Unfamiliar sounds from familiar hits

Home-grown fusion world music outfit Kulcha play traditional and modern music with Asian instruments

Imagine Sia's Chandelier like never before. In a concert tomorrow by Singapore group Kulcha, the well-loved pop hit by the Australian singer will come with sounds youth here might find unfamiliar - the plaintive cry of the Indian bansuri; the bright, tremulous plucking of the Chinese pipa, and the dictinctively Middle Eastern tones of the gambus.

Kulcha, a fusion world music outfit, weave an imaginative tapestry of East and West, traditional and modern, through their music, which showcases an array of Asian instruments.

At their show tomorrow, the six-piece band will play both original compositions and familiar hits, such as Chandelier and a Michael Jackson medley.

The concert is presented by the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts, as part of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series of free performances.

Kulcha's (from left) Gildon Choo on pipa, Ragahavendran Rajasekaran on the bansuri and Ismahairie Putra Ishak on gambus. PHOTO: JOXOP CHIAN

Keyboardist Serene Tan, who goes by Stan, says the band try to play pieces that audiences can identify with. Their special arrangement of Chandelier, for one, won them young fans at a recent performance at the Esplanade.

"We had secondary school students come up and thank us for the performance. They tagged us on Instagram and left nice comments," says the 35-year-old, who also plays the gamelan and the angklung.

"When our music is engaging youths, we've succeeded in our mission."

Formed in 2014, Kulcha is made up of Stan; Joseph Chian, or Soap, on drums and the Sundanese kendang (two-headed drum); Ismahairie Putra Ishak, who plays the violin, gambus and the Middle Eastern drum, the darbuka; bassist Yazeid Rahman; Ragahavendran Rajasekaran on the bansuri; and pipa player Gildon Choo.

The band's name - which is also the name of an Indian flatbread - is a playful spin on the word "culture" and is pronounced the same way.

Culture is, after all, at the heart of what Kulcha do.

Stan says she thinks of the melding of these different instruments and performance styles as a way to whet the audience's appetite: "It's to get them to listen and find out more about the music and instruments and, from there, cultivate their ownership of culture and heritage."

She started off learning the piano and picked up a traditional instrument when she entered Lasalle College of the Arts. There, she encountered the gamelan, a traditional Indonesian music ensemble made up predominantly of percussive instruments. She later also took up the angklung, an instrument made of bamboo tubes.

"Even though the gamelan is not part of my inherent culture, it started me on a journey to find what my cultural identity as a young Singaporean is," says Stan. "Growing up, I had many friends from different races, so it seemed only natural for me to do something that blended these different cultures together in one music outfit."

Hairie, too, started off on the classical route - with the violin - before he fell head over heels for the gambus after listening to Malay music champion Zubir Abdullah play it at a concert in 2001.

He started figuring out the instrument on his own and later attended a masterclass in Istanbul, Turkey. He says: "I choose to continue to play because I believe traditional music is important and is the identity of my ethnic group," says the 31-year-old. "It's also my responsibility to continue promoting my heritage to the world and become a bridge to the younger generation in Singapore."

Drummer Soap, 28, was fascinated by the complex interlocking and heavily structured drumming patterns of gamelan music.

Eight years ago, he paid his way to attend an intensive, three-week gamelan workshop in the Indonesian city of Solo.

He says: "I always believe in order to play a certain genre of music, one has to understand the culture and understand the beliefs."

Meanwhile, Ragha, now 28, started playing the bansuri at the age of 11.

Choo picked up the pipa at 13. He grew up with a grandmother who often sang Cantonese opera tunes at home and an uncle who performed with an opera troupe, and was a member of his school's Chinese orchestra.

People tend to get inquisitive when they find out he plays the pipa, he says. "Sometimes when I get into a cab, I just want to relax and close my eyes, but more often than not, the driver will ask questions about my pipa case."

"If I were to say it's a pipa, I will get tons of questions thrown my way. If I want a smooth ride with no questions asked, I tend to say it's a tennis racket," quips the 28-year- old.

Bassist Yazeid, 35, notes that bits and pieces of culture and tradition may be eroded out of the need to adapt and accommodate a multi- cultural society.

But, he says: "We need ways to constantly remind ourselves and the generations to come of the missing pieces. And one of the ways is music.

"Of the 14 bands I've been and am part of, only with Kulcha am I able to see so much cultural influence in the music. I'm very proud of this band for their passion and skill in their own instruments. And most of all, the desire to be different, just so that our cultural identity is not lost."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Unfamiliar sounds from familiar hits'. Print Edition | Subscribe