It’s not about the instrument, it’s about Life
Sunset at the Marina Club, Sutera Harbour in Kota Kinabalu; I was going to meet renowned Malaysian drummer and percussionist Lewis Pragasam, who was conducting a weekend drum clinic organized by De Notes Music School.
Lewis’ Sunday clinic session was supposed to finish at 2.30pm, but in a style typical of his generosity, at 4.30pm Marie Loh of De Notes still had to remind him to finish up for a scheduled interview.
Lewis was relaxed, asking a waitress for an ashtray with a little water in it. He lit up, took in the Sabah sunset, then this incredibly driven master painted me a picture of his childhood.
“I’m a KL boy, all the way. Right from the heart of town, from Brickfields. A city boy. It was an incredible place; a melting pot of cultures – Indians, Chinese and Malays. You have a church here, a mosque there, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple. Chinese dragon dances happening every other time of the year, and the Indian festivities. So I grew up with a fantastic background, and all these influences.”
Looking at the sunset, this man seemed to be both self-determined and yet fatalistic. “I never intended to be a musician. You cannot predict the path life will take you on, it takes you where it wants to. This has been the most amazing journey for me, and a more amazing journey is coming up.”
So, how do you become a world-class drum master without intending to? Was it in his genes?
“Nobody in my immediate family plays music! Not my grandparents – I traced it all the way to India, and everywhere else, because my mum is from Rangoon. (Now it’s Myanmar but before it was Burma.) But no music, nothing. I’m a weirdo! I just came out! I’m a self-taught musician, never had a music lesson in my life. Never been to music school or nothing.
“But my mother said every toy I asked for was some kind of drum or something, and I used to hit the boxes, the tables, the chairs; get caught in school all the time for banging under the table.”
There were two pivotal incidents in Lewis’ childhood.
“It all started in Catholic church. You know, you have the altar boys, the choir, I was a terrible altar boy. But every Sunday we get together, sing along, go to camp. Every time they’re playing the guitars, I’m banging on the boxes or the tables. One day a French priest by the name of Jean Marie Coucheron – a very straight, kinda old hard-core priest, an incredible guy – he came up to me, and said, ‘Can you play the bongos?’ Of course I couldn’t play, I’d never played a bongo in my life! But I said, ‘Yeah! I can play it.’ You know, all bluff stuff.
“Next Sunday I came to church, I saw this bright orange bongo there, looking at me, a brand new one! I thought, Oh no, now I really have to play it! ‘This is for you,’ the priest said. And thank God for it, I could play, I just started banging out rhythms.”
“I didn’t realise at the time, but I was always looking at everything around me. I loved culture. English was my main subject in school, but I loved History and Geography. In the evenings, we had the Indian temple service, and as a kid I used to go in on my own. I’m very open-minded. I’m a Catholic, but I would walk into an Indian temple, look at the statues, ever so respectful, just in awe of the music they got in there.”
This attraction to music continued in class. “You know, you had the marching bands in school. I never joined the school band. But they used to practise in the afternoon when I was in class. So my focus was on them! They practised for three or four months, for the Sports Day coming up.
“So I knew all the rhythms, tapping it out under my desk. It so happened that one of the boys fell sick, and Sports Day was two weeks away or something, The teacher said to me, ‘Every day you’re banging the table doing all this stuff, why don’t you go and try, you think you’re so good.’
“I went to them. I didn’t have any technical skills, but I think the rhythm is kinda ingrained in me, whichever way you look at it. I went in there, and tapped out ALL the rhythms that those guys had been playing for the last three months. The teacher was like, ‘So where did you learn how to do this stuff? It’s ridiculous, you’re in.’
“I started from there slowly, then gravitated towards other things. But the point is, I decided, after playing for a while, that I wanted to do music. Here comes the hard part, PARENTS.”
“You know, those days were different. Today, everything’s gone a bit more global, people believe art is good for you, everybody is studying music. In those days, what music school? What video, what internet? We didn’t have those things, and, ‘What? You want to be a musician, are you crazy?’ INDIAN means you must be a lawyer, doctor or whatever. Music? Not good.
“But my mum backed me. (She’s a sweetheart, 85 years old. She is my strength in life, and is still standing, walking on her two feet, sharp as hell.) So my mum says, ‘Okay lah, but do me a favour. Whatever you do, you promise me one thing, you be really good.’
“Also, the image before was like, DRUGS. I grew up in the late 70s, when the whole hippie thing was waning. One thing, I did not want to end up like those musicians I saw. Druggies, great talent, but on the wayside, never took their talent to great heights. I wanted to be a musician who people would respect. With some kind of intelligence.”
So how did he go about doing that?
“My parents did not have any money to send me to music school, let alone to study music overseas, forget it. Not even money to buy me a drum set. So I worked in the clubs for about a year, saved my money, and bought a small drum set.
“Then I locked myself up for two and a half years at home, and practised 16 hours a day. Everybody thought I had gone mad. My mum would stop me at 5 o’clock for my tea – my teh tarik – in a big Indian mug. OK then I come out, chat with some musicians waiting outside, then say See you guys. Bye. Then practise until midnight. Every day.
“I started out playing rock, Deep Purple, the whole works. But I knew that wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do. I did not have any kind of trainer, teacher or mentor, so to speak. But I formulated my own system to train myself.
“It still works for me. I have my own timetable. I start up in the morning with my warm ups. I have my clock, and then I go 5 minutes, 5 minutes, 5 minutes, for practising grooves. I break my drum set up for co-ordination, I break my rhythm. Then I spend one hour doing nothing but just listening. Many people practise, but to get RESULTS, you have to have some kind of formula or methodology.
“I sit down and play like this.” Lewis sat back in his chair, back upright, arms moving and flowing, body still.
“Now, I tell my students, ‘This is kung fu!’ From young, I focused on this: ease of motion, breathing, sitting upright all the time. I wanted to be able to play like this, without moving or anything.
“I wanted to be ambidextrous as well. So everything I did with my right hand, I did with my left. Nobody was playing like this at the time. People played either leading with the left or right.
“The other thing I decided was, that I wanted to have a voice of my own. I’d listened to the American drummers, the British drummers, and I said to myself, ‘Great. Why can’t we Asians be like that too?’ I looked around me, it was a treasure here. Indian rhythms and everything. I thought I should start absorbing all of this.”
Lewis started a four piece group called Asiabeat Percussion Unlimited.
“One Indian drummer, one Chinese drummer, me and another guy playing Latin percussion. Unheard of! 1979. The four of us used to rehearse in my house. One of the guys was an accountant, the Indian drummer comes from the temple. Three hours every day. Then we came out to do concerts.
“After a year, I organised a concert with the students at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, at the experimental theatre. There were 60 musicians on stage. Concert tickets were ten dollars and sold out. I made five dollars 😀 . My idea was not for that (making money). I had Indonesian gamelans on stage, five Indian drums, five Chinese ‘dragon’ drums, Malay gendangs, and a jazz band. I choreographed and arranged the music.
“If you go to the (Malaysian newspaper) archives, NST, Star, we had full front pages. It was billed Concert Of The Year. That’s the thing about 1Malaysia, I was doing 1Malaysia in 1979.”
The Singapore government paid Lewis to organise its first World Music concert. He brought in percussionists from 12 different countries, an 80 piece percussion ensemble, and conducted and produced the event.
“I’m a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades, because I thrive on diversity. So I try and tell people who are learning music, it’s not just about the instrument, it’s about life. It’s about effort , the way you move, the way you talk , the way you read; it’s about relationships – everything. So why limit yourself to such a small zone.”
Lewis’ life took a different direction after American John Kaizan Neptune contacted him. Neptune played and built the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). Lewis said they really hit it off.
“I found the funds to bring him to KL, and a percussionist from India, and we recorded the first Asiabeat album in 1982.”
Lewis toured the U.S. with Neptune in 1985. “He got me a ticket to America. For me, that was like somebody giving me money to go and study. I mean, I was so young. I was scared too because I was playing with all the great drummers. We did 13 cities in about a month and a half.
“When I was in New York, Ralph Samuelson, from the Asian Cultural Society in New York was watching me play. I will never forget this guy. He was a typical professor guy, and he never smiled once. I’m always smiling when I play, and I thought, ‘Shit. He must be some drum professor, or some drum god or something.’ Anyway, afterwards backstage, this same guy walks up.
“He said, ‘Hi, how are you? You’re very original, I like the way you play, and I would like to recommend you for something.’ The first thing in my mind was SCHOLARSHIP, I wanna go and study in America! He started talking to me about Fulbright. I was a kid at that time, man. To me, it meant nothing. He said he was coming to KL in six months, and we should hook up. He actually showed up, and we went for a big dinner and everything. We started talking about Fulbright, and he gave me a wad of paperwork an inch thick. I threw it away, because I didn’t know what it was.
“Later, my friends said: ‘You know what you just threw away? Even if you are a scientist, you can never get it. You have to be PICKED.’ Anyway, I left it.
“Later, the U.S. Embassy cultural official for South East Asia, Catherine Gunning, was watching my work. When she was based in Indonesia, she turned up every weekend in Singapore to see me play.
I was recommended for the Fulbright again, and this time I was a bit more ready. But I still didn’t understand fully. I thought I would go to America to LEARN. They sat me down and said, ‘No, you are going there to TEACH.’
“Wow. I thought, How am I gonna teach America, the place which I thought was teaching me? I created this topic called New Directions in Asian Percussion Music, and started to prepare. I collected two boxes of percussion instruments. I spent my own money to get gongs made.”
Lewis flew to North Carolina, on a Fulbright scholarship, to teach at East Carolina University for two years.
“That was an amazing journey! First, the big flight. Then a normal flight. Then an eight seater plane! I land in this field in the middle of nowhere! Cotton fields! I’m in the Boonies man! And the dialect, their English! ‘Hey Low-iss!’ I was like, Oh man! But it was a beautiful place, and the people were incredible.
“I was lecturing, and remember I had never been to university in my life. They gave me a big room. Because I had a very big guru in India called Karaikudi Mani, one of the greatest masters of the mridangam drum, I got the Music Department to take out all the chairs and tables, and give me carpets and mats.
“ ‘Okay,’ I said to the students. ‘Look at me. I am the Guru!’ I wanted to get their attention, I wanted them to be relaxed, sitting on the floor. Took them a while to get comfortable, and I started every class like this for three minutes. I noticed that for the first two weeks, everybody’s running around from class to class, so you have to chill everybody down. I just played sitar music. Just a drone… suddenly everybody became so quiet. Then I started talking from there. I had 15 people in my class.
“I started teaching South East Asian music in general. I brought out instruments, talking about aesthetics, about music arts, things like that. but everything based on rhythm.
“But you know what happened? I realised that America is a big place, and a lot of times they don’t know what’s happening on this side of the world. They are not very clued in, because there’s so much happening in America. We know more about them than they know about us. Maybe with the internet and CNN they know a lot more now, but back then, I had questions like: How come you speak so good English? Like, here comes History and Politics: Answer, Because we were colonized by the British for so many years.
“Next question: Can you drive from India to Malaysia?
“I stopped teaching music then, and realised I had to explain my background first. For two months I got them to get maps and I taught History and Geography. They loved it. From 15 people, in 6 months I had 80 people. and another 80 people signed up waiting to join the course. I talked about everything. I wanted them to understand where I was coming from.
“Like in Malaysia: Thai influence from the North; (cosmopolitan) Malacca; what Singapore is today; the Muslim traders from the Middle East; all the Indian kingdoms. I love History, so I talked about that stuff. I did research, made sure I wasn’t talking rubbish, I only talked about what I knew, and I had brought a lot of photographs and maps with me. Then they understood the music even more.
“We have a gong culture in South East Asia like nowhere else in the world. The gong actually comes from China. How did it go to Turkey, and how did they become one of the greatest gong-making cultures? Our gongs, the knob-gong variety, only exists in South East Asia; and not even India, mind you!”
Among Lewis’ many ongoing projects, is a plan to write a whole series of books on the roots of South East Asian percussion.
“It’s amazing what we have, but it’s dying, it’s getting relegated. When I started Asiabeat, one of the reasons was to fuse this thing. Then World Music came up, but it was cosmetic and fashionable. Put a sitar here, put an Indian drum there. They did not have the roots, they did not know what they were doing. I spend time researching this stuff. I know the rhythms. I know how it’s used. I respect it so much. I want to give back, and let the young people and the future generations know that there is so much here.
“Play. Teach. Share. It’s all about giving in life. What else is there? I’m a simple person. I don’t look for material things. I love teaching. You have to have patience, and to know when to encourage, when to be hard. Tension and release. But quietly always encouraging. Even though some of the drum students didn’t know what they were playing, you will never hear a negative thing from me. I don’t believe in that. I’m very positive about everything. For me, that’s the only way to go.
“In the beginning, I spent money paying guys to come and rehearse with me. I buy makan for everybody. I spend money for my own CDs. I never made a penny. But I believed in it, and the word went out, and in the end it took me all over the world, four times.
“A Malaysian student who went to Berkeley College of Music (in the U.S.) said to me, ‘I paid thousands of dollars to go and study music at Berkeley, and was given a cassette tape and told: Please do a thesis on this – Cross Cultural music. When I saw the cassette tape, I said: Oh my God, this is Lewis!’
“In life, you have to make money. But if you put money first, a lot of times you block your own path. ‘Good idea, but, I’m not earning enough, so maybe I will do something else.’ If you want to do great things, do it because you love it, and have long-term goals. The money will come to you. Just do because you want to do it.” Lewis Pragasam.