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The King of Rhythms

Behind the unassuming façade of a college lecturer in Business Information System lies a different side of Subain Singam – the man with the fastest fingers on drums.

Born in Kedah in 1971 and relocated to Ipoh at the age of 16 due to his father’s job, Subain took lessons in Indian drums when he was seven but only developed his music while living in Ipoh.

There, to his surprise, he was in high demand. Subain recalled, “Despite the long hours where I had to play up to 12 hours a day, I was paid lowly. I felt that I was being made used of and decided that I would have to break out on my own. I encouraged my two younger brothers, who both played the Nadaswaram (Indian trumpet), to join me in my public engagements.”

Subain (L) and his friends performing at the launch of Yasmin Museum Festival
Subain (L) and his friends performing at the launch of Yasmin Museum Festival

Subain’s breakthrough came when he was recognised by the government of India for his talent and was awarded the title “Laya Vidwan” (King of Rhythms) at the age of 21.

But his speed of his fingers on the drums was only discovered later in 2005 while sharing the stage with Jerry Felix at the Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur. Jerry, who is Malaysia’s renowned rock drummer known for his speed on Western drums, tested Subain and was amazed to find that he was able to match him beat for beat. With that, the impressed audience, made up of top musicians in the country, endorsed Subain as the man with the fastest fingers on drums, an honour he still holds today.

Subain, who has mastered nine instruments, is believed to be the only Malaysian who can play 7 Indian and 2 Western percussion instruments. “I play the Thavil, Miruthangam, Tabla, Gatham, Ganjira, Dholak, Naal, Congo and Car horn,” Subain said.

This is a rare feat for any Indian percussionist, even in India and Sri Lanka, where he is descended from. In fact, after having studied under top Sri Lankan maestros, Subain plays towards the Sri Lankan style, which is more vibrant and fast compared to the relaxed and subdued Indian style.

According to Subain, “There are more than fifty Indian musical instruments, whereby some twenty are percussion instruments. I can quickly pick up any percussion by just listening to its beats.”

 Subain (2nd from R) performs at a violin recital, Geethanjali
Subain (2nd from R) performs at a violin recital, Geethanjali

While Subain is best known for his ability to translate Western beats on Indian drums, he can also translate Chinese, Malay and other ethnic beats on all the drums that he plays.

His background in computing helped him to fine tune his technique in converting beats and in improving on his speed by modulating them. Said Subain smilingly, “One can count beats in the mind but it is another matter to make the fingers move accordingly.”

Almost all of Subain’s time, apart from his commitment at the college which he joined in 2012, is devoted to music and community work as an active Rotarian.

Even so, Subain wishes to promote Indian music and as such, began conducting music classes at home in 2000. Subain proudly shared, “Many of my students have gone on to perform in and out of Malaysia.”

In 2004, with a group of friends, he registered Greentown Indian Cultural Society, where he is the president. Through it, more than forty events have been hosted for musicians from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and local talents, in an effort to nourish the minds of Ipoh people with Indian music and culture. The latest event was Wedded to the Violin, a carnatic violin concert by leading Indian classical violinist, Vidushi A. Kanyakumari.

 Subain receives a token of appreciation from the High Commissioner of India to Malaysia HE Mr T.S. Tirumurti
Subain receives a token of appreciation from the High Commissioner of India to Malaysia HE Mr T.S. Tirumurti

As Subain’s reputation grew, from 2006 until 2011, he was appointed head of the Indian Music Department at University Technology Petronas (UTP) in Tronoh, specialising in teaching the percussion. During his term there, he established an orchestra with his students, to perform at all university events.

He continued, “Two years ago, I was also engaged by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia (Perak) to handle events which involved music and dance, in the programme and stage management part.

“Some of the more outstanding events I was involved in were Perak Arts Festival, Colours of Perak, Sounds of Nature, Tourism Awards Presentation, Ipoh International Waiters’ Race and the Royal Belum World Drums Festival, where for the first time, 80 Perak musicians played on stage at once.”

Subain is also committed as the lead Indian percussionist for Kombo Kumpulan Selendang Perak, the official Perak state government’s musical group, and attached with Aseana Percussion Unit (APU), a world renowned fusion musical band based in Kuala Lumpur. As one of the most sought-after musicians in Malaysia currently, Subain has not taken a break for two years. “All my weekends are filled with engagements. It’s no wonder that I’m still single,” jested Subain.

In the past 25 years since his first public performance, Subain has performed at more than 5000 functions in Malaysia and internationally. Said Subain, “The most memorable event was when my brothers and I performed on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore at an epic Indian wedding conducted at 30,000 feet in the air in 2009.”

Note: An edited version of this article [Magic In His Hands] was published on 21st November, 2014 in The Malay Mail.

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