My guitar, my guid­ing light

Once dis­missed as a fail­ure be­cause of dys­lexia, Shun Ng went on to find his niche in life through music. This gui­tarist ex­traor­di­naire has even caught the at­ten­tion of multi Grammy-win­ning pro­ducer, Quincy Jones.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By N. RAMA LO­HAN star2@thes­

“THE next thing I knew, some­one was bang­ing on the toi­let door. It was my man­ager, who told me Quincy was talk­ing about me.” Shun Ng walked out non­cha­lantly in an attempt to calm his nerves, but he should have known bet­ter. And just as he ar­rived at the main area where ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry’s house party was swing­ing, he caught the eye of multi Gram­my­win­ning pro­ducer,

Quincy Jones, who duly in­tro­duced him to the au­di­ence.

Of course, the two men are no strangers.

Ng had per­formed for Jones at his home upon the music leg­end’s be­hest, af­ter the oc­to­ge­nar­ian had watched him in the music video for the song Get On With It with Sin­ga­pore’s King Of Swing, Jeremy Mon­teiro. Four years on, and that per­for­mance by Ng now marks one of many high­lights in his young yet che­quered ca­reer. It’s hard to fathom this was the same young man who was once dis­missed as a fail­ure be­cause of his dys­lexia. The ill-ed­u­cated per­cep­tions served noth­ing else but to hurt his con­fi­dence.

“I never re­alised how badly it af­fected me un­til later. I grew up with low self-es­teem be­cause of it,” re­vealed the Sin­ga­porean, who was born in Chicago, the United States.

As a child, though, he at least found a call­ing in gym­nas­tics. “I was a hy­per­ac­tive kid, and the one most likely to jump into a sponge pit. But that en­vi­ron­ment (gym­nas­tics) be­came too com­pet­i­tive for me, and I be­gan to hate it within a cou­ple of years. My coaches pushed me hard, and my par­ents felt I should stick to some­thing, but all I was try­ing to do was quit,” he said, ru­ing the time spent. Nat­u­rally, that in­ter­est died quickly, even though he per­se­vered for sev­eral years – un­til a friend brought a guitar to the gym one day. That’s when ev­ery­thing changed.

In the in­stru­ment, Ng found a voice, a call­ing that would have him ded­i­cate his life to the sixstring.

“I felt like there was noth­ing I could do well at that age, but the guitar changed that. Learn­ing to play that first chord felt like an achieve­ment,” he shared, de­tail­ing his start as a mu­si­cian.

That first chord learnt soon led him to learn­ing all the parts on Michael Jack­son’s Bil­lie Jean ,a chal­lenge thrown at him by a friend which he duly took up and ac­com­plished. Did he play it for Mr Jones, then? “No,” he re­sponded sheep­ishly.

A stint at Sin­ga­pore Polytech­nic to pur­sue an As­so­ciate De­gree in Music and Au­dio Tech­nol­ogy when he was 16 did lit­tle to con­vince him that for­mal ed­u­ca­tion was the way for­ward. Poor results need­lessly dis­cour­aged him fur­ther. “I didn’t do well, and it was just a struggle. Read­ing music was tough, and it made me feel like I would never be good.” But even in the throes of de­spair, the guitar re­mained his guid­ing light.

Music not be­ing pre­dom­i­nant in his house­hold barely de­terred Ng, too, and soon, he was learn­ing the clas­sics by ear.

“I passed off (the Bea­tles’) Hey Jude as my own to my dad,” said the 27-year-old, with a hearty chuckle, re­veal­ing that it was his old man who bought him his first guitar for his 14th Christ­mas. “Music was an es­cape, and that’s how I be­came a stu­dent of it,” he added.

It was the blues that truly turned him on his head, the mourn­ful, rootsy id­iom res­onat­ing with him like no other.

“Blues is raw, and the way it’s played has an in­tel­lec­tual feel. Emot­ing is im­por­tant, and though there are only five notes in the blues, I loved it and I dove straight into it.”

There’s the ill-ad­vised belief that the blues is noth­ing but an in­ter­minable jam ses­sion, but Ng dis­agrees. “Peo­ple need to listen to the great old stuff, where you can feel the pain in the music and lyrics. For some rea­son, peo­ple are scared to delve into the sor­row­ful el­e­ment of the blues,” he opined.

Ng, though, dipped lib­er­ally into the well­spring of blues in­flu­ences, ab­sorb­ing the sounds of Robert John­son, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Wa­ters and Fred­die King. While cut­ting his teeth in the genre, he was for­tu­nate enough to ply his trade in the club cir­cuit in Chicago, play­ing with griz­zled old hacks and younger mu­si­cians alike.

“They taught me that the blues is about be­ing a fam­ily. They all treated me like one of them and were so en­cour­ag­ing. They loved the idea of a Chi­nese kid play­ing the blues,” he said, of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The flame of de­sire in him grew ex­po­nen­tially, and in 2012, he re­leased his de­but al­bum, Funky

Thumb Stuff, which even drew the at­ten­tion of revered gui­tarist Tuck An­dress, of duo Tuck & Patti. The al­bum was also the en­try point in him gain­ing Jones as an au­di­ence and fan.

But fate had other ideas for the bud­ding guitar player, and upon the rec­om­men­da­tion of Sin­ga­pore’s Cul­tural Medal­lion win­ner, Dr Kelly Tang, he was awarded a schol­ar­ship from Berklee Col­lege of Music, and was even­tu­ally se­lected for the pres­ti­gious Artist Diploma, an es­teemed pro­gramme for highly recog­nised mu­si­cians.

This ed­u­ca­tional stint, though, yielded some­thing much more mean­ing­ful – be­ing in Boston al­lowed him to cross paths with 1970s blues rock out­fit J. Geils Band’s harp player, Magic Dick. Ng and Magic recorded the God Of Fa­ther of Soul, James Brown’s clas­sic Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag ,a cool bluesy ren­di­tion of the gem.

Ng cur­rently tours with a duo of back-up singers, pow­er­houses Deon Mose and An­gel Chisholm, who are col­lec­tively la­belled the Shunettes, a moniker clearly in­spired by 1960s vo­cal girl group The Ronettes.

He may still need years to em­u­late his heroes, but he has cer­tainly set him­self on the right path and dug deep into a genre that best rep­re­sents him.

“I feel noth­ing has been more sat­is­fy­ing than learn­ing life through music,” he said. And based on his meet­ing with Jones at the el­der states­man’s home, where they spoke about ev­ery­thing but music (“We talked about life, ribs recipes, cul­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture ...”), life has al­ready pre­sented him with a per­spec­tive that could only serve him well in fu­ture.

Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star


He may be a diminu­tive Asian, but Ng packs a wal­lop as a live per­former of blues music.


Nu­mer­ous av­enues may­haveled­toa dead end for Ng, but in the blues, he found his true call­ing.

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