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From beats to eco-feats: He started a drumming school focusing on sustainability

From beats to eco-feats: He started a drumming school focusing on sustainability
Cajon player and NDP 2023 participant Arthur Choo is the founder of social enterprise BEAT'ABOX and Green Drumming.
PHOTO: Instagram/Arthur Choo, Wonderwall.sg

There's a saying that goes "we travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us". And one trip overseas changed Arthur Choo's life forever.

While on a tour about 15 years ago, he encountered someone playing a box-shaped drum called a cajon (pronounced "ka-hon", meaning "drawer" in Spanish). Upon returning home to Singapore, he purchased one online, learnt how to play it by watching YouTube videos, and loved it so much that he quit his job in 2013 and started cajon-ing full-time with BEAT'ABOX (a social enterprise he founded in 2011).

BEAT'ABOX kickstarted a box-drum revolution of sorts (according to Arthur, they have taught more than 50,000 students), and saw Arthur making his own cajons and reaching out to different demographics in the community.

"Seniors would come up to me and say, 'Hey Arthur, I want to learn this'," recalls the 36-year-old, who was surprised, as it was youth whom he wanted to reach out to.

Today, BEAT'ABOX not only trains and equips young people with a rhythmic skill, it empowers them to give back to society through musical events for youth at risk, the elderly, and those with physical and mental disabilities.

In 2019, Arthur started Green Drumming, which considers itself Singapore's "first recycled drumming group", with the aim of not only turning waste into drums, and junk into art, but also imparting a powerful life lesson to the younger generation.

"Green Drumming is a way of telling them that even though our life might sometimes be in a mess, we can turn it into a message. Sometimes we go through a test, but we can be a testimonial," says Arthur. "We want to turn non-living things into 'living assistants' by creating and beating drums with our heart and our passion, and giving a heartbeat to a non-living thing."

Green Drumming has worked with organisations like The Body Shop and Sembcorp to obtain recyclable waste, but Arthur says such materials can be found everywhere — from his own home, to his neighbours' homes and void decks. More importantly, he uses this effort as an opportunity for innovation and education — for example, showing people how putting green beans into discarded bottles can instantly turn "trash" into shakers.

We talk to the youthful-looking new dad about being part of this year’s National Day festivities, taking BEAT'ABOX and Green Drumming to the next level, and whether anyone can drum.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Arthur Choo (@arthurchoo)

How has the National Day Parade experience been so far?

It's an honour, it's a privilege, but it's also the right time and the right season because our mission is to make Green Drumming an iconic instrument for Singapore — and this is the best stage to do so.

All along, I've been thinking, "What is a Singapore instrument?" I've even gatecrashed NAC (National Arts Council) and NYC (National Youth Council) and asked them, "What is a Singapore instrument?". They themselves cannot answer and they cannot define it. So I said, since you cannot define it, I'm going to define it myself!

Tens of thousands have experienced learning and playing the cajon under the tutelage of BEAT'ABOX. Do you think anyone can drum?

Rhythm is everywhere we go. You don't need to spend dollars to learn rhythm. It is inbuilt in us. We are often locked on the idea that "I'm not musically inclined." It's like saying, "I cannot run this distance." But actually, you can. It's a mindset. So what we're doing is switching mindsets.

When people start taking baby steps, they learn to understand and appreciate music better. I believe everyone has a sense of rhythm — it's all about determining how much we want to exercise it.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Arthur Choo (@arthurchoo)

Are you constantly thinking about or playing rhythms?

Yes, even when I'm swimming, I play with the water. Anywhere I go, in the airplane, in my car — my steering wheel… need to buy a new one soon cuz I've been hitting it too hard! If I'm in the MRT, the whole world shakes. That's why nobody wants to sit with me! I was travelling with a friend and they would say, "Can you shut up or not?!" 

[During national service,] I was with the Neighbourhood Police, so each time I drove [in the patrol car], I would make noise — again, on the steering wheel.

The only thing that can keep me entertained are my thoughts and rhythm. I was in a plane going to the Gold Coast recently — I couldn't sleep because I was in the aisle seat, and people kept hitting my shoulder, so I started writing down a drum sequence, and called it "Gold Coast" — I used it for Mediacorp.

Tell us more about Green Drumming and how it branched out from BEAT'ABOX.

I always wanted to build the biggest cajon school — we taught over 50,000 students last time; we were the largest. Now, all the students have graduated, so I've moved on from thinking about being a school to building a message, a message about bringing life and a heartbeat to a non-living thing, and turning waste into something useful and beautiful again.

But if you ask me, Green Drumming is not my main goal. Neither is BEAT'ABOX. My main goal is for our team and myself to become more creative and more innovative. So we've started being involved in things like the Singapore Night Festival, using recyclable stuff, splashing paint, turning them into installations; some of our drums are now robots with characters. For example, there's an Optimus Prime one that I call The Optimist.

For NDP, we collaborated with students from SOTA (School of the Arts). Our drums became canvases to showcase their artwork on national TV. And these drums can now be used anywhere, not just for NDP.

We are going to come up with different brand names next time and explore using AI, technology, digitalisation, and maybe move to a new instrument. So every month, our goal at Green Drumming is to create new instruments for Singapore.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Arthur Choo (@arthurchoo)

Speaking of creating new stuff, congrats on becoming a new dad! Would you like your son to be rhythm-inclined too?

This is one thing I always tell my guys: My job is to facilitate the best of you. I think it's always about the strength of a person. And I will apply that to my baby as well — and anybody else. First, acknowledge a person's passion. I will still teach them rhythm, but if this person is like, cannot leh, and they are meant to be a swimmer, I will just ask them to focus on that.

But they still need to understand the basics of rhythm — it's a momentum in life. Everybody should study and understand rhythm. When you have rhythm, you can do anything. I believe it improves fine motor skills, cognitive thinking. These are all skills to help you become a better pilot, a better teacher, a better musician, a better writer. It's always about rhythm — when you type, when you talk, when you walk.

ALSO READ: Dream of being the next musical superstar? Singapore announces first-ever K-pop high school programme

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.

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