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Using music as a platform for social change

SINGAPORE — He used to be scolded for being a nuisance because he liked to pound out beats on tables during his school days, but Mr Arthur Choo has since turned his love of rhythms and percussion into something much bigger.

Social entrepreneur and artiste Arthur Choo uses music to communicate with and impart values such as teamwork and resilience to at-risk youth, the aged and members of Singapore’s disabled community. He finds that music, being a universal language, is an invaluable tool with which to forge friendships and bridge communities — key elements of social defence. Photo: Toh Ee Ming

Social entrepreneur and artiste Arthur Choo uses music to communicate with and impart values such as teamwork and resilience to at-risk youth, the aged and members of Singapore’s disabled community. He finds that music, being a universal language, is an invaluable tool with which to forge friendships and bridge communities — key elements of social defence. Photo: Toh Ee Ming

SINGAPORE — He used to be scolded for being a nuisance because he liked to pound out beats on tables during his school days, but Mr Arthur Choo has since turned his love of rhythms and percussion into something much bigger.

Using music as a platform for social change is something he considers his contribution to “social defence”, Mr Choo said in an interview ahead of Total Defence Day on Feb 15.

The 30-year-old social entrepreneur and artiste now reaches out to those on society’s margins — be they youth-at-risk, the aged or members of the disabled community — bonding with them through music.

Initially, Mr Choo never thought he would make a career of it, having had no formal music training.

The turning point came after an ex-business partner ran away with close to S$40,000 of his savings, shortly after he started his own automobile company when he was 18. Deep in debt, he soon became depressed.

However, his passion for hand percussion gave him the “courage and boldness to dare to dream again”, he said, and so he set up Beat’abox in 2011. “I told myself, in business, it’s not just about bringing money in but using music to bring about friendships and a sense of community,” he told TODAY.

Together with a few friends, Mr Choo played the cajon — a wooden box played like a drum — outside a community club. This eventually landed them their first paid gig to perform as part of a basketball cheerleading group.

What started out as an interest group has now grown into a full-fledged cajon school which also produces its own cajons.

Beat’abox conducts cajon and percussion workshops in various companies and schools such as Ang Mo Kio Secondary, Singapore Boys’ Home and Lighthouse School, and Mr Choo hopes he will be able to give people a stage on which to perform and showcase their talents.

He holds outreach efforts to at-risk youth in secondary schools particularly close to his heart, having undergone similar experiences where he got into bad company in his younger days.

He uses music as a “channel” to communicate with and impart values such as teamwork and resilience to such youth, he said.

For instance, when he is asked whether his hands hurt while playing the cymbals, Mr Choo tells them, “Starting out, it can be very painful, and when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it’s not easy, it can hurt.

“But when you practise it repeatedly and don’t give up in fulfilling your passion, later on, it becomes a natural thing and isn’t painful anymore.”

Adding that he takes the time to get to know them outside of the workshops, such as at basketball or street football sessions, he said, “It’s about giving them a purpose and a dream.

“Music is just a tool for me to communicate with them, and through the sharing ... they can have a new perspective about life.”

Looking to push the envelope for cajon-playing as an art form, he has also customised cajons for people with disabilities, such as instruments for the hearing-impaired that light up when struck, or smaller cajons that can fit on the laps of wheelchair users.

Mr Choo dreams of one day putting his company on the world map as a leading cajon organisation in Asia and reaching more people.

People from as far away as Peru, China and the Middle East sometimes ask about his music on social media, and he finds that music, as a “universal language”, is the key to forging friendships and bridging communities — people who might otherwise not have had that interaction.

This is, to him, a key element of social defence.

“To be a strong nation is about standing as one and (building) the relationships we have with one another, so music is an important channel, a common language where everyone can reach a common goal,” he said.

“My role is to see that Singapore grows in that area, to work towards a new generation of youth focused on volunteerism, to bridge the gap between different groups.

“By actively working together and playing music ... we’re more transparent with one another, communicate more ... and it builds more trust and understanding.”

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