To the casual observer, the small pendant that sometimes hangs around Mr Kelvin Kew’s neck may not seem significant.

But to Mr Kew, 34, the well-worn silver charm, cast in the shape of the djembe — a goblet-shaped African hand drum — means the world.

It is where his passion lies, he says.

For nearly a decade, he has been faithfully teaching and playing the djembe at Lila Drums Productions, a school which he set up in 2004.


A uniquely expressive drum

He was first introduced to the djembe during his teens, when he joined the percussion band at a community club (CC).

A 17-year-old former school band percussionist then, he did not think much of the instrument as there were other hand percussion such as the conga and the doumbek that interested him.

“At that time, the djembe was just a nice drum for me to bang on. I just played it like how I would with other drum types,” he recalls.

It was only later, when he took up a three-month percussion course at the Los Angeles Music Academy in the United States after completing national service, that the djembe truly caught his eye. 

Taught the proper way of playing the hand drum, Mr Kew gained a newfound respect for the instrument.

“There was just something so real, so expressive about it that touched me deep inside. No other instrument had ever resonated in me this way,” he says.

Creative teaching methods

A few years after his return to Singapore, he started teaching the djembe full-time — something nobody had done.

“Because I was the first djembe teacher in Singapore, I was really on my own. There was no ‘textbook’ to guide me in setting up this business,” he says.

His first move was to rent a 600 sq ft unit at Peninsula Plaza, as the centralised location would be more convenient for his students.

Still, one challenge remained — who would sign up for classes?

To spread awareness, Mr Kew conducted free drumming sessions for the public and participated in as many roadshows as he could. In between, he worked as a freelance percussionist to make ends meet.

His hard work paid off. Soon, people started paying for lessons and performances.

He also started using the djembe innovatively for corporate team-building exercises.

Through these sessions, participants would learn how to combine rhythms with one another to form a drum song.

“If I restrict myself to the traditional way of playing the djembe, I’m not opening myself up to job opportunities. I needed to be creative in the way I use the instrument without compromising the origins of the art form,” he says.

It was also then that he started training for two years under djembe guru Mamady Keita.

Part of the training required him to learn the drums in the African country of Guinea for a month before he was certified as a djembe teacher by Mr Keita’s West African drumming school, Tam Tam Mandingue.

Things were looking up. However, in 2006, he made a wrong business move by moving to a bigger 1,500 sq ft studio at The Adelphi. He had to move out after six months because it was operating at a loss. Despondent, he was prepared to give up.

A friend who owned a music studio let him rent a space there at a subsidised rate. The generous gesture allowed him to continue with Lila Drums Productions.

A year later, he was able to set up a new studio at Kallang CC.

Mr Kew is constantly re-inventing himself. Last year, he helped to establish and implement an international grading system for Tam Tam Mandingue’s djembe curriculum.

This has helped open up new avenues for him to promote the djembe curriculum in most parts of Asia, including China.

He is grateful for what he has experienced in his journey so far.

“I’ve been very blessed. It can sometimes be hard for musicians to find the success they are looking for. But I am very lucky that I did.”

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