Jalan Telawi 2 is easily one of the most popular places in the city. Every evening, the night owls of KL prowl this street in search of good food and great music — and it’s very likely they’ll find it here. It is after all, the go-to place in the hip neighbourhood of Bangsar, KL where cafes and restaurants line the street while its bars are packed with people waiting to sway and shuffle to the beat of some of the country’s top DJs.
This particular Saturday night is a little out of the ordinary. The streets are still abuzz but with music of a very different kind — in place of blaring club hits are the symphony of sounds created with pots, pans, tin boxes card boxes, and plastic rubbish bins. And it is that very distinctive sound, which is attracting revellers to La Bodega, the host of the very first Green Beat Live.
The initiative, a collaboration between HELP University, Red Bull Malaysia and Lewis Pragasam, is the brainchild of the legendary percussionist who wants to create environmental awareness by fashioning old, recycled items into musical instruments.
“It’s a beautiful world out there. However, the sad part of it is that we’re slowly but surely destroying it in the name of progress and development,” confides Pragasm, who feels pollution from wastage and litter is the main reason why our planet is suffering.
If there is one person who can testify to seeing the world in its more pristine state, it’s Pragasam. In 1979, he made waves around the world with his revolutionary idea, fusing the percussion styles from different Asian nations and calling the movement AsiaBeat. The combination of drums was so revolutionary that AsiaBeat became a must-see act in jazz festivals across the globe.
For most parts of the ’80s and ’90s, Pragasam visited many parts of the world, including the US where he was an artist-in-residence at East Carolina University in North Carolina. “I’m one of those guys who always makes sure that every switch in the house is turned off before I leave and that the tap is adjusted to lower settings and turned off when I’m brushing my teeth for instance,” explains Pragasam, before pointing out that the habit isn’t just something he practices at home but even in offices or hotels that he finds himself at whenever he toured in different countries. “I really do care about the environment ...most importantly for the future of it,” he adds.
Everywhere around the world Pragasam saw how beautiful landscapes were contaminated with waste, including his native Malaysia. He recalls how even with recycling bins ready at the public’s disposal, the intention to do right by Mother Nature, he notes, seemed to be lacking. “Recycling bins are in most public places and people do put waste matter in the respective bins but it’s just a motor-voluntary reaction. They have to throw the stuff somewhere,” he shares.
And his observation is not surprising. In 2015, the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government released a shocking report: Malaysians were said to produce 30,000 tonnes of waste per day. Of that figure, only a mere five per cent is recycled. A study by University Teknologi Malaysia’s Mohd Dinie Muhaimin and Samsudin Mashitah Mat Don from University Sains Malaysia showed that in a short span of 10 years, the amount of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) or rubbish thrown away by Malaysians increased by a whopping 91 per cent.
While the authors note that the rise in the amount of rubbish is in part due to the increase of population in urban areas, they reveal that the lack of environmental awareness remained a key factor. “In 1988, the Government of Malaysia had introduced the Action Plan for a Beautiful and Clean (ABC) Malaysia, followed by a recycling campaign in consecutive years. However, the campaigns did not lead to positive results due to minimal responses from the public,” they observe, noting that a similar campaign, which was launched in Penang in 2001 also proved futile.
“After contemplating the matter for some time, I realised there’s just not enough awareness about it,” says Pragasam, with a sigh, referring to the environmental impact of littering. This led him to mull over ideas on how awareness could be raised on the growing issue. He turned to his passion. “Music is one of the most powerful communicative tools. It can really do wonders,” explains Pragasam, adding that eureka moment came not long after.
He subsequently went on to put together a list of recyclable items — bottles, card boxes, PVC pipes and tin cans — and gathered a group of musician friends to use them as drums. “The idea is to make drums and percussion instruments from recyclable material and engage people with zero musical background to participate in this endeavour in a community-type mindset,” he shares.
DRUMMING TO THE RIGHT BEATS
It’s almost midnight but the crowd at La Bodega continues to swell with curious onlookers who eventually end up joining the festive-like setting. “La Bodega chain of restaurants and bars have been chosen as one of our collaborators because they’re firm advocates of social issues and charitable causes,” explains Pragasam, who believes that working with people fighting for the same cause is equally as important.
With almost all the patrons at La Bodega on their feet jiving to Pragasam’s beat, the team from Red Bull makes their way through the crowd with a huge box. “We’re here together for a good cause. For a greener and better tomorrow, yes?” Pragasam poses to the crowd before a volunteer sporting a light green bandana begins handing out empty cans of Red Bull now filled with beads and resembling percussion shakers to the audience.
Standing behind his make-shift drum made out of two card boxes, which are taped together, Pragasam reaches for the mic. “This is how you hold it,” he hollers to the crowd, before adding: “Just follow the beat.”
The beating of the drums made from the recycled materials is so infectious that groups of passive audiences have now become active participants, tapping their feet, clapping hands and some even breaking out in dance. “The next time you see something like this, don’t throw it away. Look at what you can do with it,” says Pragasam, pointing to the cardboard box and an old biscuit tin to a cheering crowd who carry on playing their recycled shakers well through the night.