Okay, I know Top 10 lists don’t come without their limitations, are entirely subjective and are nearly always incredibly frustrating more in what’s been left out than what’s in them. Still, at least we can disagree about something. Here’s the first list, which also became a Far Side radio show on 22nd October 14. The greatest ever female singers from the Far East. I tried to choose singers who are true icons at home, and in some cases across different countries in the region. Many of them are no longer with us, but their legacy lives on and they have inspired a younger generation. In short, singers worthy to be called Legends. What it is not, is a list of the most popular singers in Asia right now, although who knows, some of the excellent singers today might be on a list in future years if they have a sustained career. It’s also not a list of necessarily my favourite singers, some who are relatively unknown. So, here we go. In no particular order, the 10 greatest ever female singers from the Far East are:
1. Saloma (Malaysia)
Saloma is often overshadowed by her more famous husband P.Ramlee but was a fantastic singer in her own right. Not just a beautiful voice her music encompassed Malay roots with jazz, Latin, rock ‘n’ roll and other styles. She was quite the pioneer. Who knows, without Saloma, maybe Siti Nurhaliza and others wouldn’t be singing music with such strong local flavours. She died aged 48 in 1983.
2. Elvy Sukaesih (Indonesia)
The Queen of Dangdut, the street music of Indonesia that emerged from 1950s Orkes Melayu (orchestras). Dangdut blended rock, Arabic, Indian and other styles with Indonesian instruments. The ‘Golden Age’ of dangdut was the mid 70s when Elvy was at the peak of her powers. Born in 1951 she is still active today.
3. Ros Sereysothea (Cambodia)
When I first came across the name of Ros Sereysothea, while visiting Cambodia, she was just about unknown in the west. That all changed when her music, mostly from the early 70s, was used in the film City of Ghosts and the band Dengue Fever out of Los Angeles started to cover her songs. She made hundreds of recordings in a relatively short career and her popularity has probably never been greater than now. She was born in 1948 and is believed to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1977.
4. Hibari Misora (Japan)
There is probably no greater Japanese singing icon than Hibari Misora. She started singing incredibly young, aged 12, and was only 13 when she sung one of her most famous songs, Tokyo Kid. Perhaps she became known best for singing enka, but I also love her versions of minyo (folk) songs with big band arrangements and jazzy style. Like many other singing stars from Asia, she also appeared in many films. She died in 1989 aged 52.
5. Teresa Teng (Taiwan)
If there’s one singer in this list who is popular throughout the region, its probably Tawian’s Teresa Teng. Her fame spread to Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and mainland China, despite her music being banned there for many years. A brilliant singer, she managed to incorporate Chinese folk elements into western styles. She was just 42 when she died in 1995. Her legacy lives on in the music of Faye Wong and many others.
6. Pompuang Duangjan (Thailand)
Generally I enjoy Thai lukthung, pre the advent of keyboards and synthesisers, but Pompuang Duangjan was such an exceptional singer I can forgive her for being a pioneer of the electronic version of this country style of music. She came from a poor family and was idolized by the country’s poorer classes, for whom she represented a dream of a young poor girl making good. When she died in 1992, aged 31, hundreds of thousands of people attended her funeral, including the royal family. Her status in Thailand is akin to say Edith Piaf in France or Hibari Misora in Japan.
7. Bai Guang (China)
Bai Guang is one of the so-called seven singing stars of China, popular in pre-communist 1930s and 40s Shanghai, who doubled up as the most famous film stars of the day. I rather like her slightly deeper voice. Born in 1921, she died in 1999 while living in Malaysia. Many of the singing stars of Shanghai moved to Hong Kong and helped to spawn Cantopop. But we can forgive them that.
8. Hetty Koes Endang (Indonesia)
Incredibly versatile, Hetty is probably best known for singing Kroncong, but she is also a successful pop singer and has also sung dangdut, and local styles Pop Sunda and Minang. She also became popular in Japan after winning a song contest there. Born in 1957 she still remains active today.
9. Mar Mar Aye (Burma)
Probably the least known of all the singers on this list, Mar Mar Aye (born in 1942) was incredibly popular in Burma, singing the vast majority of all film soundtracks by the 1980s. She emigrated to the USA in 1998 and returned from exile in 2012 with the permission of the President. She has become politically acitive and an inspiration to young Burmese after publishing he memoirs in 2012.
10. Siti Nurhaliza (Malaysia)
By far the youngest on this list, born in 1979, Siti’s incredible success from an early age, definitely warrants her inclusion as one of the greatest singers from the region. Although she sings pop, she hasn’t forgotten her roots and consistently released traditional based albums, helping no doubt to popularise Malaysia’s deep cultural heritage in music and dance.