Sun, 13 Jul 2003

M.S. Maniam -- the mystic disco drummer man

Joseph Mangga Contributor Jakarta

The little Indian gentleman looks almost out of place -- bespectacled, over 50 years old and dressed in an orange-sequined genie-like costume.

He sits patiently on a stool next to one of the most famous and highly paid international DJs in the world, surrounded by several thousand fashionable clubbers, all wildly bouncing to the pounding house and trance music echoing throughout Singapore's legendary Zouk discotheque.

Between his legs rests his beloved copper-plated djemba -- not a traditional bowl-like Indian tabla (which he also plays expertly), but a special hourglass-shaped drum of Egyptian design with a sharper higher timbre, like a conga or bongo.

The DJ nods to Maniam, then the little man with the magic golden fingers begins to tap away, in perfect flow and pitch with the varied musical outpourings from the DJ booth.

The crowd visibly reacts, screaming "Go Maniam, go...!.", as the speed and excitement of his solo builds, lifting the clubbers to that coveted next higher level.

Beautiful women boogie up to his feet and play with his socks, checking to see if they're really Versace. The club then goes totally mental as Maniam's beats become an impossibly fast blur of rhythm.

After more than 10 years at Zouk, jamming almost every weekend with the world's most famed DJ gods -- like Paul Oakenfold, Danny Tenaglia, John Digweed, Paul van Dyk and Sasha -- Maniam has himself become something of a bona fide dance music icon as well. So much so that he often has trouble walking along Orchard Road in Singapore without someone recognizing him.

"I can't even go to Starbucks or Coffee Bean to drink coffee sometimes," says Maniam. "People go, 'Excuse me? Are you the percussionist at Zouk? Can I have a visit?' It happens like that. But I am humble (and try to) be nice to everybody. They are full of encouragement and say, 'Go for it man, you are now there. The path is open for you...!'"

His astonishing occupation -- disco percussionist -- has to qualify as one of the most unusual and enviable jobs on the planet, but the beginnings of this path are even stranger still. Born in Singapore in 1947, he was only six months old when his grandfather noticed something odd about his fingers.

"When I was lying down asleep on the carpet, my fingers used to always twitch and move. Always! After about a year they got an astrologer (to) chart my future. (They said I would) either become a criminal lawyer or a very great musician."

Of course, no one in his family saw much future in music, so Maniam was steered toward academics and law. Then fate began to intervene at the age of 15 when he was asked to play tabla at a Hindu temple function when he really didn't know how.

"There was this guru -- a tabla guru -- who was in the back (of the temple) listening to my playing. He approached and said, 'Where did you learn?' I said, 'I've never had any training.' He said, 'What...! Are you sure? Without learning you are so good?! '"

The guru immediately wanted Maniam to become his student, but his father refused, until Maniam had finished his pre-college studies. His father kept his word, and Maniam subsequently studied under the tutelage of several local gurus.

Years later, one guru arranged for Maniam to meet the famed sitar player Ravi Shankar -- who is credited with introducing Indian-style music to George Harrison and the Beatles -- along with his master tabla player, Ustad Alarakha.

"They came to Singapore to perform. I was just shivering! I was thinking, 'My God, I'm meeting God!' Alarakha looked at me and he touched my fingers, then I saw his pair of tabla lying there. 'Do you want to try?', he asked me.

"I played just a small solo, and then he spoke to my guru in Hindi. I couldn't understand. Later my guru told me, 'He says you've got fantastic fingers. He says you're going to go somewhere! You're going to be a great man one of these days!' So I got both Ravi Shankar's and Alarakha's blessings!"

By the 1970s, Maniam had become a talented local musician and was in hot demand, playing traditional Indian music for radio and television, as well as later touring internationally with multicultural dance and music ensembles.

"It was like a Chinese-Indian-Malay mix. (We'd even) play the Lion Dance, and I'm the one solo player. If somebody asks me, 'Hey guy! You're fantastic! How come you can play (all those styles) like this?' I say, 'Excuse me sir, I'm made in Singapore!'"

Then one fateful evening in the early '90s, Maniam was asked to play a live concert with Jacinta, a local female jazz and soul singer whose albums he had performed on. The venue was Zouk.

"The boss there, he saw everybody applauding (and) is thinking, 'What's this guy, playing with western music, using ethnic instruments?' So he approached me and said, 'Do you like to play house music?' And I said, 'No, sorry. Please leave me alone.'

"Because at that time I was very straightforward. But he said, 'Why don't you come tomorrow for an audition? You may like it!' I halfheartedly said, 'OK.'"

The following day, Maniam got his first taste of house music, as he jammed with Zouk's resident DJ at a sound check. After playing for only eight minutes, the DJ abruptly stopped the music and called the boss to the DJ booth.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe he is unhappy with my drumming?' I couldn't hear, (but in) the console the DJ was saying, 'Oh my God! Where did you get this man from?' Then the boss asked, 'If you don't mind, can you come Friday night and play with the DJ?'"

On Friday Maniam played his first set, followed by the second. Everybody loved it, and he was asked to come back on Saturday. It was something totally new and exciting in the Asian dance club scene! After two to three months, the clubbers were coming back again and again just to see Maniam play, and hear how extraordinarily his drumming enhanced the performance of a DJ.

Maniam explains: "You know what (some world famous DJs) tell me? They say, 'Sh**, I've played with so many percussionists, in UK and the States, man. Nothing clicks with me. So how come with you we don't need to rehearse, no sound check, nothing? You just come out and (it's) right. What's happening with you? What are you, man?'"

These words take on a special mystical significance when one learns that Maniam meditates regularly, and is a staunch devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual guru who passed away in 1918, and once proclaimed that all religions were "different candles, each shedding the same light of God".

"His body's nothing now," says Maniam of Shirdi, "but through the soul (he) wants to help the people, heal the people. Give them lots of love. Bring peace (and) harmony to the world. So before I play I'll always meditate. Get (his) blessings. When people are very happy when I play, (what) I'm doing is healing them through our playing.

"That means I don't play alone! I'm asking him to come into me. Let's play together to heal the people! Please let them listen to this music and let them heal. That half an hour is pure energy coming out from me. This is what's happening!"

Since Maniam is Hindu, and such a naturally gifted musician, we asked him if he thought he had been reincarnated.

Had he possibly been a tabla player in a former life?

He replied, "Thank you for asking such a beautiful question. God bless you, I am...! I don't know all my past karma, (but) in my last birth I might have been a temple musician, playing for the Gods!

"Yes I am...!"

Besides his Zouk residency in Singapore, M.S. Maniam also performs regularly in Jakarta at Musro Nightclub, Hotel Borobudur (021-3842050).