Malaysian musician has taught Chinese drums to the deaf for 16 years


‘After years of working with the deaf, I have realised the importance of highlighting their abilities rather than their disabilities,’ says Lee (centre). Photos: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

For the past 16 years, visual artist and drummer Lee Mok Yee has been heading to YMCA in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, every Monday night to conduct classes for a special group of students.

As the coach of DeafBeat, Malaysia’s first deaf Chinese drum troupe, Lee doesn’t mind going the extra mile for a good cause. He has eight deaf students under his wing, and he wants to showcase their abilities and foster a world of inclusive artistic expression.

DeafBeat, formed in 2007, is a project by YMCA’s Pusat Majudiri ‘Y’ for the Deaf, a centre related to the development of the deaf community. The music band has trained over 40 drummers to date, with members aged between 26 and 48.

“I started out as a DeafBeat volunteer coach and drummer when I joined contemporary drumming movement Hands Percussion in 2006. The following year, I helped Hands Percussion founder and artistic director Bernard Goh to coach DeafBeat members, and became the group’s main coach six years later (2013).

“After coaching DeafBeat for 16 years, I think they have so much potential. And it’s really inspiring to present their talents in a performance. It’s interesting how art can be cultivated with the combination of a loud instrument and a quiet community,” said Lee during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Teaching drums to the deaf is fascinating as it uncovers the drummers’ hidden potential.Teaching drums to the deaf is fascinating as it uncovers the drummers’ hidden potential.

In 16 years, DeafBeat has performed both locally and internationally, including at Si Xian Elementary School in Taipei in 2014, the 2016 Brave Festival in Poland, and the 2022 Sambhav (Virtual) in New Delhi. Sambhav is an Indian non-profit organisation that advocates the advancement of persons with disabilities through inclusive arts.

Lee’s dedication to these special drummers goes beyond imparting percussion techniques. He sees their potential and wants to hone their strengths that defy traditional limitations.

“Despite their disability, they are a committed and determined group of musicians. And this is what I admire most about them. They are very visual individuals. It’s my responsibility to let them ‘see’ and feel the music despite their disability,” said Lee, who learned the 24 Festive Drums (an art form with Malaysian origins) in high school. A former student of Chong Hwa Independent High School in KL, Lee has performed at musical festivals in Taiwan, Bali, Indonesia, and Hawaii, the United States.

Lee (second from right) wants to educate the community about deaf culture.Lee (second from right) wants to educate the community about deaf culture.

Silent thunder

Many may wonder how deaf performers manage to drum in sync without being able to hear. These musicians can play instruments like drums, percussion and piano by focusing on the touch sensors and visual cues associated with playing.

They play certain instruments by feeling vibrations, using visual cues and exploring the tactile aspects of instruments.

“Teaching drums to the deaf is fascinating as it uncovers the deaf drummers’ hidden potential. Through tactile sensations and visual cues, these individuals can experience unique rhythms despite their disability. It further proves that the universal language of music transcends auditory boundaries,” Lee shared.

Marcus Ng (left) and Loh Han Pang are deaf percussionists who have not allowed their disability to stop them from pursuing their passion. Photo: Marcus NgMarcus Ng (left) and Loh Han Pang are deaf percussionists who have not allowed their disability to stop them from pursuing their passion. Photo: Marcus Ng

The training sessions are held in the Lotus Room, a mini hall in YMCA’s four-storey building. The room is equipped with a low ceiling and wooden flooring. Lee said this is the most ideal setting as it allows the deaf to feel the strong vibrations of the Chinese drums through the floor.

“When the deaf start learning drums, we teach them basic music scores so they can understand the drum pattern. Deaf drummers can touch the drum surface to experience vibrations. Sometimes, we pat their back so they understand how fast or slow the tempo is.

“Surprisingly, deaf drummers have more consistency on tempo. Based on my experience, some drummers can memorise drumming beats by feeling the vibration. But generally, most of them remember the tempo by movement and visuals.”

Harry Chong, the leader of DeafBeat, during a practice session.Harry Chong, the leader of DeafBeat, during a practice session.It is interesting how Lee manages to communicate with his students even though he isn’t well-versed in sign language or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM).

“I have learned a few BIM gestures. Over the years, my special musicians kind of understand my gesture and body language. Perhaps that’s why my sign language hasn’t improved all these years,” laughed Lee.

“I’ve worked with both the hearing and deaf community for years, and I find that sign language is exceptionally effective.

“It encourages attentive and visual communication, where I must closely observe to fully understand the deaf’s intended message.”

Empowering the deaf

When Lee first started coaching the team, the primary goal was to inspire his students to play the drums with the same prowess as their hearing counterparts. At that time, their primary focus was to demonstrate that their disability should not stand in the way of reaching greater heights.

“However, after years spent with them, I have realised the importance of highlighting their abilities rather than their disabilities. This encompasses not only their musical talents but also their expressive gestures and emotive facial performances during our shows.

“We want to encourage more performances like these to allow them to showcase their talents, focusing on vibration, sign language and empowerment. More importantly, we want to educate the community about deaf culture, which celebrates deafness as a distinctive way of being rather than a disability, fostering pride in their identity.”

DeafBeat’s Sound of Silent Dreams performance at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in 2009. Photo: FilepicDeafBeat’s Sound of Silent Dreams performance at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in 2009. Photo: Filepic

Lee also tailors the training methods to accommodate the different learning styles of the deaf.

“We have some basic repertoire that all the drummers need to learn. The purpose is to let everyone have the same approach. From time to time, a new repertoire is created based on their ability. For example, for the same drumming pattern, we might have the complicated or simplified version, so everyone can pick up the learning.

“Every drummer has a different method of learning, and my biggest challenge is to observe their respective styles. Another issue is getting them to play in unison. This requires lots of patience and time.

“But compared to a normal hearing student, I think deaf drummers pay more attention to my teaching, as we need to look at each other to communicate,” said Lee.

In addition to performances at local and international festivals, the group has also held a number of concerts too, including Pulsing Spirit (2008), Sound of Silent Dreams (2009) and DeafBeat 10th Anniversary Concert (2017).

Deaf musicians can play instruments like drums, percussion, and piano by focusing on the touch sensors and visual cues associated with playing.Deaf musicians can play instruments like drums, percussion, and piano by focusing on the touch sensors and visual cues associated with playing.

DeafBeat members have also extended their reach by organising workshops and sharing their expertise in playing the Chinese drums across the country.

“We have held workshops in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Johor since 2021, and the response was really good. Participants managed to communicate with the deaf and they learned the drums by observing the gesture of the instructors.

“We want to let the public understand the deaf more, create a moment that everyone communicates with body language and expression.”

Lee’s idea is to promote deaf culture by using drumming, create an aesthetic belonging to deaf culture, and educate the public about this special needs community.

“Besides communicating through BIM, we want to expose Malaysians to how the deaf can communicate through music and movement. We have plans to work with dance expertise on how the deaf can ‘listen’ and dance to music,” he said.


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