Satilah binti Abdullah is Ning's
mother, manager and chaperon. She saw Ning's potential even when Ning was very young
and began grooming her for the musical world. Her goals for Ning were clear from
the start. We met Satilah recently and had this chat with her.
J1: Are you of mixed
S: I am like rojak. My grandfather is Dutch and my grandmother is a Maharaja of India's
daughter---there's the Anglo-Indian blood. My father in turn married, in Jakarta,
my mum who is Dutch-Chinese-Indonesian, with a bit of Batak influence. I, in turn,
married and Arab Malay. His father is pure Arab, and his mother is Malay. That's
how Ning got that unique look.
J1: Were you born here?
S: I was born here. I have two sisters---three in the family. We are all sort of
musicians. Through my family's generation, we have all been musicians. My great-grandfather
played the violin and the piano. I play the piano, and my children play the violin.
They were in the Youth Symphony Orchestra.
My generation, we were all musicians. I was teaching music before. That's where I
encouraged Ning to start her music career when she was still young. In school, I
encouraged her to sing---to participate in school, district, state and national competitions.
When she won the national competition of the year for the best vocal singer in the
country as a student, I stopped her. I told her, "After this, we are not going
to try anymore. If you do something, it has to be international."
So the year came when she was fifteen plus, and we tried her in the International
Voice of Asia Competition. That's where she won her glory. She didn't get her first
prize there, but she go a special award from Japan which was called Best Artist Development.
She was very young at that time. Immediately, the recording company (Sony) signed
But then, I never let them do anything. I just held on to everything until she was
eighteen---she had to finish elementary education first. Anyway, they consented to
Then, she came out with her album. It won Best Album of the Year, Best New Artist
and Best Solo Singer (Dekat Padamu).
J1: Did you have an idea how you would groom Ning
from the early stages of her life?
S: Yes, I think I saw potential in her and her brother. I started them off with the
violin (Ning was 8 then). After that, when Orkestra Simponi Muda was formed, they
both became members at a very young age. Somehow, I feel that they are very talented.
The talent is there. It is just a matter of gearing it up and sharpening their skills.
I have always exposed then to R&B soul music---that's our, my greatest love.
And also to classical music.
Ning has a unique voice, in the sense that she can go very high octaves. That was
a great advantage that I saw in her. Immediately when I discovered that (when Ning
was in primary school) she was doing the soprano part in the school choir, I tried
to look for people who could give her some vocal training.
And at the same time, people started calling her for appearances here and there.
So, I sent her for catwalk training. And that was when I sort of started grooming
her. She was about 14.
J1: Her R&B-type singing. Would you say you
have been a great influence on that?
S: It has always been our love to listen to black singers---the soul kind of music.
We have always loved to hear that and we play the music all along. Somehow or rather,
I find that she blends in very well with the melody, and she loves listening to Mariah
Carey, Whitney Houston and the other black singers, like Ella Fitzgerald. The exposure
has helped a lot.
J1: Her first record label was Sony. There were some
problems between Sony and yourselves. Can you tell us something about that?
S: These are generally fundamentals when you are new at a recording company. You
are not satisfied with royalties, payments and all these things. Initially when we
went to Sony, I sort of gave up my job when I realised that the whole thing wasn't
all that easy. I was more or less trying to act as a PR for her---you had to be with
her all the time. First, I took no-pay leave. But it didn't work out. So I had to
give up my job.
But since we had already signed the contract, I was thinking that she could do two
careers (the other, being a student) at the same time. But, in no time, I discovered
that it was very taxing , very demanding, and time consuming. It was because of that,
I told Ning "no", I think you better concentrate on one thing at a time.
If you are good at it, you just go and sharpen yourself in whatever field you are
So, I had to give up my job and follow her. That was when I discovered that there
were a lot of loop holes that were not being attended to.
J1: What was these loop holes?
S: I think most singers---not to blame the records companies or anything like that,
and I don't know singers here get into the music industry but maybe, one day after
a jam session at the pub or at the kenduri, somebody say you can sing and you should
go and produce a song---they never really go through the preparation at the back.
So when people hear Ning singing, people say Satilah you are very lucky, you have
a wonderful daughter with a wonderful voice. But nobody knows the pains that we have
gone through. We have had to invest and do whatever we had to do to bring her to
that level. For example, she's sharp in her hearing because of the violin training
she has had. You know the rhythm so well...and so when you go into the studio to
do recording, most producers are very surprised with Ning because in one night, in
three hours if the mood is right and everything is right, she can not only record
the songs, she can do everything. So when she's in it, she's in it. She knows her
pitch and everything. This comes only if you play an instrument, a violin for example.
The violin is the sharpest and the most difficult instrument in music to play---it
gives you very good rhythm and beat. She's very good at that.
I was trying to bring forward these thing, but in a record company, normally you
never get an artist or the manager come tell the boss or the PR that it should be
that or it should be this. They will think that you are trying to be smart.
But sometimes, they don't know we are in it and we know the industry too. We are
musicians ourselves. This is where the clash of opinions and all the things came
So, to the best of her interest, we felt, we would like to get involve in the album
ourselves---to achieve what it is that we really want. These were some of the restrictions.
J1: In other words, you wanted more artistic control?
S: Yes. We had a vision of what we were going to do, how far we were going to do
and what we really wanted to do.
Even I am quite surprise---in the music industry, in the entertainment section, and
also some reporters---who say, Oh, Ning is doing R&B, why can't she do dangdut,
why can't she do pop-rock. These things sell well. But music doesn't work that way.
You have to understand, if you are a musician or a singer, if you are a dangdut singer
you will end up always a dangdut singer. There are singers who do dangdut, reggae
and then rock. That is what I classify not having any vision. When this doesn't work
out, try another method.
In our case, it was decided: Okay Ning, what do you want to do? You want to do R&B.
That's it, that's your line. Whether this album will sell or not, let it be. You
are introducing something new, and if you have something good, it will take time
but it will catch up.
That is what has happened to Ning. But I am surprised that it has taken such a short
time to catch on. I gave it like three years, but within that year itself, the album
came out and although it was not produced in great quantity, it touched the market
because of the AIM (Anugerah Industri Musik) Awards. Because of AIM, she was really
recognised. The recording label did not have anything to do with it. (Ning was 17-plus)
I don't blame the recording company. It is just that they are not aware that there
are unique ones who comes only once in a while who knows what they are doing and
has a vision of where they are going. You don't like to be dictated in that sense
because you know what you want and you know where you want to go.
So, you are not given that choice and you feel that your talent is restricted and
J1: The decision to go with foreign managers. You
got flak for it. Can you elaborate a little on that?
S: It is all in the past now, and I don't really want to talk about it. It is just
that the timing was right at that time, mainly because I was up to my head with work
and she was becoming very popular. There were also other restrictions: I was not
staying in KL. They just came at the right time, I would say. (After the second album,
in March last year)
They had their own marketing strategies. Well, they worked out in the beginning but
along the lines, a lot of loop holes. Finally, it just reached the level when Ning
had to decide to do things her way.
And also, they can't seem to understand our culture. They want to get things done
J1: What was the primary reason that you
engaged foreign managers?
S: When the second album was released, she became a big hit in Singapore with In
Another Life. As a result of that, Singapore has taken her as one of their international
artist under contract with TCS. We were looking far, to promote her at the Asia-Pacific
level, to go international---to go to countries like Japan and Indonesia.
J1: Would you consider the tie-up somewhat premature?
S: I wouldn't say it was premature. It was a good step but the planning strategies
were not well done in the sense that we were not correctly informed. We didn't know
what was happening every step of the way, and that's bad.
Flaws begun to take place. For example, in a concert. She's doing a big concert and
suddenly she was told that she had to do a dinner show at Shangri-La an hour before
the concert. They didn't inform us with things like that.
Ning was really selling It was like make your money now; it's now or never. So it
was just bang, bang, bang...work, work, work, work.
J1: So, were they consciously dishonest about managing
Ning that way or did they feel like they were doing the best for Ning?
S: I wouldn't know what they were conscious of, because there were times when mismanagement
were going on; like I was informed, Ning was not informed, and when Ning was informed,
I was not informed. Things like that happened. You feel very unstable about it.
They tried to gain control of everything. They even tried to block me out. If they
have planned it honestly and sincerely...(pause) I think there was a lot of dishonesty
going on, but you know money can be an evil.
J1: Who decided that the managers couldn't work
anymore---you or Ning?
S: I had it in my mind, but Ning had to say it. So she said it, when she couldn't
take it anymore. Anyway, that's the past and it's best left that way.
J1: Okay. Let's talk about the future. What are
Ning's plan for the future?
S: At the moment, in a way, it has opened up a lot of new avenues for her---she is
now into film (Gemilang), theatre (The Storyteller).
We are in the planning stages for solo concerts in London and Chicago later in the
year. We are also working on the marketing strategy of promoting the album into the
record shops in London and Chicago.
J1: Your role as the mother and manager. Please
S: I just experienced last week one of the most difficult things I ever had to experience.
Ning was sick and she had to perform at this function. The client and the promoter
will never understand---they have already paid you the 50 per cent. You have to do
the show. That's where I am torn. Being a mother, I have to understand her feelings
as her mother; and as a manager, I have to be on the clients side, and also ease
So I said, Ning you have to do the show.
And she said, "Oh, mum, are you my manager or my mum?"
I am both Ning, but I am torn.
A compromise had to be worked out (the show started a little later). I had to try
to work it out. This is some of the times when my role as the mother comes to be
a hindrance. She finds it hard to understand when a circumstance like that takes
place. But when it's over, we talk about it...laugh.
But we are very much like friends.
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