Participation was international and while it was smaller than it is now, it was an eye-opening experience for me, competing alongside world-class young singers.” Syafinaz sang a Malay number in the broad Contemporary, Pop, Rock and R&B category for the 16 to 25 age group and brought home the gold medal.
Her second album, a pop-oriented compilation under EMI, was released 10 years after her first and the third — a more R&B-slanted anthology — followed three years later. Fans saw her lying low album-wise for the better part of the last decade but it was not for want of inspiration or drive.
“I simply don’t have enough hours in a day,” laughs the effervescent singer, whose phone vibrates incessantly throughout the interview as though underlining the many demands placed on her slim shoulders. “I had the idea for the album I’m currently working on eight years ago and I’m still trying to produce it.”
The culmination of her journey this last decade, the in-progress album is a fusion of contemporary and classical Western, the result of an exciting musical experiment Syafinaz embarked on years ago. Known for her flair in opera arias by composers such as Puccini, Bellini and Verdi (Syafinaz once played the soprano solo in Carl Offs’ Carmina Burana with 100 choir members and the National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia under reputable Australian conductor Roland Peelman), her music in recent years has been heavily influenced by the classics and the upcoming album even includes a remake of a Mozart piece.
“Nothing like this has been done locally before and as it’s pretty experimental in terms of sound and arrangement, not many producers understand where I want to take this,” she says. “I’m self-producing it, which is financially tough, and there’s still quite a bit to nail down and streamline before it’s complete. I’m not in a hurry though — I love the process and am taking my time to get it just right.”The diversity of her musical influences and expressions makes it difficult to label the songstress, which is precisely her aim. “My forte would be classically influenced pop but I don’t want to be pushed into a corner,” she explains. “I listen to everything, even dangdut; it’s easy to find something to enjoy in every genre. I still love opera but opportunities here are very limited.”
Though formally trained in classical — “Your voice matures as you grow older, which works well for this genre” — Syafinaz loves contemporary rhythms and has been working to mix the two worlds together as illustrated in her upcoming album. “It’s a very unique genre and one that has great potential in Malaysia, if the interest I’ve received for this is anything to go by. The crossover could appeal to both classical and pop audiences; music is universal and infinitely versatile. This would be a very niche market and I’m hoping to see more exploration into this genre.”
And that, ultimately, appears to be what Syafinaz is striving to do with her unique brand of music: expand the industry to look beyond the traditional genre frames to create new sounds. Her fluency in the language of music eases the enormity of the task but it is, as it has always been with her, a labour of love and one she is happy to undertake.
“I always drive into my students the importance of getting the techniques down in singing: once you have a strong foundation, you can really do anything. Music is a narration and when you have a firm grasp of its rules, you become the storyteller.”
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Feb 11-17, 2013.