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Last month, I was at a shoot at Block 112 in Toa Payoh Lorong 1. We were filming our second interactive video titled “The New Neighbour/s” and the production team was wrapping up a scene at the exercise corner.
I was chatting with my colleagues and commenting on the liveliness of the old but charming estate. It was quiet and peaceful yet filled with life, with seniors sitting at benches reading their newspapers or strolling around the neighborhood on a morning walk.
On our way to a lift lobby for the next scene, we suddenly heard music coming from one of the ground floor units along the corridor we were at. Curious, we decided to investigate. To hear a piano playing isn’t uncommon in HDB estates but with drums as well? We speculated that there could be a band of seniors jamming together nearby.
My initial thought was “Wow, how cool is it to have an elderly band in this estate!”
Due to the pandemic, it’s very rare to see seniors nowadays with the same passion coming together and practising together as a band.
As my colleagues and I peeked into the unit, we were greeted by a man in his 60s and two other seniors. He was on the drums and they were on a piano and electronic keyboard respectively. He waved at us from inside and introduced himself as Uncle Romeo.
Glancing in from outside, we could see an exquisite range of instruments, from piano to guzheng (Chinese zither) lining the walls of his small but neat 3-room flat.
We were impressed by Uncle Romeo’s collection and told him so.
I asked him if they were practising together as a band.
“Oh, no lah! They are my students! I teach all kinds of instruments,” he replied in Mandarin with a laugh.
Over the next two days, most of our conversations were in a mix of Mandarin and Hokkien. Uncle Romeo would switch effortlessly between the two, often to illustrate a colourful point in one of his stories.
“Come take a look at the collection when the lesson is over,” he added, probably mindful about the maximum number of visitors he could have thanks to Covid restrictions.
He was so welcoming that I told him that I would pay him a visit after we had wrapped our shoot that day.
For the rest of the shoot, during breaks, I couldn’t help wondering if Uncle Romeo used to have his own band before the pandemic. There were so many questions in my mind: What got you interested in so many types of instruments? Did you learn how to play all these instruments yourself? How did you end up teaching seniors in a 3-room Toa Payoh flat?
Later that day, after the shoot wrapped, I dropped by his place as promised, and this time I was greeted by the sight of Uncle Romeo and a woman who looked to be in her 70s. He was on the drums, guiding her with the beat and she was fully engrossed playing the keyboard.
I couldn’t help but feel a warm sense of happiness wash over me, seeing these two seniors playing a piece so passionately. Though they weren’t really smiling as they were fully concentrating on their playing, I could sense their joy.
This, to me, is the perfect example of living life to the fullest, treasuring every small little moment and interaction in our lives.
As I didn’t want to disturb their practice session, I waved at Uncle Romeo and told him that I would drop by his place the next day during my lunch break.
Receiving kindness from an elderly man
The next day, I visited Uncle Romeo again and learnt about his story.
He started his musical journey when he was nine, he says.
Uncle Romeo came from a humble background and he started helping with the household income at a young age.
“I’m very bo si diam (Hokkien phrase to refer to someone as always restless or hyperactive), I always like to move around and can’t keep still. And I don’t like to study at all! So as a child, I often went to Chinatown to help at a hawker stall selling ko ko mee instead!”
“I have been quite adventurous since young and like to wander around. One day, I saw an elderly man playing piano at a shop in New World and I was so intrigued by the sound of his performance. I wanted to learn how to play the piano but I had no money,” he recounted.
He kept going back to New World whenever he could. Then one day, the elderly man, noticing the young Romeo’s interest, told him that he would teach him how to play the piano for free. That was how the elderly man became his shifu (teacher in Chinese).
In return for his kindness, Uncle Romeo took care of him, following the elderly performer wherever he went.
Over time, his shifu took him under his wing, and gave him opportunities to perform on the streets as well, which helped him to gain confidence.
In his teens, after Uncle Romeo parted ways from his shifu, he started playing gigs at nightclubs at New World. It was the heady times of the 60s and 70s and disco had hit Singapore.
That was when he was introduced to even more instruments, learning the rhythmic and bass guitars. He shared that he had up to 13 teachers at one point then. Now, even though he has never had any formal training, Uncle Romeo says he can play more than 10 musical instruments.
Later on, during his National Service days, he played in bands at getai to help out with his family’s finances. “I lived at Zhap Gor (“10 miles” in Hokkien, where Jurong East is now). There were a lot of hills and empty clearings which made it a good place to practise. There were few disturbances. It was like having an open-air studio in the wild!”
Uncle Romeo said that some of the famous getai legends like Chen Jin Lang and Lin Li, patronized the place frequently to practise with bands.
“I even once taught Liu Ling Ling how to play the erhu for one of her performances!” he laughed.
Giving back through music
Uncle Romeo stayed true to his passion and kept playing in a band and taking on gigs whenever he could since his twenties. Later on, he started busking on the streets and eventually started his own music studio.
“I used to teach a lot of seniors at my music studio! Just like my shifu, I gave my students chances to perform on stage whenever there were opportunities,” he recalled proudly while showing me videos of his students and him performing on stage.
But his fondness turned to melancholy when he told me that he had to wind up his music studio last year due to Covid. That was why his flat was full of his musical instruments: he had to move everything back home and that was when he started teaching music from his living room.
Some of his older students would pay him a visit once in a while and reminisce about the times that they used to perform together. Once in a while, they would even jam together at his place for old times’ sake.
“I started giving a few lessons here and there from my home. I try to teach the seniors living around my area as much as possible. It’s my way of giving back, just like how my shifu brought music into my life”
Uncle Romeo says he also teaches several seniors who live in the same block as he does. However, with the recent surge in Covid cases, those students have not been coming by his place.
Though it was only a short chat with Uncle Romeo, I left his place inspired and reminded to stay true to my passion and hobbies. He is an example of what active aging is about — not just for himself, but helping seniors around his neighbourhood.
I wonder if I would be able to be like these seniors, learning a new musical instrument (or any other hobby!) when I’m older, actively aging instead of just passively passing time.
In fact, I tried to learn the drums last year but my passion dwindled each time safe management measures were tightened. My visit with Uncle Romeo is a reminder that I should stay true to something I’m interested in.
Perhaps, it’s time for me to rekindle my passion for drumming and start to take lessons from Uncle Romeo!