The brainchild of drummer/percussionist LEWIS PRAGASAM, the music produced by the group is an on-going, ever evolving project to explore and experiment with the synthesis of ethnic Asian and contemporary music. The music depicts the sounds of contemporary Asian lifestyles and exoticism merging with Western influences and imagery.
- Swithin Monteiro (1982)
“A most exciting synthesis
of Eastern and Western
- New Straits Times Malaysia
The idea for the ASIABEAT project was mooted and conceptualized in early 1979. It all started of as percussion jam sessions at my parents house in Lorong Seputeh along Old Klang Road (Kuala Lumpur). Initially, it was just a trio, with J.D.Mutter (an American lecturing at University Malaya) on drum set and ‘Uncle’ Bhuvan on Latin/Afro percussion and me drum kit and miscellaneous percussion. We used to get together in the evenings, four or five times a week and play for a couple of hours. It was just so much fun and intoxicating..a natural high to say the least (I think my mom’s incredible teh-tarik had something to do with it as well). The sessions became more intensive and extensive with us playing non-stop for about 2 hours at a time. We were becoming quite an outfit and at that point I wanted to expand the soundscape of the trio by adding another percussionist (who could play all sorts of indian percussion). I went to the Hindu temple in Brickfields, where I used to hang out as a kid watching and listening to the incredible drumming that emanated from the temple walls (that left an indelible mark on my drumming style) and got one of the drummers to come join the jam sessions. At first he couldn’t understand what I was trying to do but after the third session or so, Subramaniam fit in like a glove and brought in a whole new sonic spectrum to the outfit.
Now that I got the group happening and everything, I thought..we needed a name. So one night after our jam session, we went out for our usual dinner and hang, I talked about coming up with a name for the group. I wanted to have the word “Asia” in there somewhere and then Jay said “ all the stuff we’re doing is so groove heavy with an identifiable beat”.. it was like.. ASIABEAT.. and that was it..just like that.
I gradually started expanding the group by adding other ethnic Asian instruments. It was still solely a percussion outfit that would explore the blending of various traditional percussion inherent in four of the major ethnic groups in Malaysia, namely; Malay, Indian, Chinese and Sikh. Besides experimentation, the other goal was to expose and hopefully enlighten the general public about the incredible multi-cultural diversity in Malaysian society. Since I had such a variety of percussion instruments in the group, I changed the name to Asiabeat Percussion Unlimited.After spending sometime researching and working with various exponents of traditional Asian music, I started performing my style of Fusion Music (as it was then generally classified) on a more regular basis. By this time I was starting to add other instruments (keyboards, guitar, bass etc) albeit in small group formats. The group amassed a large following in the country and became a new and exciting voice in the music industry. I decided that it was time to launch my concept and vision on a larger scale and to a wider audience. The name Asiabeat Percussion Unlimited was dropped and reverted to just Asiabeat.
In 1980, ASIABEAT was officially launched with a concert presented at the “Experimental Theatre” (University Malaya) to a capacity crowd of about 800 people. The concert featured more than 30 musicians and all kinds of ethnic Asian instruments..Gamelan, Chinese, Indian & Malay, Sikh & all sorts of world percussion instruments fused with a 9 piece band. This was the first time the various different cultures (ethnic groups) were performing together united on one stage under one roof. It wasn’t just about the fusion of music but all the ethnic artistes wore their respective traditional outfits and eveything...it was a sight to behold. Needless to say the concert was a resounding success and billed as “concert of the year” by all the media... it was definitely historical by local and regional music standards.
For me, it wasn’t about trying to prove anything to people or make some kind of profound musical statement. I was just an excited youngster that just loved every aspect of music, especially that of drumming and percussion..I wanted to learn and assimilate everything that I heard around me into my art form. Part of my own personal philosophy about music and being an artiste, is about having an identity.. having one’s own voice. I am lucky to have found mine in my own backyard.. so to speak.
Without even realizing it, I was creating my own version and style of the “World Music” genre (the word at that juncture wasn’t even coined yet). This was a pioneering effortnot only in Malaysia but also the region. News about the concert - how it so powerfully touched and affected the audience, bringing the different ethnic groups together in rhythm and harmony - spread all over Asia. At this juncture I wasn’t the only one in Asia experimenting with the fusing of cultures and music styles. This caught the attention of some like-minded artistes/musicians who were also starting to explore the possibilities of cross-cultural experimentation in the region. One of them was John ‘Kaizan’ Neptune - an American ethnomusicologist who was studying the ‘Shakuhachi’ (Japanese bamboo flute) in Japan. I had heard John’s debut recording Bamboo and really liked what he was doing with the shakuhachi. John heard about my musical explorations while he was in the Philippines for a performance.
A Malaysian student studying music there met John at his concert and told him about me and Asiabeat. We connected, corresponded for a while and after about a year I brought John over to Malaysia to participate in the Asiabeat recording debut.
In 1982 the debut self-titled album ASIABEAT was produced and released under the CBS label in Malaysia featuring an all star lineup of Malaysian musicians Josie Thomas (Guitar), Michael Veerapen (Keyboards), David Yee (Bass), Bob Khalil and the University of Malaya Gamelan Ensemble with special guests John ‘Kaizan’ Neptune, percussionist Tirupat Raja from India. It was quite a learning curve, just as it was an adventure for the group. I was already experimenting and working with traditional music styles and instrumentation for a couple of years but now I had to get the rest of the musicians to realize and understand my concept and vision.. it took a while but in the end, it all came together due to everyones (especially that of Josie, Michael and John) effort, open-mindedness and contributions. The recordings were all done in a small studio (Pacifica Studios) located in Cheras (KL). It was incredible, the way everything was set-up and recorded ‘live’ in that small space (even had a whole Gamelan ensemble in there). This was a landmark recording for my Asiabeat project..I mean, it was the first of it’s kind in Malaysia and the region.. so it attracted a lot of attention. At that period the Malaysian music industry was still somewhat in it’s infant stages with only a couple of radio stations in the country and relatively few artistes/groups having recorded albums (it was predominantly mainstream ‘Pop Music’ of the day). The material in the album is basically a cross-cultural and explorative musical potpourri of sorts. The recording, although never officially released internationally, made it’s way all over the world.
I performed in Boston in 1985 as part of John Neptune’s Quintet during a 15 city US tour and we went out to dinner at a very well established Thai restaurant after our concert. As we got seated at our table, I couldn’t help but notice the piped-in music in the background,and then realized that it was from my Asiabeat debut release. I asked the manager where she had gotten the music and replied “some students brought this recording from Malaysia and Singapore and I really liked it.. so interesting with all Asian elements in a contemporary setting. Got it off them and i’ve been playing it everyday at the restaurant..and people keep asking me about it all the time”. When I told her who I was, she was like “wow” . That was cool. Had similar experiences like this all over the place.
Dare to Dream was produced and released in 1984, two years after the debut, mainly due to my work schedule and doing research on Asian ethnic instruments in India, Indonesia and Thailand. There are some changes to the line-up and direction in musical style. This recording features John, Tirupat, Josie and the Gamelan team with Bob Khalil from the debut with the addition of Andy Peterson (Bass), Goh Boon Hoe (Keyboards) and Razak Rahman (Sax) to the fold. It was released by the now defunct Atlantic Sound Productions (ASP).
The recordings were all done at Betarecs Studio (owned by Freddy Fernandez) with me and my co-producer/engineer Roslan Aziz at the helm. The tracks on this album are all instrumentals, as in the debut release, except for the title track Dare to Dream with lyrics written by Swithin Monteiro and sung by Andy Peterson. The music here still retains the original concept and flavor of the debut but is more groove laden and varied with the inclusion of the Saxophone and Yang Qin (Chinese dulcimer), albeit in small doses. The personnel also had a better grasp and understanding of the concept on this production..having learnt from the experience of the previous one, plus we also had more time (schedule wise) to finish it.
Japanese label Pony Canyon got very interested in my Asiabeat project and financed three recording projects which finally got the project (music) released and distributed officially on a global scale with rave reviews in major international music publications.
This six year association with the Pony Canyon (Singapore) label got off the ground with my meeting Jimmy Wee..head honcho of the label in Singapore during one of my numerous recording sessions there. Jimmy is quite an artistic person with a keen eye and always on the lookout for anything unique and marketable. When we met, he was already raving about my musical explorations and expressed his interest in signing on Asiabeat. The first recording under this label, Spirit of the People has major changes in the line-up and style of music..actually a radical departure from my first two recordings. The first two recordings were more band based whereas this one was driven more by technology...computer based recording, samplers and plug-ins (effects) were the new wave in production methods.
The inclusion of my Japanese producer Chito Kawachi and engineer Norihiko Yamanuki exemplified this whole recording process. Most of the music was played by musicians and then mixed with samples of various ethnic instruments, soundscaping (effects) and sculptured into a music mosaic of sorts. The key players here with me are Singaporean percussionists Mohd. Noor and Nantha Kumar, Filipino keyboardist Jose Saisson, Japanese guitarist Makoto Matsushita and producer Chito who is also a percussionist.
The Drumusique album is a ‘live’ recording of a Asiabeat & Friends in concert that I produced for the Ministry of Information and Arts (Singapore). The whole idea actually started off as master classes and jam sessions that I do with drummers whenever I travel. The Asiabeat band would be engaged at various entertainment outlets for long period (months at a time) and drummers would always come and check out the band and hang. At this particular period the band was performing in Singapore on a more frequent basis and had so many drummers and percussionists hanging out in my room everyday..I decided that instead of wasting time just sitting around, we should get together and do something. So I started these workshops cum jam sessions which were held at the early hours of the morning (2.00am onwards) at the club where I performed. Initially, they were just jam sessions and I eventually started arranging specific ensemble sections/parts. At the beginning, there were always about eight to nine drummers at each session...word got out..drummers started showing up.. and any one time, there were at least a minimum of twenty to twenty-five drummers at each session..they even brought their own gear. It had grown into such a large group..time to formulate something..I created the Drumusique club..sort of.. and subsequently produced the first percussion concert in Singapore. It was a roaring success and caught the attention of the mainstream media and the Ministry of Arts. This was in 1989 and in 1990, I organized and produced the Drumusique “Asiabeat & Friends” Concert held at the Singapore Conference Hall.
For this outing, international artistes such as Paul Jackson (USA), John ‘Kaizan’ Neptune (USA/Japan), Naoi Takao, Steve Thornton (USA), Chitocic (Japan) and drummers and percussionists from all over Singapore were featured. Never before had such an event been staged in the Island state and it was probably the first “World Music Concert” in Singapore. Immediately after this event, I left for the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship for a two year tenure as Artiste-in-Residence at East Carolina University, NC.
The third release under the Pony Canyon label is Monsoon. Here the line-up featured John “Kaizan” Neptune, Mohd. Noor, Nantha Kumar, Andy Peterson, Mac Chew (keyboards), Willie Rubano (keyboards) and Norihiko Yamanuki with special guests Ottmar Liebert (acoustic guitar) and Samuel Dass (Sitar). The concept and style is pretty much like Spirit of the People in terms of production but the musical direction is somewhat different. Monsoon is less technology dependent and has a bit more of a group vibe although both approaches were employed in the production of the album. Here, the sound of Ottmar’s acoustic guitar coupled with his playing style, the sound of the Sitar, the Er Hu and John’s shakuhachi really give the album another dimension in sound, a bit more earthy (tone). This one got a lot of attention in the UK, USA and Europe with some tracks even included in the famed ‘Buddha Bar’ compilation series released worldwide.
The latest offering Urban Beyond was released under the Indonesian label Omega Pasifik Productions (OPP) in 2007. During the period (2005 -2007), my travel/work schedule brought me to Indonesia quite a bit and met Gita Wirdjawan (owner and boss of OPP). I was involved in a new project band signed to OPP called ‘Bali Lounge’, which features Indonesian vocalist Tompi. I played some of my new material to Gita, which was in the final stages of production and he liked it...so we talked about it for a while and eventually everything was set in motion. The music for this project was recorded in 8 different countries, namely; Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, Singapore, Australia, Argentina and Malaysia, featuring a host of musicians and vocalists. During my travels, I am always looking out for interesting music or instrumentation of any sort and try to engage in some form of recording where possible. The idea is to collect snippets of music, sounds, textures etc when i find or hear something I like. Some of this material, which was recorded in hotel rooms, garages, in the street..wherever, then pieced together in the studio to form full fledged musical arrangements. This album differs from most of the other recordings as it features quite a few vocal tracks. Such a wide variety of musical styles are portrayed..it almost feels like a natural musical culmination of all the previous recordings.
The Asiabeat project defies categorization in all it’s variants; cross-cultural, Fusion, World Music or whatever. Each Asiabeat recording marks a particular period in my musical life and to some extent the ever evolving nature of contemporary Asian music. The variety of musical directions and personnel in the respective recordings reflect my penchant for diversity in everything and of course, musical adventure.This story is not over yet... the journey continues.
Lewis Pragasam, 2012
“More than East meets West,
the result is ancient meets
contemporary - modern,
ageless and beautiful”
- Billboard USA
“Lewis is somewhat like
the Indian deity Ganesh,
with many arms.”
- Helen Ann Peters, writer
“A tapestry of Asian grooves
woven with threads of
contemporary music, laced with
the lyricism of eastern art forms”
- Domo Records, UK, USA & Japan