Told by Barani Krishnan, Founder and Americas Editor @ neverforget.cloud

Macaques, the most brilliant of monkeys, have a habit of intimidating uninvited guests by beating the trees they are on. Chimpanzees also make crude drumming sounds to signal distress. Humans, the supreme class of the primate species, tap their fingers and feet when beats sync with the rhythm of their heart, breath and brainwave. Drums are also spiritual to people, their resonance inducing a meditative state that aids one’s connection with God.

Chandra Pragasam Lewis understood all these in ways many couldn’t.

It was why for nearly five decades, he was Malaysia’s Drum God — an undisputed master of the instrument in his country. He was also an author-partner-coach in music to anyone who needed him. Lewis had a profound impact on his craft and on people well beyond his shores, including in some of the remotest parts of the world.

Malaysia’s “Drum God” (Picture: Facebook)

“He was one of the grand masters of live music whose powerful performances, in-depth knowledge of percussion, and inspirational guidance as a music educator, made him a much-sought-after collaborator and mentor to countless recording artistes,” the New Straits Times said in a tribute. 

The lives Lewis touched ranged from the iconic to the ordinary. 

There were jazz greats like guitarist Paul Jackson, bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Bob James, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and shakuhachi exponent John Kaizan Neptune — an American who mesmerized with his mastery of the Japanese bamboo flute. 

Lewis’ collaborators (clockwise from top): Paul Jackson, Nathan East, Bob James, John Kaizan Neptune and Andy Sheppard (Pictures: Open Source)

Then, there were the poor Cambodian children, fascinated with music but with no means to acquire an instrument. Such kids always occupied a spot in Lewis’ heart — as a child, pots and pans were his drums and he had a father who never appreciated or supported his music.  

To anyone entering his orbit, Lewis was a celestial being — sharing not just his skill and knowledge but also whatever resources he had that could help bring people closer to their musical dreams.

“To Lewis, music wasn’t just about how it was perceived; it was the entire holistic thing around it — the beat, the instrument, the environment — the entire package that inspired him, which was a totally different dimension when you get soaked into it,” said G Raj, an entrepreneur who regards his life “richer” purely from his association with the drumming legend.

While goodwill, name and success put a halo over Lewis’ head, he never forgot who he was — a mere human. In fact, almost anyone who knew him remembers Lewis the person, rather than Lewis the star. 

“He never carried himself as someone who’s a true legend,” recalls Raj. “He was a Fulbright scholar. He played with other world-renowned legends. Yet, at the end, it was his humility that stood out as much as, or perhaps even more than, his music. He humbled himself to an extent that it was very difficult to find a parallel.” 

The Fulbright Program is a US cultural exchange program aimed at boosting interaction between Americans and exceptionally skilled, talented and knowledgeable people from around the world. It is a program open particularly to artists like Lewis, who won the award in the early 1990s. Fulbrighters are typically the best and brightest in their fields. Besides Lewis, the only Malaysian bestowed with the honor was Ramli Ibrahim, an exponent of Indian classical dance. Already a fusion jazz artist and master percussionist who could marry the best of Eastern and Western sounds, Lewis was tasked under the scholarship to research the ethnic music of Southeast Asia while teaching as an artist-in-residence at the East Carolina University. 

Lewis, being Lewis, of course, did more.

For him, the opportunity was a test-bed for developing his own programs that would come later for elevating musically-talented but underprivileged Asians, particularly those in Cambodia. 

Left: A poster promoting Asiabeat in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Right: Lewis at a jam session in Cambodia. The drumming ace spent a few years in the Southeast Asian country performing and holding clinics for aspiring drummers.

He also deepened his life-long experiment with different ethnic beats and percussion technology by producing eco-friendly drums from recycled waste that checked both his greenbook on life and his Asian heritage. It was a quest he had been on since he formed Asiabeat, a fusion jazz outfit inspired by John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, just before the start of the 1980s. It was a project that sat at the heart of all things Lewis. 

A poster of a Mahavishnu Orchestra concert

“The Mahavishnu name itself represents the supreme Hindu deity and the music generated by that band was a spiritual touchstone for Lewis,” said Martin Dass, described as the drummer’s “confidant, best mate, best man and soul brother” of more than 40 years.  “Lu,” says Dass, using an affectionate calling known only to members of Lewis’ family, “wasn’t particularly religious. He was a Catholic who grew up with deep respect for all forms of faith, believing they all led to the same path. Music was his real spirituality. When he’s on the drums, he’s one with God and His instrument.”

And that’s how it ended too, a week before Christmas 2023, at a concert at the Good Shepherd Assembly of God church in Petaling Jaya, a city just outside the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. Lewis and three other jazz musicians were playing “Joy to the World” when a heart failure sent him sprawling from his drum throne. After 45 years of spreading joy to peers, fans and aspiring musicians around the world; with sticks still in hand and embracing spirituality as he knew it, along with his reborn faith in Christianity, the beat finally came to a rest on one of the planet’s greatest drummers.

How It All Began

Circa 1960s: Dusk was falling outside a Hindu shrine in Brickfields, a suburb close to Kuala Lumpur’s city center and populated by the minority ethnic Indian and Ceylonese communities of Malaysia. 

A thin, lanky lad called Chandra Pragasam — meaning moon-like radiance in Tamil — was inside the temple, patiently waiting for the thavil player to begin. The barrel-shaped drum with two ends — one producing a sharp tone and the other a dull bassy thud — is played in accompaniment to the nadaswaram, a high-decibel wind instrument, at the start of each prayer session.

“Every evening, I’d just go and sit next to them,” Lewis said, referring to the thavil and nadaswaram players, in his “Spirit of the Beat” documentary that’s available on Youtube. After a while, the musicians began to notice him, he said. “Then, if I didn’t go one day, they were like ‘What happened to you yesterday?”

The sounds from the thavil fascinated Lewis, who was just around 10 then. 

But it wasn’t just the Indian drum that held him in awe. 

“I used to go to where all the Chinese drummers used to practice for the dragon dance every year,” he said, referring to the festivity associated with the Lunar New Year. “I used to hang out with those guys. I heard all this stuff and I said, Wow … we have everything around us. Why can’t I take this … and mix it up? I’m proud to be Asian. I want to make something from Asia, you know.”

The South Indian thavil (left) and the Chinese drum used for lion dance. The two were Lewis’ early influences.

That something Asian turned out to be Asiabeat, the groundbreaking fusion jazz outfit he founded in his early 20s. 

Even before that, Lewis had become a drum god of sorts — Malaysia’s first actually. He was revered everywhere he went, with devotees flocking to every act he was in — to see and hear him more than the other musicians he played with.

“Uncle Lu, was not just a musician,” nephew Adrian said in his eulogy for Lewis. “He was a maestro, a virtuoso who could create magic with his instrument. From a young age, it became apparent that his affinity for music was more than just a fleeting interest. He possessed the ability to understand and converse with music at a level that was truly profound. “

Lewis, says Adrian, had a rare ability to merge technical mastery with heartfelt emotion, creating compositions that were both complex and deeply moving. “His music was a canvas where he painted with some bold bloody strokes of his drums by creating innovation, coloring our world with shades of joy, sorrow, passion, and love.” 

But such mastery came from brutal dedication and work, says Adrian, who recalls Lewis locking himself in his room for practice that went on for twelve, even sixteen, hours a day.

Adrian also remembers that no object capable of being turned into an instrument was safe in the Lewis home.

“Amani (our grandma) …used to get mad and shout – ‘Engga en satti panna da????’ (Where are my pots and pans and utensils???). It goes missing quite often as (he) would be taking them into his room,” Adrian said at Lewis’ service, drawing laughter from those present. 

“I recall seeing this personally and it’s very vivid,” adds Adrian, saying he was just about seven or eight then. ”I would hear some grooves coming from (his) room. He would come out maybe once or twice in a day …. to go to the kitchen for snacks or to find other satti panna to addi (beat on).  Sometimes, I hear the same stick rudiments for hours.”

From that insanity emerged a drumming beast who simply knew no bounds to his energy or creativity, says Adrian.

“With each performance, Uncle Lu transported us to a world where notes danced and melodies sang with joyous music. His music was not confined to the boundaries of sheets and notes; it was a living entity, a vibrant force that resonated deeply with everyone who was fortunate enough to witness it.” 

The infectious force of Lewis’ music overwhelmed Adrian and he was bitten by the drumming bug too. “He knew I (could) play (the) guitar but I told him I wanted to learn how to really play the drums. He gave me a pair of sticks, pointed at the stool, told me to go sit on it and practice on the one-seater sofa. I thought (it would be for) a few minutes. It went on for five months. All rudiments/strokes were practiced on that one-seater sofa. I could not sit down on his hip-gig drum set which I have been eyeing for months.”

A young Lewis on his kit (Picture: Open Source)

The Lewis discipline at music practice extended to the Lewis discipline at work. At the HELP Institute just outside Kuala Lumpur, uncle and nephew united to school young people in music, with Lewis serving as director of performing arts at the place and Adrian as his aide, fresh out of high school. 

“Uncle Lu was always eager to share his knowledge and nurture the next generation of musicians. He believed in the transformative power of music and worked tirelessly to create a space where young talents could flourish and grow.”

“We practically built a recording studio and a music room from scratch …I mean real scratch .. It looked like an egg farm as the entire walls were lined up with egg shells to help with sound insulation. I said, ‘We will be closing this with some other materiel right?’ Uncle Lu said ‘yeaaaa but (there’s) no budget (for that)’ and walked away. So, it was egg shells all throughout.” 

Celine, Lewis’ younger sister, attests to his work ethic and zeal to prove that a career in music — not the most favored vocation in Malaysia, by the way — was as golden as that in, say, medicine, law or engineering.

“My Dad was a firm believer in academics and he just couldn’t accept what my brother was doing,” said Celine. “It was one of the most difficult things for Lu — my Dad’s rejection of the path he had chosen — and that’s the way Dad remained till the end, despite my brother’s stardom. Mum, of course, doted on her boy, standing outside his room door with almond milk in hand and patiently waiting to hear him put the sticks down so that she could go in and give him that energy-boosting drink. We, the siblings, also loved Lu for what he did. I guess it was my father’s disapproval that made Lu all the more determined to succeed and to show other parents of aspiring musicians that their children could succeed too.”

The 1970s: The Revolvers Years

Lewis’ story could basically be told in two parts: The pre-Asiabeat days and the Asiabeat years and beyond.

Asiabeat, as a project, was founded in 1979 but Lewis only made an aggressive push of it a couple of years later as he was still playing then with another group called Revolvers.

A 1970s newspaper ad of the Revolvers, who played to packed crowds nightly at the Glass Bubble disco between 1977 and 1980. (Picture: Dominic Muthu)

Asiabeat, a cosmic progressive, all-percussion ensemble, was born out of Lewis’ sadness about the human inability to comprehend one another — at least musically — talent scout Daniel Dharanee said in a tribute carried by news portal freemalaysiatoday.com.

Written by Frankie D’Cruz, a veteran writer and biographer of Malaysian sports and music icons, the tribute tracks Lewis’ progress from his first gig to the concert at the Petaling Jaya church, which would be his last.

For almost 50 years, the instinctive flair and adroit compositional sense of the little drummer boy from Brickfields “provided the raging backbeat for the bands he played in, valuing nuance and musicality over flash to capture the spirit of the time,” D’Cruz wrote.

“He was arguably the most technically gifted drummer Malaysia ever had, the guy way in the back, giving music its spine and drive, its cohesion and contour, and a huge chunk of its personality,” D’Cruz said. 

Tracking Lewis’ early days as a performer, D’Cruz wrote that back in 1976, Revolvers founder Freddie Fernandez came away suitably impressed after watching a new band play at the Glass Bubble discotheque at Petaling Jaya’s Jaya Puri Hotel — renamed PJ Hilton since.

The group was called Zechariah Dash. It was led by guitarist Terry Thaddeus and had some familiar faces like Singaporean singer June Abdullah, bassist Din of the Grim Preachers and a keyboardist from Philippine band Downbeats, known just as Bob.

Fernandez, according to D’Cruz, was struck most by the drummer he described as “a long-haired, young teenage boy whom I had never seen before.”

“His playing was amazing and gave the band a free flowing, infectious rhythm and backbeat that kept patrons enthralled as they danced the night away.”

In a write-up on the band that he read later, Fernandez discovered that the drummer, then 19, was named C Lewis. 

“He was one of the many young musicians Thaddeus had discovered in his long and illustrious career as a bandleader,” said Fernandez.

Zechariah Dash broke up after that gig, and coincidentally Revolvers’ drummer Frankie Liu left for Canada. Fernandez convinced Lewis to join the Revolvers, which soon landed a gig of its own at the Glass Bubble.

Besides Lewis, the Revolvers’ line-up comprised Augustine Manuel on vocals, Anuar Razak on bass, Ronnie Pereira on the guitar and Charlie Peters and Fernandez on keyboards.

The Revolvers lineup at the Glass Bubble disco, (standing left to right) Ronnie Pereira, Charlie Peters, Freddie Fernandez and Augustine Manuel, and seated, from left, Lewis Pragasam and Anuar Razak (Picture: Open Source)

Lewis’ drumming provided Revolvers with “a strong rhythm section and awesome energy”, said Fernandez, adding: “We packed the crowds between 1977 and 1980.”

But Lewis soon got absorbed with fusion jazz and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu and began idolizing that group’s drummer, a Panamanian called Billy Cobham.

“He would practice eight hours a day in his house just to try and emulate Cobham’s drum techniques,” Fernandez recollected. “I would sometimes sit and watch him practice, totally awestruck at the amazing things he was doing.”

Billy Cobham (Picture: Rockbook)

Ultimately, Cobham came to Malaysia to perform side by side with Lewis. 

“It was a case of the disciple rocking his idol,” Lewis’ confidant Dass told neverforget. “Lu practically freaked Billy out. I know because I picked Billy up from the airport and dropped him back too. We were talking all the time and he told me that he never imagined the guy would be this fantastic.”

Cobham, on learning about Lewis’ passing, sent his condolences, adding: “What a shame and loss.” 

The 1980s and Beyond: Asiabeat and the Later Years

Ahead of Asiabeat’s launch, Lewis began collaborating with pianist Michael Veerapen, a pioneer in Malaysia’s jazz scene, from the late 1970s.

Michael Veerapan — a jazz pioneer in Malaysia who collaborated with Lewis on fusion jazz since the 1970s

Veerapan had an outfit then called Vintage that comprised guitarist David Lim and bassist David Yee, who incidentally played at Lewis’ last gig at the Petaling Jaya church. Lewis jammed with the trio to hone his jazz chops during breaks from the Revolvers’ stint at the Glass Bubble.

Veerapan, in the tribute written by D’Cruz, called Lewis a “once in a lifetime phenomenon”.

“He was a true legend, divinely gifted, full of energy, drive, passion, creativity and sheer genius.”

Veerapan first met Lewis in 1975, before they came together to form Asiabeat at the end of that decade. “(We) played a ton of gigs together over the years, and he also featured on my only album, Picture.”

D’Cruz wrote that Veerapen and Lewis were instrumental in organizing Malaysia’s first jazz rock concert at University Malaya, or UM, in 1977. It featured some top pop bands playing fusion jazz music, with bands like Discovery, Delta and the Revolvers playing jazz alongside Vintage.

Even prior to that, Dass, the Lewis confidant, recalls another concert at the UM put together by Lewis that brought together some 40 percussionists from different Malaysian cultures like Indian, Chinese, Dayak and Kadazan. “He not only drove the anchor band that night but he also composed what the other ethnic drummers had to play. Here was someone with the organizational skill, imagination and audacity that you’d usually find in a veteran music producer and he was just a kid. I knew right then that he was destined for greatness.”

Years later, the Lewis brilliance shone again at Niigata Music Festival in Japan, Dass remembers. “Those guys had written a score for an orchestra of 60 musicians. Everybody looked at the score sheet and said, ‘My God, it’s almost impossible to pin down’. Our man sat half a day in his hotel room and fixed it up for the six members of his band. They played it and the Japanese just couldn’t believe it.”

A Niigata Jazz scene (Picture: Open Source)

Inside the Revolvers, Fernandez knew that Lewis’ days with the band were numbered as his ace drummer got deeper into fusion jazz.

“Because of this burning passion (he had) for the Asiabeat project, I knew he would not be sticking around with our band much longer,” said Fernandez. “But thankfully he stayed long enough to finish recording our first album called Perpisahan, which was launched in 1981 and made waves in the local music scene.”

After launching Asiabeat though, Lewis realized there were not enough gigs and concerts in jazz to keep the project going on that genre alone. 

“So Asiabeat had to delve into Top 40 (pop) material as well and continued to perform in clubs with various line-ups over the years,” Fernandez said. One of those clubs turned out to be the Hyatt Singapore’s Brannigans, where Asiabeat had a one-month stint extended to six, with record crowds that formed long lines outside. 

Lewis and one-time band-mate Freddie Fernandez at the Riverjazz Festival in Kuala Lumpur in November 2022 (Picture: Open Source)

William De’ Cruz, a journalist turned music producer who now resides  in Sydney, said he was concerned too when Lewis set up Asiabeat. “I wondered if there would ever be a market for him despite their smashing performances and albums,” he said.

Asiabeat’s eponymously-titled debut album was produced under the CBS label. It featured Neptune on the shakuhachi, a Gamelan orchestra conducted by Bob Khalil and Indian tabla maestro T Raja. The group went on to release five more albums, including Dare To Dream in 1984, Drumusique in 1993 and Monsoon in 1994.

Asiabeat’s debut album produced by Lewis for CBS, featuring John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi, a Gamelan orchestra conducted by Bob Khalil and Indian tabla maestro T Raja.

Lewis put to rest any worries over Asiabeat’s future with his international collaborations and tours, the Sydney-based De’ Cruz wrote.

“He took the concept to great heights, faraway places and some of the best musicians anywhere. Performances at major international festivals, including for Prince Charles, underscored his global acclaim.”

Toward the mid-1990s, Lewis turned more into being an educator, nurturing young talents in percussion.

He was a familiar face at drum clinics and percussion festivals across Malaysia, leading his own “Groove School” while organizing the Drum Talk educational series and serving as Help Institute’s director of performing arts.

Poster of a 2020 Asiabeat concert (Picture: Open Source)

In the midst of the 2020 pandemic outbreak, Lewis launched The Rhythm of the Jungle — an initiative to ensure the beats of the orang asli, Malaysia’s aborigine folk, aren’t forgotten. 

He also collaborated with Zainal Abidin, another “green musician” from the 70s and 80s, who appreciated his series of eco-drums. Lewis played with Zainal and younger artists such as Zee Avi, Sham Kamikaze, Mac Chew and Daniel Fong at Alive Again concert at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in April 2021. One of his last major performances was also with Zainal, a New Year special on January 31, 2022.

Epilogue: The Lewis Beat May Have Stopped, But Its Resonance Continues

Almost everyone who knew Lewis will rave about the energy and innovation he brought to his drum kit. To them, his beat may have stopped but its resonance still rings in their ears.

Dass, Lewis’ soul mate who traveled with him to almost every gig over the past four decades, is one of them.

Lewis, says Dass, will deliberately toy with a music sheet to see in how many different ways it could be played. “He will go from the right to the left, then left to right while staying on the same count. This guy was self-taught; it was his intuition that led him. His listening was so good that he could count all the beats while the song was playing, then replicate and reorganize the music sheet his way.” 

Often, Lewis’ creativity led to both fun and amazing results, Dass said. “He will take a plastic bottle, fill it up with seeds and turn it into an awesome sound shaker. He will fill bowls with different levels of water to produce different sounds when struck.” 

William de Cruz (right) and Hamed Samad (left), who worked with Lewis Pragasam to produce jingles, pictured with Dev Gopalasamy (centre), a guitarist and music academic, in Sydney in 2019. (William de Cruz pic)

Sydney-based De’ Cruz was another who got to witness Lewis’ genius close-up. Lewis, he said, was more than just that quintessential drummer. “He could ‘see’ a sound in a box, a table top, a tap on a can. Then he sits on that stool, and he becomes something else.” 

He relates a standout experience with Lewis, which involved the recording of five songs to be used at the launch of Mitsubishi’s Tredia car in Kuala Lumpur in the 80s. 

Although he played the rhythm guitar, De’ Cruz said: “I don’t read or write music.” He also worried about budget overruns in case the project took longer than needed.

Enter Lewis. With De’ Cruz on rhythm guitar, Charlie Peters on piano and synthesizers, Hamed Samad on lead guitar and bass, and Lewis’ beat driving the whole thing, the songs were done quicker than De’ Cruz anticipated.

“We just let loose and the tape rolled. Lewis put his drum tracks down in about one hour. Five whole songs. Unbelievable. Unheard of.”

Lewis’ drum tracks “became the spine around which I built on that draft in my head, arranged the parts on the go,” said De’ Cruz.

The star song of the project was “Cabaret”, featuring Sukania Venugopal on vocals. Lewis offered to add a percussion track using music blocks — i.e. hollow blocks of wood carved to play a specific note when hit. “He just came up with the idea, and put down a lovely solo in just one take.”

Malaysian advertising legend Tony Savrimuthu remembers Lewis winning a Spike award — Asia’s most prestigious for the ad industry — for the music on a Diwali greeting on Malaysian TV, produced by state oil company Petronas. The visual shows men in an Indian household preparing for Diwali, beginning their day with rituals that included a massage with oil. The beat arranged by Lewis is dynamic as the masseurs get into a duel, an ignorant young man disrupts their mood briefly and a grandmother chuckles. 

Summing up, De’ Cruz describes Lewis as a “pioneer, icon, mentor and friend in need” and grieves to know that “another son of Malaysian music is gone”. 

Raj, the entrepreneur, takes it a notch higher: “He was a living angel among us — an angel in every sense of the word but particularly a music angel.”

Lewis with the “Pragasam Eco-Drums” made from recycled waste.

* Adapted partly from tributes by Frankie D’Cruz and William De’Cruz 

 

4 Responses

  1. A well deserved tribute to a Maestro, Thank you.
    Would like to add a little note if I may.
    Three cousins, Francis, Chandra & Xavier were alter servers in Fatima Church in Brickfields. This was in the late 60s. One year the alter servers held a talent event in the La Salle School hall opposite the church. Chandra decided to enter the event with his very own ‘drum kit’. It comprised of empty Dumex, Cow & Gate milk tins, a big rectangular kerosene tin and ensemble of pots, pans…..etc. Thats when we saw his magic…the crowd was thrilled to bits. The two Priests, Rev Fr John Marie and Rev Fr Florimond were amazed at his talent. The very next day, they went out and bought him a set of bright orange bongos.(church could not afford a full drum kit). From that day on he was Bongo Lewis. Even family member would call him that. It went on for ages. Any function in church, Bongo Lewis was there, singalong sessions, Christmas caroling etc…..As we grew older and went our own ways, the cousins drifted apart.. hardly met each other… sadly. Always very proud to read about his accolades….now reading tributes.
    Rest in Peace dear cousin. Fare Thee Well

    • Lawrence,thank you for the wonderful anecdote and other recollections of the maestro. Indeed, Malaysia has lost one of its most illustrious son in music. We will likely never see another Lewis though his legacy will hopefully spur the creation of more musical greats in our country.

Leave a Reply