Chances are you may not have heard of the tabla, the tar or the riq, but these are all percussion instruments that Singaporean musician Govin Tan has performed with. At 27, the tabla player has already cemented his position in the ethnic and world music circle. He started his musical journey at the age of five, and, by the time he reached his teens, had already took home the top awards at the National Indian Music Competition twice – in the Tabla Intermediate Category in 2006, and Tabla Open Category in 2008.

Profession aside, what’s interesting about Tan is that he grew up in a musically inclined family, a rarity in Singapore. His elder brother plays the sitar, and his elder sister is a singer who’s also involved in musical theatre. Their father, Tan Thiam Teck, also known by his Hindu name Krsna Lila Dasa, converted to Hinduism in the 1980s, and stayed in India intermittently, during which he learnt to play musical instruments from the masters in the country. The passion for music and the arts that the elder Tan had was subsequently passed down to his children.

Of his wins at the National Indian Music Competition, Tan says: “I was getting a little recognition for being the first non-Indian to play the tabla. But at that time, I was not thinking much about music, but about going to the playground. My father created a group for my brother and I to play in, and slowly we started including all our cousins who played instruments too. Soon the group expanded a little and, with the addition of the violin, pipa, dizi and guzheng, and we started to hold some performances. They were a point of excitement for us not so much due to the music, but because we got to hang out with one another.”

The graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts soon realised that he loved playing the tabla and started searching for his own musical identity. To date, he has performed at numerous international music events, including the World Music Choir Competition in 2009. He also recorded tracks for Eric Khoo’s 2008 production, My Magic, a Tamil language film about love and redemption.

During the Circuit Breaker period, Tan also took part in an online series titled From The Living Room. This recently concluded National Arts Council (NAC) initiative was an avenue to connect Singaporeans with different art forms, despite the closure of public performance spaces. Tan, together with master violinist Kailin Yong, presented exciting new works in the field of ethnic and fusion music for their episode – and what was clear was Tan’s lively enthusiasm for his craft. His effervescence shone not only through his earnestness to explain his inspiration to host Edward Choy, but also via his engrossing performance. (Click here to view the episode.)

Here, the gregarious musican speaks to The Peak and lets us in on his inner world, to explore how far he has come, and where he envisions life will take him.

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Govin Tan performing a solo in Singa Drum Gaia, a programme produced by Nadi Singapura, at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre in 2016. (Photo: Govin Tan)

How did you get your start in music?

I started my musical journey at the age of five. The first instrument I held was a sitar, and I didn’t do so well on it. In fact, I cried a lot, because pressing the strings hurt. The next instrument my father taught me was the sarod. I wasn’t fond of this instrument, either. So, at the age of 12, my father taught me to play the tabla. To me, the tabla has come to symbolise family. My musical journey was ignited by my father because of his love for music. He shared what he loved with his family, and because of this, he is always present in some way in our music.

What was it like growing up in a musically inclined family?

My older brother, Krsna, plays the sitar, and my elder sister is more of a singer. We did a few gigs with my sister, but not much, because she was quite busy with her musical theatre works.

I didn’t have much say in what instrument I wanted to play – after all, my dad decided it for me. But he had said in past interviews that my brother was more outgoing and mischievous, so he gave him the sitar to calm him down, whereas my personality was more quiet, so he gave me drums to bang on! But I guess you can’t really bang on the tabla!

Our practice regimes were very strict when we were young. My dad made sure that we practised daily. After school, we would practise both before and after lunch. If he was satisfied with our progress, we would be able to go to the playground and rest at night. But, on the occasions when he caught us skipping a day of practice, we would have to sit in front of the altar dedicated to Indian deities and practise all night. Our mother would then have to come to our rescue. I can’t remember exactly how long the practice sessions were as we were very young then, but they felt super long.

Today, my brother and I still perform together in our band Flame Of The Forest (FOTF). FOTF was the name of my father’s band back in his day, and we wanted to express gratitude to the person that taught and gave us everything. The band has expanded and we now have one EP, and one album, which are available on iTunes, Spotify and Youtube.

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What other instruments do you play?

I play percussion instruments from around the world. My interest in music and drums was sparked initially by the tabla but, soon, I began to search and discover other types of music. Through this process, I’ve learnt about different drum sounds. Knowing that those percussive sounds were from wholly different cultures intrigued me to go on a journey to learn new instruments. The vast ocean of drums, music, culture – they have given me a whole new perspective of looking at music.

To date, my performances have involved the tabla (from India); the drum-kit, cajon, and pandeiro (from Brazil); the tar and riq (from the Middle East); and the udu (from Nigeria). I am still on this journey of discovery but, for now, my focus is on the instruments from the Middle East.

What has been the most memorable performance for you?

There is something beautiful in every performance but, currently, what I cherish the most are the free performances I am giving with my uncle (a singer/guitarist) and my cousin (a violinist) at old folks’ homes across Singapore. I love making music with my uncle and my best buddy.

What was it like to perform at home for “From The Living Room”?

Firstly, performing at home for the online series is a blessing. Secondly, it was a challenge because we had to acquire recording and videography skills. I am thankful for the opportunity from producer Andy Chia, and even more thankful that NAC is not only helping musicians financially, but also pushing us as artists to develop new skills.

(Related: NAC’s new #SGCultureAnywhere Web series showcases best of local music and dance)

What was it like behind the scenes?

Kailin is such a joy to work with. Most people don’t know my relationship with him – Kai helped me through troubled times in life and music. I am fortunate that he was willing to come aboard on this project.

We decided to do completely new works and present ourselves as a duo. We bounced ideas off each other and that meant we had to record ideas and send them across, since we could not meet up. This was a long, tedious process. Nevertheless, we held on to our musical integrity and I am glad to say that the work came out exactly as what we had in mind.

Do you think it’s important to have a mentor?

In any industry, it is important to have a vision of yourself reaching your goals, and have people who encourage you and point you in the right direction, without stifling your growth. I am fortunate to have friends whom I consider my mentors. They are very encouraging and willing to share whatever they can with me. I aspire to be just like them.

My parents are my pillars of support. Musically, the first person that inspired me was Riduan Zalani from NADI Singapura. He opened my eyes to the world of percussion. Next is Andy Chia from SAtheCollective. He is an awesome musician and a great leader in his own right – he built his team from humble beginnings to what it is today. I am currently an associate artist of SAtheCollective. Next, Yong Kailin, who is a master of the violin, and his emotions. There are too many people to list them all here.

What are your goals?

At present, my goal is to write original songs to try to find myself as a musician, not just a percussionist. What is my sound? What do I like? What do I hear in my head? In the future, hopefully I can come up with my own solo album.

What do you think is a misconception that people have of ethnic music?

I think the misconception is that ethnic music is boring and old. Yes, true traditional music is old, but it’s definitely not boring. There are reasons for why things happened the way they do.

There are loads of music out there that use traditional music instruments in a contemporary way, or maybe even in a “pop” context. I aim to share my love of traditional instruments by modernising its applications, to hopefully bring the spotlight to the ethnic drums of the world.

 (Related: Jewellery specialist and heritage arts patron Edmond Chin on the importance of history)

What do you think of pop?

I listen to a wide range of music from around the world. I do not understand anyone who does not enjoy pop music. The music is good! Arrangements are splendid, with amazing melodic hooks. I love pop music as much as I love other types of music. My favourite pop singer is Ariana Grande – because she’s damn cute!