The Queen of Keroncong
Kartina Dahari was an award-winning Malay singer who was known as the “Queen of Keroncong, a traditional Malay folk music genre. A fixture on Singapore TV and radio from the 1960s to the 1980s, she was the first Malay singer in Singapore to record in English. She was known throughout the region, with her ability to sing in both Malay and English gaining her fans beyond the Malay community.
She was born in 1941 in a Geylang kampung to an illustrious musical family. Her father was Dahari Jarr, leader of well-known local Malay music group Orkes Kampung Gelam. Her grandfather was Jahari Ibrahim (Wak Jarr), a Malay folk music composer. Malay entertainment icons P Ramlee, Saloma and Siput Sarawak would go to Dahari’s home to rehearse.
Kartina was a fan of American singers Doris Day and Patti Page, and used to sing at school concerts at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School. She had an older brother and six half-siblings from her father’s subsequent marriages after her mother died, but she was the only one to pursue a musical career like her father and grandfather. Her father was not, however, keen for her to go into show business.
As she once said in a media interview: "As a girl, I was expected to stay at home. I never sang in front of my father and grandfather, so they did not know how good I was. But I believe I inherited my talents from them."
When the opportunity came to sing on radio for a keroncong group, Delima Orkes, Kartina, then aged just 15, seized it. Her father was not happy. He thought she was too young. He did not encourage her, but did not object when, three years later, she was invited to sing with music group Melati Putih Hiburan that often performed on radio.
From radio, she moved on to television, and began to appear regularly on the Malay variety show Kalong Senandong. She caught the attention of recording giant EMI, whose general manager from London flew to Singapore to audition her. She was signed on by EMI and released several EPs and LPs in English and Malay.
Kartina performed in Taiwan as well as for royal families in Malaysia and foreign dignitaries who visited Singapore. She particularly enjoyed being flown into the Sabah and Sarawak jungles to entertain Malaysian soldiers on duty. “We were flown by helicopter into the jungle and singers like me and Julie (Sudiro) would sing on makeshift stages that they built for the troops. I will never forget how happy they were to see us sing for them,” she once said.
In 2009, Kartina won the Perdana Emas (Golden Premier) award at Malay entertainment awards ceremony Pesta Perdana. For her achievements, Kartina was given the Artistic Excellence Award at the 15th Compass (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) Awards in 2010.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, Kartina died in 2014 aged 72.
"There is no room for error. When I go onstage, I have to be confident. If you’re tired and you want to have a cigarette break, I say ‘no’. You are paid to do this, you must be professional, you cannot have the ‘tidak apa’ (Malay for never mind) attitude."
"Young singers like me have so much to learn from her, such as her professionalism and humility. She always said that even if you gave a good performance, you can always do better." - Thirty-four year old singer Rudy Djoharnae.