S'poreans are picking up unusual musical instruments

SINGAPORE - Most aspiring musicians pick up traditional instruments such as the piano, violin or guitar.

But student Jovin Tan, 20, regards those instruments as "too mainstream". Three months ago, she started fiddling with the Peruvian cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument.

To produce catchy beats, drummers sit on the drum, which resembles a crate, and reach down to slap the plywood cover with their hands.

Jovin's newfangled hobby draws some strange looks from passers-by when she plays the cajon at places such as *Scape in Orchard, but she is loving it.

"I like fronting a new trend and trying out something most people have never heard of, and when they hear the sounds, maybe they would be inspired to join me," she says.

She is among a growing group of enthusiasts in Singapore learning to play unusual instruments. These include a musical ensemble with the berimbau, pandeiro, atabaque, agogo and reco-reco - percussion instruments that set the rhythm and style of play in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.

Other unusual offerings are the West African djembe, a goblet-drum tuned using taut ropes, and the Chinese hulusi, a reed flute with bamboo pipes set within a gourd.

These instruments are not new, but more people here started picking them up only in the past five years. There are at least six groups and schools in Singapore that offer classes or jamming sessions involving these instruments.

The response has been encouraging. Beat'abox, a cajon school and shop at *Scape in Orchard, started holding classes with just 10 students in 2011. It now has 25 students, says owner Arthur Choo, 26.

Cajon drummers are the real deal, says instructor Kamal Bensra, 36.

"The cajon is an incredible percussion tool that can be manipulated with your hands at certain parts of the drum to create all sorts of beats," he says.

In this way, it is more challenging than the conventional drum set, he adds.

He was introduced to the cajon in 1998 while playing the tabla, a pair of drums typically used in Indian music, and now teaches the cajon part-time at home.

The instrument was introduced to South America in the 1800s by African slaves, who were banned from playing drums and had to improvise using wooden boxes and shipping crates instead.

Mr Kamal teaches 12 students now, up from just three in 2001.

The versatility of the cajon appeals to his student, Mr Sofian Rohani, 46, as he is able to play the instrument using both his arms and legs.

"I use my hands and feet to tap a beat and go into my own zone. It is a really unique form of stress relief," says the operations manager, who started taking lessons in January.

Meanwhile, the jaunty beats of capoeira music started off as a "mask", instructor Silvio Romero Da Silva says.

In the 1500s, slaves in Brazil were banned from learning how to fight, so they covered up their martial arts practice under the guise of music to avoid detection by their Portuguese masters.

"It is a deadly dance of music and rhythm," says Mr Da Silva, 34, who has been practising capoeira - and its accompanying beats - for 27 years.

It is also a form of music with many layers: the twang of the berimbau, solid thumps of the atabaque drum, crystal-clear clinks of the agogo and scraping sounds of the reco-reco, coupled with strains of plaintive song in Portuguese.

Mr Da Silva teaches at the Brazilian Cultural and Sports Centre in Turf Club Road, a capoeira school which also runs music classes on Saturdays for more than 300 students, up from just three students five years ago. Those who want to master the martial art must learn the music too.

Students are taught to handle the instruments, particularly the berimbau, which can be an art in itself.

The instrument looks like a crossbow and players tap the single string with a baqueta stick - a rod which produces the characteristic twang of the berimbau - while pressing a pebble against the string to alter the pitch.

At the same time, to keep the beat going, players shake a caxixi, a percussion sachet filled with seeds.

Another hobby group that has sprung up is Djembe Singapore, a club for enthusiasts of the West African goblet drum. It started in 2004 with six people and now has about 50 members who hold weekly jamming sessions, says volunteer mentor Kit Perez, 31.

These niche instruments, however, are likely to remain a novelty, says Mr Tan Sung Wah, 39, general manager of Eason Enterprises, a shop and school for traditional Chinese instruments in Rochor Road.

It takes up to a year for a beginner to learn to play the hulusi competently, and most students prefer to use this time to master more conventional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu and guzheng, he says.

But getting people to play, or at least learn about, these unique instruments is a good window into the culture of the countries they hail from, says instructor Tan Qing Lun, 25, who teaches the hulusi.

The name of the instrument, a simpler version of the Chinese flute, comes from the Chinese words hulu, meaning "gourd", and si, meaning "silk" - a nod to the smooth sounds it produces.

The hulusi classes started three years ago with five students, a number that has remained constant. Still, the unique musicality of these instruments is drawing fans.

Take student Noelle Tam, for example. The 22-year-old says the music of the berimbau complements capoeira, which she practises.

She learnt to play the Brazilian instrument at a British school three years ago and practises capoeira at the Capoeira Argola De Ouro here, a group dedicated to the martial art.

She says: "Music creates the energy in capoeira, but by itself, the berimbau is a very spiritual instrument that produces a primitive sound, which is very interesting and pleasing to the ear."




Cajon: A box-shaped percussion instrument from Peru. To play it, you sit on the drum, which resembles a crate, and reach down to slap the plywood cover with your hands.



A cajon shop and school that offers four modules, from beginner to advanced. Where: Level 4 HubQuarters, *Scape, 2 Orchard Link

When: Class times and dates vary according to modules

Admission: From $100 a month for a four-month course, depending on the module

Info: Call 9616-6542 or go to www.beatabox.com

Kamal Bensra

A freelance cajon instructor who started conducting lessons in 2001 at his home Where: Fernvale Road

When: Class times and dates vary

Admission: From $160 a month for a six-month starter course

Info: Call 9023-3545 or go to www.frolemusic.com



Berimbau: A single-string percussion instrument which resembles a crossbow. Players tap the string with a rod while pressing a pebble against the string to alter its pitch. At the same time, they shake a caxixi, a sachet filled with seeds.

Pandeiro: A hand drum that is similar to a tambourine.

Atabaque: A tall, standing drum made of wood and calfskin, with ropes around the drum's body for tuning purposes.

Agogo: Two bells attached in a U-shape frame, which produce high-pitched sounds when hit with a stick.

Reco-reco: A cylindrical wooden piece with ridges on top which produces a scraping sound when a stick is run along it.


Brazilian Cultural and Sports Centre

A capoeira school for children and adults that also offers music lessons in accompanying instruments, such as the berimbau and pandeiro.

Where: Horse City, 100 Turf Club Road

When: Saturdays, 3 to 4pm

Admission: $40 a class, or $120 for four classes

Info: Call 6465-8887 or visit www.aqcapoeirasingapore. com



Hulusi: A reed flute with bamboo pipes set within a gourd.

The instrument, a simpler version of the Chinese flute or dizi, comes from the Chinese words hulu, meaning "gourd", and si, meaning "silk".

The name is derived from the smooth sounds the instrument produces.


Eason Enterprises

A music school and shop specialising in traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu, guzheng and pipa. It introduced the hulusi classes three years ago.

Where: Rochor Centre, 02-612, 1 Rochor Road

When: Dates and times vary, depending on the availability of the studio and teacher and students' requests. Lessons are usually held once a week and last 45 minutes a session.

Admission: $160 to $220 a month, depending on level of progress. There is a one-time, non-refundable registration fee of $15.

Info: Call 9754-3879 or go to www.easonmusicschool.com/hulusi



Djembe: A West African goblet-drum tuned using taut ropes


Djembe Singapore

A community of drumming enthusiasts who meet every Saturday for drumming sessions. There are three class levels: beginner, intermediate, and ensemble and performance

Where: Kallang Community Club, 45 Boon Keng Road

When: Saturdays, 1 to 2pm (for introductory level), 2.15 to 3.15pm (for intermediate level) and 3.30 to 4.30pm (ensemble and performance level)

Admission: $30 a session, drum rental costs $10 a session

Info: Go to www.liladrums.com/djembesg

Aleem Rahim

A professional drummer with more than 20 years of experience, Mr Aleem started teaching the djembe five years ago. He teaches individual or group classes at home.

Where: Marine Crescent

When: Class times and dates vary

Admission: $80 a person for a one-hour class

Info: Call 9807-6433

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