World-class percussionist/drummer and nomad Lewis Pragasam is making an impact on the local music scene – gigging, running drumming workshops and a music school and now supporting an environmental music festival
The quiet poolside cafe at the Lyla Sport and Recreation Centre – situated in the backstreets of Boeung Trabek – isn’t the first place you would expect to find one of Asia’s greatest drummer/percussionists.
And Lewis Pragasm, the 59-year-old Malaysian wearing a cap over his long hair, and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Sharky Bar, doesn’t exactly look the part either.
But via a series of anecdotes that dart back and forth across a 40-year career, Pragasam works quickly to communicate his status: the self-taught drummer who wound up performing for Prince Charles, spearheading a new musical genre, and who says he finds it hard to watch a gig most places in the world without being bothered by young fans keen to hear from one of the “gurus” of percussion.
“Just Google me,” he suggests, laughing, as if aware that the list of achievements sounds surprising.
Google, and a whole host of offline admirers, back Pragasam’s claims to celebrity.
Born in 1956 in Malaysia, Pragasam was only 23 when he founded AsiaBeat: a musicians’ collective based in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur that fused the country’s Malay, Indian-Chinese and Sikh musical heritage.
The band endured for decades, releasing six albums and spawning a host of imitators around the globe. “I was making world music before world music existed”, says Pragasam.
Off the back of AsiaBeat, Pragasam went on to forge a global career as a drummer and percussionist, playing with musical greats across genres and continents including jazz drummer Billy Cobham, bass guitarist Jeff Berlin and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
Clips of his drum solos uploaded online regularly rack up more than 10,000 views.
In them, the normally laid-back Pragasam comes alive. As one YouTube commenter perceptively remarks, it’s like “the sticks become part of his body” when he plays.
Pragasam has been living in Cambodia for the past two years – gigging around town with a variety of other musicians – but only launched his first significant local project a couple of months ago: the Starworks Academy, which now occupies almost an entire floor of the Lyla Centre.
“If you’d never walked in here, would you believe this place existed?” enthuses Pragasam as he conducts a tour of his spacious new premises.
The out-of-the-way location doesn’t bother him. “If you want to go to the airport, or to a concert or a good restaurant out of town, you go.
It’s just awareness of the place being here and of what you’re doing,” he insists.
To date, Pragasam has run half a dozen events in the Starworks space.
He also holds regular private music classes, and a women’s only drum circle which meets twice a week under his tutelage.
Today, the academy is hosting its first major event: the Green Pulse Music Festival.
The festival is being organised in partnership with METTA Nature, an organisation that works for forest preservation in Cambodia, particularly in Oral, and is headed by a monk called Dhammajat.
Speaking over the phone, event co-organiser Jonas De Schreiver made it clear that the message was environmental, not political.
“[Being political] would destroy Lewis’s music academy and quite possibly I wouldn’t be able to do the festival there,” he said. “It’s just about positive things – planting trees.”
The Green Pulse lineup features more than 20 bands, DJs, burlesque dancers, skateboarders and artists from Cambodia and abroad. Dhammajat himself will also be singing.
De Schrijver, who describes Pragasam affectionately as “incredibly eccentric”, said that the Malaysian drummer had the potential to do great things for Cambodian artists.
“What he’s trying to do is to make the Cambodian music scene into an actual music scene,” he said.
Pragasam sees the festival as a positive start, but he isn’t one to shower the Cambodian music industry with easy praise.
“The quality is so bad,” he says of the current situation.
“The level is so low.” He cites the sharp divide between local and expat musicians as particularly problematic – a situation far removed from his formative years in Malaysia, where the music scene was premised on the blending of the country’s different cultural influences.
But Pragasam isn’t letting the current situation get in the way of big ambitions.
His first year in the country was dedicated to trying, and ultimately failing, to get a monumental project off the ground: the first international music festival to be held at the ancient ruins of Angkor.
“I got letters from the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Information, it was when I went to Apsara itself that I got stuck,” he says wistfully.
“It would have been huge – three days, 50 or 60 bands coming from everywhere in the world and four stages.”
The experience has not dissuaded him. “I want to start again,” he says, mentioning plans in the works for a festival in Phnom Penh, possibly on Koh Pich. “I think sometimes its timing – you have an idea that’s too early.”
The question is whether Pragasam will stay long enough to make his impact felt.
The drummer is a proud nomad, who over the past 30 years has never stayed in one country longer than four years.
But he says that with plans for the academy, the festival and a scholarship program teaching music to local children in the works, he’s keen to stay the distance in the Kingdom.
“We are all somewhere for some reason,” he observes.