Maureen Santiago’s journey: From “Star Radio Television Malaysia” to the Metrodome’s Monster Truck Jam

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When some people decide to make a career move they truly aren’t kidding around. Take vocal phenomenon Maureen Santiago, for instance, who up and moved clear from her native Malaysia to her present home, Minneapolis.

Not a bad choice. Santiago holds on to a strong following across the ocean where she’s a household name—national fan club, the whole nine—on stage, radio and television. She has even performed at court for the King of Malaysia. Twice. Now, to expand her audience, she’s taking on the States. Whether by design or happenstance (her husband lives here), instead of tackling a monster market like New York or L.A., the location makes strategic sense. The Twin Cities scene is significant enough to own a reputation spawning top draw talent (Prince, Mint Condition, Soul Asylum) yet not too big for up-and comers to make a national splash (Mayda, regrettably defunct The New Congress, Dessa). 

She gigs on a regular basis, is enjoying her first taste of magazine exposure at Mpls.St. Paul, and is hatching plans to follow 2009’s Save the Memories (EP-Sultry Sounds/Mini-Mogul Music) with an album in 2013 for her company Sultry Soul Productions, Inc.  Meanwhile, Santiago stays the course with strong at hugely engaging pop laced with sweet, soul stylings. And sings “The Star Spangled Banner” to open at the Metrodome. 

Along with Save the Memories, she has the four-song disc Fide el Amore (Sultry Sounds/Mini-Mogul Music)—including a fascinating rendition of “Ave Maria”—and Persaan (New Southern Records) featuring the top-five Malaysian charts hit, “Aku Sayang Kau Pun Sayang.”

Santiago sat down, hubby-and-manager Gregg Cherne in tow, at Ping’s in South Minneapolis for cordial chat, which, after my tussle with some rubbery beef chow mein, moved a few miles over for coffee and cake at Pow Wow Grounds.

When did you relocate to America?

I had been singing in Malaysia for about 10, 15 years. Touring with the orchestra.

Which king did you sing for?

Oh, God, we’ve had so many kings. I don’t remember. It was so long ago.

How’d you get started?

From a talent show. Like [there is] American Idol? We had Bintang RTVM, which means “Star Radio Television Malaysia,” and I was a top ten finalist and became a resident artist. The station wanted to have their own artists. I hosted my own program, once or twice a week. I sang in my native language, which is Malay, and in English. 

You were a superstar.

I don’t know about being a superstar, but I was well known.

How could you leave that behind? I know. You got married, right?

Yes. 

Figures romance was involved. 

I was at a point where I was ready to settle down. You can’t lead only that crazy performing life forever. I wanted to meet someone who didn’t know who I was [professionally]. He had no idea about my popularity. I wanted a man to love me for who I am. A friend of mine told me about him and told him about me and kind of played match-making. He said, “Would you like to get to know this guy? He lives in the States.” I said, “Sure, give him my number.” We talked on the phone a lot and wrote letters. Then [Gregg] came over after a year.

Good old-fashioned, long-term courtship.

I was not going to come here. My mom would not allow it. There’s no way she would let me. I told him, even before we spoke, I’m not the typical kind of girl who’s going to live with you. I’m a serious woman.

How’d he take to that?

He proposed. We had danced around the topic [and] were already in love by then.

When’d you get here?

I think June of ’98. After we got married, I was still fulfilling my contract over there. Then, I came and joined him. When I was filling out the [immigration] paperwork, they said, “You’re going to Minnesota? Do you know how cold it [gets] there?” I didn’t care. But, my first winter…they weren’t kidding when they said it’s cold. Yeah, it was cold. Terrible. I wanted to get work immediately, but didn’t know how. I went to one of [Gregg’s] company parties. There was a band playing. I went up to the band leader and said, “I’m a singer.  I want to sing. Can you give me some contacts? How to get in touch with musicians, stuff like that?” He wanted to hear how I sounded before recommending me and [later] gave me an audition. After that, he referred me to an agent who gave my number to a band. They couldn’t find a singer and, at the last minute, called me. I started working with them: The Midnight Express. Through that connection, I [still] work with a number of musicians. So that’s what brought me here and I’ve singing here ever since.

Any influences?

I’m a fan of Whitney Houston. “When You Look At My Face,” from Save the Memories, which [is dedicated to] my husband, I wanted to have a song written in her style. She’s a huge influence on my singing career, you know. I was really upset for quite a while when she passed away. Such a tragic loss. Also, I love jazz.

Next?

I’m in the midst of preparing a [new] show. Putting music together. Soul-funk. Taking from, like, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, songs by male singers and having the female twist on it. We’re going to take it to Malaysia as well. Also, I am performing the National Anthem at the Metrodome on the 1st of December this year for the Monster Truck Jam show. This is the 4th year in a row that I have been invited to sing the National Anthem for this event; it is always an honor and I am looking forward to it.

Read Dwight Hobbes’s review of Maureen Santiago’s recordings.