PERCUSSIONIST Lewis Pragasam is a musician who defies categorisation. His band Asiabeat, performing this Friday and Saturday at the Village, combine a wealth of traditional music from across Asia, with undeniably catchy, modern beats.
“Asiabeat is a mixed bag,” agrees Pragasam, who started the band in 1979. “Some call it world music, some people call it fusion - you can call it whatever. I just call it Asiabeat.”
When the group released its debut album in 1982, the emphasis was primarily on combining the sounds of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Sikhs– the four major ethnic groups of Malaysia.
Pragasam says he was not trying to make any great social statement at the time but his fusion of Malaysian ethnic groups proved to be popular and was a first for the Malaysian music industry, which was then small and mostly dominated by commercial pop music.
The album proved it was possible for him to make contemporary sounds from Malaysian musical traditions.
“The first album was quite fusion based, but at the same time it was traditional,” he says.
As Asiabeat grew in popularity throughout Asia, the charismatic front man became better known in the ‘world music’ scene.
This was made clear to him when, while visiting the US in 1985, he heard his own band come over the speakers of the Thai restaurant he was eating at in Boston, Massachusetts. The manager told him she had received the album from some students visiting from Malaysia and Singapore.
Over the years Pragasam has incorporated even more eclectic musical traditions into their brand of fusion, including Indonesian gamelan and soulful saxophone riffs. More international talent, such as Japanese producer Chito Kawachi and engineer Norihiko Yamanuki, began to work with the group and expanded the Asiabeat sound.
In 1990 Pragasam was awarded a Fulbright scholarship by the US government that allowed him to serve as artist-in-residence at East Carolina University.
“Very few musicians in the world get the Fulbright Scholarship,” he says. “ I know maybe about two. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Asiabeat continued to record throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with their most recent album, Urban Beyond, released in 2007.
Although Pragasam likes to explore new ideas, he does not take on new musical ideas for the sake of fashion, he stresses. For a musician who likes to combine new and old, this presents an interesting challenge, particularly with the advent of digitised music in the 1980s.
“I want to keep up to the times. So the technology makes it a bit easier, but it doesn’t make better music. Good music comes from the spirit and the feel.”
This weekend the musician will be keeping it simple, with a stripped-back performance, minus his usual coterie of exotic instruments.
“I need a lot of instrumentation and lot more people,” says Pragasam, who flies in talent and equipment from across the world for his big shows.
He will instead stick to his core group of Malaysian performers (plus one Indonesian), playing a combination of original Asiabeat music and covers.
The music may even go down a jazz and R&B road, though Pragasam says he holds off until the performance night before deciding exactly what to play.