Dawn Fung: Simple Beginnings
1 January 2016
"What is most personal is also most universal"
- Henri Nouwen
I rarely listen to Christian music.
I should rephrase that.
The Christian music I listen to is either ambient music that I have playing while I take a nap or it’s the hymns that are sung during Mass. Neither elicits a deep stirring in my being, the two exceptions being Gregorian chants and a sung Latin Mass, which take me back to a simple primary beginning.
It was probably from the age of 20 that I inexplicably developed an aversion to anything or anyone who was overtly “holy moly”, excluding people who had taken vows. People who liberally pepper their speech with “Praise the Lord” aren’t my conversation partners of choice.
Those who claim to be able to pray in tongues are even more suspect in my books. Praying in tongues isn’t like pulling on a sweater or a pair of shoes. There is no, “OK, let’s go!” with tongues. You either have it or you don’t.
I am a cynical Catholic. And a quiet one.
So, I attended Dawn Fung’s house gig on 21 November 2015 only after having reasoned to myself that it was just that; a gig.
PARTNERS IN LOVE AND ART
Fung and her husband George Chua, a pastor, share a love for life and music. Chua describes themselves as “missionaries in the arts scene”. Giving an introduction to the gig to the eight of us sat in their cosy living room, Chua said, “Singapore is too small to have an inner city. But, I think that our inner city might very well be the art world.”
To borrow a term from a Jesuit priest and one of my preferred authors, James Martin, I believe in “secular saints” myself. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, including art, without the religious bells and whistles. Certain lifestyle choices, pushing artistic boundaries or venturing into subject matter and concepts that are uncomfortable don’t, therefore, automatically equal to godless immorality or necessitate being in some state of insobriety.
Chua opened the afternoon’s gig with an avant-garde, partially improvised soundscaping piece. I’m not a fan of the genre but there are many who are; enough even for them to organise Synth Meets.
PURITY OF SOUND
When Chua was done with his set, Fung, who had been sitting at the back of the room walked up to the front, sat on her stool and started singing. No musical accompaniment except for the sound of heavy rain pelting against the windows and thunder rolling through the flat. She began with pieces that were reminiscent of nursery rhymes in both style and delivery. Without the clammer of a musical instrument but her voice, I found myself drawn to her words and to the purity of her sound.
“When we sang as children, did we sing with musical instruments? I don’t think so and this is what I was experimenting with. There is something authentic for me when I try [different methods] to recollect it. [Artistically], it is still a process for me,” Fung explained.
She then picked up her guitar and performed tunes from her album “In The Evening Sun” as well as newer songs that she felt were ready to be heard by others.
“If the song still sounds good to me after a year, then it’s good to release. Because I grow up [in that year], but the song might not.”
Songs from “In The Evening Sun” have a distinctly English folk sound, down to Fung’s accent.
“This particular folk sound is very close to me because that’s what my mother raised me on. English nursery rhymes. She was an anglophile and always had the BBC playing on the radio. Accent is one way of connecting to history. Singing in this way helps me to make a deeper connection and brings me back immediately to those feelings.”
This seems to be Fung’s signature - her aura, even. As she says, her art explores primordial concepts and beginnings. To the listener, her music, words and singing do take you to a beginning; a beginning where things are simple and real. Chua knows this, too, and recalled an incident where a non-Christian man was seemingly moved to tears by Fung’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. The man chanced upon her gig at The Esplanade Concourse and stayed to the end.
Back at the house gig, a lady in the audience was quietly crying.
ART INSPIRED BY THE DIVINE
I can only describe Fung’s music as a breath of fresh air; a much needed step away from shallowness, mediocrity and laziness. Fung offers hope in our modern times as we lament the dearth of quality songwriting. Her work is inspired both by spirituality and contemporary issues. “Strange Fire”, for example, was Fung’s pained response to the Little India incident in 2013.
Much, if not all, of Fung’s life revolves around God. In addition to being the wife of a pastor, she leads an informal collective of artists, musicians and other creative types called The Group and members meet regularly to pray, perform and chat.
She makes no bones about the fact that she writes about God and I’m quite happy to say that I like her music.
Does this make me a convert to Christian music? I don’t think so; not in the sense that it becomes the only thing I listen to. Her music is her hymn, although not the hymns that we recognise from church and that have been jazzed up by Christian rock bands for easier consumption.
Dawn Fung’s music, her art, is there with the Gregorian chants and sung Latin Masses; evoking simple beginnings.
Fung is a fervent promoter of work produced by members of The Group. Books, music and art are also available online: thornsandthistle.sg
Text: Carol | Photos: Marc