SINGAPORE: Piratheeban Kernabalan, 18, was uncontrollable as a child, and most of his teachers thought he was a negative influence on the other students. By his own admission, he “couldn’t be tamed”.
He normally turned up late and never did his homework, for which one teacher would kick him out of class.
His classmates used to bully him, and he usually sat alone during recess because he hardly had friends at primary and secondary school.
“If there was a military school, I’d have sent him there,” said his father G Kernabalan, 53, who himself was a student at the now defunct Singapore Armed Forces Boys’ School.
But even he had his doubts that a military school would have found it easy to discipline his son, who is featured in the Channel NewsAsia series Unusual Suspects, about Singaporeans who have made their mark in unconventional fields.
Piratheeban’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) meant that he lacked focus in almost all areas of life - except in one thing.
And for that one passion of his, he worked so hard that he became the best in Asia.
At the age of 17, he won the Asia Beatbox Championships 2016. He cried when it happened. The most challenging times of his life were over.
FINDING AN OUTLET
Beatboxing is the art of creating music using only the mouth, throat and nose. The term “beatbox” literally means “drum machine”. Over the years, it has transformed from the sole replication of drums and sound effects into full-blown musical performances.
Piratheeban got into beatboxing when he was around 11, looking up videos of beatboxers on YouTube. Intrigued by the sounds they were making, he was drawn in immediately.
“I started copying the sounds, and it just became another part of me because it was a really good outlet for my ADHD,” he said.
“It’s that kind of feeling where you know you can do something non-stop because it just inspires you more.”
While beatboxing helped him to express himself, to others, it was just more antics of a hyperactive boy. He would practise everywhere, including in class, which annoyed other students.
They’d just make fun of me. They’d just push me away,
said the teenager, who would then watch YouTube videos by himself during recess. “So that’s why I started to be alone, lah. It was fine,” he continued, shrugging. “That made my beatboxing grow … because I just kept (doing it).”
Even his family was confused about the noises he was making. His mother hated it, thinking he would “spit here, spit there” for no reason.
But that changed when he was 13 and performed publicly, with a microphone, at one of his cousins’ birthday party.
“When you hear (beatboxing) without the mic and with the mic, it’s entirely different… All of us were stunned,” said Mr Kernabalan.
“If you do it on a mic in a proper setting, then you can really know what beatboxing is. Then we realised he had this talent.”
FROM LAST TO REGIONAL CHAMP
Accompanied by his parents, Piratheeban went on to take part in okto channel’s One Minute of Fame in 2013, which the then 14-year-old won before going on to claim the Singapore Beatbox Battle Championships title in 2015 and last year.
His beatboxing journey, however, was not always smooth sailing. He had come last in his very first beatbox battle and “was really angry” at the result, he recalled.
It pushed him to try harder and win a competition because, as he says, “I want to achieve victory in anything I do.”
But that chance did not come as quickly as he would have liked, as there were no more local battles until he was 16. When it did, he eventually came second.
“I was like, ‘Wah, if I could get second place, I should keep on practicing because I could win,’” he said.
The perseverance that then brought him victories on home soil was much needed when he qualified for last year’s Asia Beatbox Championships, as it was his first regional battle.
“I was the underdog. I wasn’t really known yet at that point of time,” he said. “I wasn’t a favourite among the fans.”
But he made it to the final, where he was up against Chuan, the Taiwanese vice-champion on home ground, which meant a battle against the odds for the Singaporean.
To Piratheeban’s surprise, it ended in a tie, so it went into sudden death, that is to say, 30 seconds to perform and win it all. And that 30 seconds made all the difference.
One thing about beatbox battles is that competitors should not repeat their routines from the earlier rounds.
But the Taiwanese made that mistake, whereas Piratheeban winged it with a routine he came up with on the same day while going to buy a burger.
“It was a really weak thing, but because it was… different, I was able to get the win,” he said modestly. “And till today, I loved that experience.”
WATCH: Here him to believe him. (5:07)
NO LONGER ALONE
Beatboxing gave him titles, but it also gave him much more than that. For one thing, it gave him a community of “brothers and sisters”, which meant he was no longer alone.
(My beatboxing friends) have a very positive outlook on life, so they have very good vibes on them.
His father, who used to tag along for his overseas battles whenever he could, agrees that there is a bond among beatboxers.
“I saw a lot of beatboxers, and the interesting thing was they were willing to teach if another beatboxer asked them,” said Mr Kernabalan. “They didn’t feel that somebody was stealing (their) talent.
“That's the thing I like about beatboxing: The community itself.”
And that community who shared their tips with Piratheeban also picked up his spirits after he broke up with his girlfriend last year.
He was feeling down, he admitted, and over the months, his beatboxing started to suffer, so much so that he “couldn’t do any new routines”. “I had nothing,” he said.
During that time, he entered a competition but was “so demotivated” that he made it only to the top eight. His beatboxer friends then asked him: “Are you sure you want to lose your beatboxing just for a girl?”
And that brought him back to focusing on his passion.
A FATHER’S BELIEF
Beatboxing has also brought him and his father closer together.
Mr Kernabalan, a military expert in the air force, used to be very strict with Piratheeban, but as time went by, he became more lenient because he was happy that his hyperactive son had found his passion. Said Piratheeban:
If you’re very supportive of what your children do, it makes (them) feel like they’re part of you, and that’s a very good thing, (And so) I have to look up to Pa.
His father has helped in many ways, such as funding his expenses for international tournaments, even though it meant tight budgets for the family of four on those occasions. Mr Kernabalan even took loans to support his son.
“He’s clearly into beatboxing, so if I can support him, I’ll support him,” said Mr Kernabalan.
Piratheeban knows that some of his relatives and family friends cannot understand why his father has been supporting what seems to be a shaky dream.
“A lot of criticism I heard was … (my) father’s just wasting time letting (me) go for all this,” said Piratheeban. “But I’m sure there’ll be a day I repay him.” To which his father jokes, “I’m waiting.”
Their close relationship comes across clearly, and so too does Mr Kernabalan’s belief in his son’s potential. “Piratheeban can go very far. Once he breaks through, there’s nothing stopping him,” said the father.
RECOGNITION IS A CHALLENGE
In his son’s eyes, however, there is one major challenge. “Singapore’s beatbox community is super-duper small,” said Piratheeban. “It’s hard to see beatboxing go far... Even the Singapore Beatbox Association is struggling to get sponsors.”
He reckons that there are about 70 to 100 beatboxers here and that “not a lot of people are dedicated to learning beatboxing”, as it is hard to learn.
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) student has also faced problems with his attendance at school when he has to leave for overseas battles.
“ITE comes to me and says, ‘Because you’re not representing ITE, you’re not allowed to go… If you go, you’ll be penalised for absence without a valid reason,” he griped.
His father attests to this. “He does well (in) ITE and… so far the only complaints we have is about his absences,” said Mr Kernabalan.
His grades are very good, and the only thing that was pulling (him back) was his attendance.
Piratheeban is resigned to the current situation for beatboxers here. “What am I going to do if beatboxing isn’t that recognised, if the Government doesn’t recognise (it)?” he questioned.
That is why he doubts that more Singaporeans will appreciate his craft.
These days, however, he is not focused solely on beatboxing. The information technology student also wants to be more responsible at school.
“You get a new environment, new friends, everything just changes,” he explained. “I really want to start studying. Even if I go overseas (for tournaments), I want to study.”
He still goes to school late, but sometimes he does go early, he said earnestly.
As for his beatboxing, this year he did not manage to retain his Asian title, but he has set his sights on bigger things like the Beatbox Battle World Championships.
“I want my passion to be my career, so I want to win as much as I can and be recognised to the point that I can get paid for it,” he declared.
While he has been winning prize money, some of which he gives back to his father, he admits that he spends most of it on himself. “He never keeps it for the next tournament,” his father complained in jest.
But as a sign of his newfound maturity, Piratheeban has been trying to find gigs to earn some money. And this is what goes to his savings for the “big battles”.
His father never lost faith that he would make good as long as he puts his mind to it.
“He can study well… and do (beatboxing) also. He can focus,” said Mr Kernabalan. “(And) when it comes to beatboxing, I’m really proud of him.”
Watch this episode, and stories of other Singaporean underdogs who have found success in unconventional ways, on the series Unusual Suspects here.