Imee Ooi dreams of creating an 'Olympics' series for dharma music

The concert series Sadhu For The Music, produced by Imee Ooi (centre), explores themes of joy, peace and loving kindness in the Buddhist context. Photo: Handout

Three years ago, local musician Imee Ooi was asked to produce a concert by the Buddist Fellowship to celebrate Wesak Day.

Various groups had come together for the effort, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and the concert – Sadhu For The Music (STFM) – was performed over two days at the eye-catching Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore.

It was a concert that explored themes of joy, peace and loving kindness in the Buddhist context, and the short run was very successful.

Ooi, the 55-year-old passionate multi-hyphenate musician (read: producer-director-music arranger-composer-vocalist) who created the show, directed, produced and starred in it, has been making Buddhist music for the past 20 years.

“I decided I wanted to do it again, but this time to create a new idea, not just for Wesak. I’ve stuck with the word ‘Sadhu’ because it means gratitude and praise.

And with this concert I hope to continue spreading the dharma,” said Ooi last week at her music studio, I.M.M. Musicworks in Bukit Menjalara, Kuala Lumpur.

“The idea is for it to be a sort of unity concert, not so much like my previous shows, more like an international event in which eventually everyone can take part,” Ooi shared her ambitious dreams.

“I am hoping that it can blossom into something like the Olympics for dharma music, so it can flourish and we are able to spread loving kindness, peace and harmony throughout the world.”

This time the unity concert Sadhu For The Music, performed by Malaysians, will be held at KLPac from March 28-31.

“There are so many aspiring singers, dancers and directors here and I was getting a lot of requests from talents and teachers asking me to take students in. So at the end of last year in December, I had open auditions,” she said, adding there many talents from overseas also came (from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) for the auditions. But she was insistent on keeping the show local this time round.

Ooi likens her Buddhist-centred music to what gospel music has done in creating a platform for performers and facilities for the genre to grow. Photo: Handout

Ooi explained that her primary reason for putting up such a show was not to make a profit, but to nurture local talents, and offer artistes a different type of avenue to showcase their skills.

“KLPac’s capacity is only 504 seats, so we’re doing five shows during this run. If it is succesfull, I will aim for a bigger show.”

The 150-minute long concert will feature a variety of Buddhist music, including Ooi’s own compositions such as The Chant of Metta, and Sanskrit sutras.

Ooi said that just because the music showcased is spiritual in nature, one should not mistake this for a charity performance or that the performers are volunteering their time and efforts.

“It is still a professional performance and the standard should speak for itself,” she elaborated, explaining that it is important to adhere to professional standards in order to create an audience and be self sustainable.

She likens her efforts to what gospel music has done in creating a platform for performers and facilities for the genre to grow.

“But it is 300-500 years ahead of us!”

And because the philosophy of Buddhism is all about being humble and keeping a low profile, this is often difficult to do, but Ooi feels it is essential to move into the modern world, as music is one of the best vehicles to transport the message.

A mother herself, Ooi is concerned about the young of today. She is determined to provide an avenue for aspiring artistes to make a living in this arena. In SFTM, there will be 60 performers (singers, dancers as well as established singers including Ooi herself and the boy group Jing Shi Jin Gang) aged from 15 to 45.

“I would like to see a change of mindset, for young people to view this as a viable career choice, and say their ambition is to become a Buddhist singer.”

After all, Ooi pretty much defied the odds by charting her own course 30 years ago.

The Taiping-born former piano teacher started her career in composing and recording by supplying music for local TV dramas, other soundtrack projects (such as beauty pageants and talent quests) and commercials.

In 1997, Ooi switched her focus entirely to Buddhist music. From there, she went on to release over 54 albums since 1999, and work on six major “Broadway” scale musicals including Siddhartha (1999), Above Full Moon (2004) and KITA (2010).

The devout Buddhist has established her own genre, spreading the sounds of Dharma through sutras, mantras, and free compositions that appear to transcend cultures and age groups. Her music has also travelled to Europe and Russia, United Staes and Canada, Australia and Africa.

“People are keen to listen to this type of music because it is a healing medium and they are able to us it for daily meditation, for yoga and relaxation.”

With social media, Ooi is now able to interact directly with her listeners and that has added depth to her experience in recording work.

“I have had a wide spectrum of listeners, from oncologists in France to violin makers in Italy who write to me and say they are grateful for the music,” she shared, telling a story of a young Chinese girl from Chongqing who had terrible anger management issues and was at the end of her tether when she discovered Ooi’s music, was able to turn her life around in half a year, and went on to vow to help others who suffered like her.

The ladies went on to become friends and have remained close through the years. It is this sort of loving kindness and harmony that Ooi seeks to spread, and music has offered her the opportunity to reach out to others.

The Dharma Unity Music Concert Sadhu For The Music will be staged at KLPac from March 28-31 at 8.30pm (with a 3pm matinee show on Sunday). Tickets: RM80-RM300 are available from KLPac box office,, or via the whatsapp hotline (011-1287 9139).

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