Natural Rhythm

Published on 26 December 2017

Photo: Nadi Singapura

Riduan Zalani’s infectious beats have been getting audiences hooked on Malay music.

By Jo Tan

Percussionist and Young Artist Award recipient Riduan Zalani once commented, “Drums are the only instrument that cannot make people cry.” After all, drums are generally seen as playing a supporting role to the melody. Yet, he cautions against underestimating the power of percussion.

“Beats get people to groove — you just need a good rhythm to drive people in a club crazy. Also, drums in Malay music are especially sacred because they’re made entirely from nature — wood, the drum head that comes from an animal, and fastenings that are usually rattan or bamboo. And when I say drums can’t make people cry, it’s a challenge to myself. I want to refute that statement someday.”

Riduan’s been hooked on percussion since age seven, following his uncle, Imran Ahmad, to traditional Malay dikir barat, tarian and kompang practice sessions. Today, he’s scored accolades and travelled the world busting out beats with Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian drums, body percussion, and of course, Malay drums.

A champion of traditional music, Riduan co-founded NADI Singapura to show off Malay percussion; he has spearheaded cultural music performances and shared his skill with budding percussionists in various institutions. He’s audacious with his traditional instruments, collaborating with the likes of Chinese contemporary musicians SA Trio, the Singapore Wind Symphony, and even circus group Bornfire. This month, he’ll perform alongside a tabla master, two traditional Chinese percussionists from China, and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in the latter’s Percussion Fusion concert.

“There is already a large group of traditionalists in the Singapore Malay music scene, so I think my place is to push the limitations of our craft. It’s important to explore how art forms can transcend different ethnic groups — look at the rise of Bollywood and how it cuts across cultures. While sometimes overlooked, drums are the connective tissue between all the other instruments, making everything make sense. Perhaps because of this, I’ve managed to work across a range of genres and hopefully, contribute to creating a unified Singapore sound.”

Riduan’s adventurous work seems to transcend age: a growing number of youths consider Malay traditional percussion cool. “We directed the Malay contingent for the Chingay parade where drums were the main performance medium. Eighty percent of the performers were youth volunteers who signed up online. We don’t have kampungs and longkangs [drains] for playing in anymore, we have evolved. And because art is alive, so our music must also evolve through continuous explorations to reflect us, even while our values stay the same.”

Percussion Fusion plays 12 & 13 January at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium.

Photo: Samuel Bey/Drumming Hands
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