By Matt Armitage
When we heard that Lewis Pragasam was lining up a couple of Asiabeat shows (Fri 27 – Sat 28, Jan 2006) as part of the excellent Alexis jazz series at Great Eastern Mall we weren’t exactly overly excited. Not because there’s anything wrong with Asiabeat – they’ve been an essential part of the local live music scene for many years and soundly deserve the local and international acclaim they’ve received – but simply because we’re always on the look out for innovation and excitement.
So when we heard that Pragasam was planning to include laptops and an electronica component in the band’s performance our ears immediately pricked up. There have been a few so-called collaborations in the past such as Pete Teo and club DJ Jungle Jerry, but these have largely been one-offs. So, in the case of Asiabeat, taking an established group and remodeling the sound around electronics was frankly too good an opportunity to miss.
The Malaysian electronic scene has largely been in the doldrums since outfits like Discomafia and Herb Vendors shook our preconceptions in 2001. But the technical difficulties of playing live and a lack of suitable venues hampered the progression of the bands and the scene quickly disappeared. So it’s refreshing to hear veterans like Pragasam flying the flag for these new technologies and accepting that laptop-computer based sounds add to a band’s dynamics and contribute flexibility and diversity rather than simply adding an inhuman machine layer as is often assumed.
So, over wine and Alexis’s horribly fattening cakes, we awaited the unveiling of this new Asiabeat with some trepidation. And on they came. Lewis manning the rather impressive drum kit, Aussie guitarist Chris Wright, flautist Kesavan, bassist Andy Peterson, vocalist Elvira Arul and UK-based Visakan Sivarasa on Asian percussion. But no electronics.
It seems that technical difficulties the previous night put paid to our enjoyment of Asiabeat’s new direction. According to Pragasam, “Last night it came out great but we could not hear what was happening on the laptop, so we were wondering what the hell was going on. It was very difficult.” So difficult that it was almost immediately abandoned, with Asiabeat reverting to its traditional set-up. For Pragasam it’s constant technical problems like these that are holding back the development of Malaysian music.
“What I miss in this country so much is that we don’t have the technical expertise to back it up,” he explains in a moment between the band’s sets. “I want to use triggers for my drums but there’s nobody to hook it up for me. I wish I had somebody here – I have this guy from England, he’s great but he’s limited when it comes to how much he can set up. We need a crew to hook up all the electronics. In fact, I’ve done stuff for backing video as well but I couldn’t set it up.”
So for now it’s a case of waiting for the new album to come out and showcase how Asiabeat will marry the old with the new. With recording having taken more than a year, including stints in Vietnam, China and India, Pragasam has pledged to buckle down and finish the record by the end of February so that it can be sent to be mixed in the States in time for an April release. And with distribution already secured in world music’s largest markets France and the US as well as Indonesia and Vietnam, Asiabeat’s sixth album looks set to be a very big deal indeed.
So what can we expect? A couple of the tracks were showcased during the band’s set, like the blues-rock of “Peacock” with its samba-esque rhythms and the Indian-tinged “Pratha” which are both solid enough, but our money’s on the recorded versions being far stronger as they’ve been recorded with a panoply of international world musicians like John Kaizan Neptune.
As for the vaunted electronica elements, Pragasam claims he brought them in because: “I love the technology. It offers you a whole palette of different sounds. I work so much with acoustic instruments so I thought it would be a nice to blend them with electronics. It won’t be really hard – there’ll be no techno – everything will still keep the whole theme of Asiabeat. I mean yesterday, the response was just amazing.”
Still, the packed house at Alexis didn’t realise they were missing out on the band’s new incarnation and gave the band a pretty hot reception. As ever, covers were the preferred delicacy of the night and the band raged through numbers like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the Ella Fitzgerald standard “Summertime”. Original material was well received but the crowd was definitely more hungry for stuff it already knew, and the Randy Crawford number, “Fly Away”, reworked around the Indian flute, got the biggest hand of the night.
If there’s any criticism, it’s that Elvira’s powerful voice sounded a little overwrought in the relatively small environs of Alexis and we’d probably all have benefited if she’d reined it in just a little. An extended percussion battle between Pragasam and Visakan at the end of the evening’s first set was a highlight and the night ended of a high note with an encore featuring surprise guest pianist Michael Veerapen.
So, overall everyone went away happy. We just wished we been there to witness the failed electronica experiment of the previous night.
Matt Armitage has been in Malaysia for seven years and would like to watch more live music.
First Published: 12.02.2006 on Kakiseni