PhD graduate & ex-research scientist turned full-time music producer (Ft. Dr Kang Kee)

PhD graduate & ex-research scientist turned full-time music producer (Ft. Dr Kang Kee)

As part of the Faces Of Vesak series, we met with Dr Kang Kee who left his job as a research scientist in order to create a social impact to the community. We learned about what inspires him to keep going on after more than 10 years, and how Buddhist music has helped make a difference in people’s lives.

The contents of this article are extracted from a podcast interview with Bro Kang Kee. Listen to the full episode here:

Photo of Dr Ng Kang Kee, co-founder of Happy Studio, on the second left

Q: Tell us more about yourself and how you got started.

I grew up in Malaysia. When I was in secondary school, I joined Buddhist groups, and also a Buddhist society in school. At the same time, that’s where I learned guitar and songwriting. And because of that, I have a lot of opportunity to share my compositions with my fellow Buddhist friends in the circle. And eventually I was spotted by some teachers. And they brought me to a bigger platform where I could share all my songs and so on. That’s where I started to build my passion in music.

And this is a good platform because at the same time, I learned that music is a very effective tools to bring positive message to people. After that, I graduated as an engineer, I came back from the states. I studied in a U.S university, graduated from there, then I came back, I worked as engineers for a few years before I became a full-time music producer for eight months in Malaysia.

But it didn’t work out because I think it’s very hard to survive as a full-time music producer. So after eight months, I went back to being an engineer. That’s when I travelled to Singapore. And subsequently, I have been here in Singapore as an engineer and as a research scientist for about maybe 17 years. After which, I became a full time music producer again because mainly because of the passions that I have in music, and also the belief that music can be a very good tool to bring positive message to people.

Q: From being a research scientist to a musician, and to be doing it full time. That’s quite a big transition. Considering that it is quite tough to make a living in the music industry, what motivated you to take that leap to come back to pursue music again? After 17 years, what changed?

Nothing changed that is why I came back again – My mentality and the passions in music didn’t change. But of course, this time, I am definitely more mature. There were a lot more considerations to make, but this is more of a personal decision made at the right time.


Given the conditions at the time when I made this decision (to be a full-time music producer), the conditions and the decisions that I have made were an accumulation of the effort I’ve put in for the past 20 years.
In the past, on top of my full-time career, I would continuously spend my free time to acquire music production knowledge and to work on a lot of different activities and projects for the Buddhist community to continue to do music, to find interest, to work with different people in the music production ecosystem.
All those things lead to the eventual formation of Happy Productions today. Hence, it wasn’t a sudden decision. Rather, it took continuous effort, and when the conditions were right, when the conditions matured, then I made this decision and transit over to become a full-time musician.

Of course, when I planted these seeds 20 years ago, I never had a firm decision that one one day, I would become a full-time music producer. It was an accumulation of conditions led to this decision. I just followed the flow and gave it a try.

Q: Tell us more about why you chose music as a tool to create impact. You could have shared the Dhamma or build a community through other different means such as writing, podcasts, and different formats. Why music?

This is definitely because of my passion and my background. As I mentioned, I started learning music in the Buddhist environment, so I have become attached (to this way of creating impact).

There were a few moments from the past that left a deep impression in my mind. For example, when we graduated, our teachers gave us a space to share our songs with a thousand audiences. The moment when people clapped along with the song, it showed that they were in the moment, and that they were touched by the message of the song. Such a moment etched in my mind and that gave rise to the idea of that I wish to continue to do this.


I also followed the footsteps of the teachers that I’ve learned from. I have a lot of good teachers as I was growing up. They’re all laypeople. Despite their full-time jobs, they sacrificed their free time for us. When we were teenagers, sometimes they had to follow us to disco until midnight. After midnight, they would make tea and drink the tea with us, and talk to us about our problems. I wish that I can do the same for the current youths. I’m motivated to continue to use music as a tool because it is the most effective tool that I have learned so far.

Q: Out of all of the songs that you have produced or have written, is there any one that is very close to heart, or any one that has a special meaning to you?

Every song that I composed definitely has some meaning to me. But as a creative in the creative line, there is a constant doubt whether the songs I wrote are the best I could have written, or whether the melodies are the best, or whether the audio mixing is the best that I could get and so on. But usually those moments are created because of their responses to the songs that I wrote. The important moment for me is when these songs are shared with people and the songs become a part of them.


There is one recent example. I have a very good friend, a very young friend who just passed away a few days ago. For the past five to six years, we organised compositions camps with the youth group in Sarawak, Malaysia. And there was this really talented young boy. He got straight A’s for SPM, which is the equivalent of the O level in Singapore. It was his first semester in the University of Malaysia when he passed away. He collapsed during his sports exercise and passed away.


He joined our composition camp and wrote a song with the team. That song is about home. Because he traveled, he wrote the song for his family. During his funeral, the group of youths sang the song together.
That was a very important moment for me. Although the song was not written by me, but I’m part of the seed that created all these things and eventually become a very important moment for the Buddhist youth group, and also hopefully for him.


There is also a friend that I met in an organisation who approached me when she came to know that I wrote a song called 生命中的朋友. She said that she has a sister who suddenly fell into coma. But when they played the song, the sister would response. This is probably because the sister was very active in the Buddhist activities before, and 生命中的朋友 is one of their favourite songs.


When this friend shared this story with me, it became a very big motivation for me (to continue my music work). I am not saying this because I’m proud. I am very humbled that I can have this opportunity to contribute and put some meanings into the songs I write and make them a part of the lives’ of others. This actually reminded me that I need to create more positive songs rather than commercial songs in order to influence a lot more people with music.

In fact, in current world, we can command a lot of useful tools that can influence a lot of people. Every single person can download some software and make music. Everyone can bring a camera and start recording videos, and so on. When we have all these powerful tools, including technology, we need to be more conscious about what we can do about them and understand the effects that we can create for other people.
The important messages that I learned through my experiences is when you command something, you can really influence people, and we need to start thinking about the type of impact make. And by knowing that, and if you are on the right path, you are doing something good to the world. Then, you would need to be more hardworking in learning and polishing your expertise in order to create something that is more useful to the people.


We are in a constant stream of fighting against all the other commercials in order to make people know of these (wholesome) messages, to make people appreciate and listen, or watch more of such good content. So it is more important that we acquire all this knowledge and tools, so that we can create something useful and important content for people.

Q: Sometimes, meaningful songs might not appeal to a wide audience as compared to songs that are shallow. How do you balance that out in your creative process?

I try not to think about it. I believe that they are good contents that can become viral as well. Of course, it requires a different skillset. Sometimes a viral track might not contain a 100% meaningful content. It may become viral for a very short time, but I believe a piece of good content can stay for a very long time. And you can accumulate audiences over a longer time period.

Sometimes a piece of viral content will be relevant for one or two weeks or maybe months. But a piece of good content, can be relevant for 10 or 20 years with a lot of people benefitting from it. I think there is still motivation (to produce meaningful songs) and we have to cultivate such motivation. Hence, all my planning has to be for the long term instead of the short term. There are some adjustment that we need to do. It’s just like the Handful Of Leaves, you need to plan for long term as well.

Q: Where do you usually get your inspiration to write a song such as 生命中的朋友 (the friends in your life)? The song contains very meaningful lyrics about companionship, no longer feeling lonely and having hope.

生命中的朋友 is actually the theme song for the Buddhist youth group. I think it was around the year 2004, I joined the Buddhist youth group and become the one of the committee members. This song was actually written by Reverend. After which, I composed the melodies. We used this song in the Buddhist camp.  I remember it was the third day of the camp. I went home early in the morning to bring something, and when I returned to the camp, I saw the youths have fallen asleep. They were tired from the two days of activities and laying there. Some haven’t yet changed into their pyjamas. Somehow that moment became very touching to me. I felt that I can instil an important moment into them. Some of them are still in Buddhist circle and are contributing. Hence, this song (生命中的朋友) is for them. 

There are a few other songs that there are in the album such as one song called 生气时停一停. It means that when you’re angry, stop. I wrote that because I quarrelled with my wife the other day and I told myself that I should stop. However, this song turned out to be useful for the for the Buddhist youth group as well. During their normal activities, I would share this song with them, share some message about anger management. 

There is another song I wrote called 转变 (change). It’s about 无常, which means impermanence. Eventually, we turned them into an album and share them with a lot more people.

I think the important thing is that I am not numbed by the so called ‘adult-world’. I continue to have a lot of small moments that inspire me, that touch me. From there, I can start creating and I can continue to have all these inspirations to write songs.

Q: Share with us more about the power of songs and how it can impact lives.

I think that the lyrics can sometimes touch people deeply. For example, the album that I produced recently, the lyrics are all written by the youths. But they can write something such as 把佛教扛在我们的肩上 (Carry the Buddhist teachings on our shoulders). They are just secondary school students about 15 or 16 years old, but they could write lyrics (as profound) like that. Sometimes this inspires me a lot. There are a lot of good lyrics such as: I travel around the world, I see all the world, but the things that I worry the most is, I have the feeling of missing home.

Actually, this song that was written by that young friend who just passed away.  During the production, we have some electric guitars, very rock electric guitars running at the background to show that feeling of missing home.  When I heard this news (about his passing), we were around the final production and the mixing stage. Typically people would lower the volume of the guitar so that the vocals can appear more clearly to people. However, during the final production, I purposely didn’t want to lower volume of the guitars in order to communicate the message that we are living in a very harsh world. I was hoping that people can understand that.

Music is a very powerful tools for young people. Because you remember when we are young, when we were in secondary school, we always remember there’s one song that would bring back the memories.  But when we become adults, music becomes something that we use to cool ourselves down (play at the background), that we can play on Spotify. They become less meaningful to us. This might be because we have a lot more things to consider. Our adrenaline at this moment in time is less as compared to our younger days and our emotions may not be as easily aroused by music. But those were beautiful moments. When we were young, we are easily aroused and very easily touched by people. I think those are very important moments for us to develop our character.

Q: When we walk the path of the Dhamma, we are after peace. And music seems to be against peace because with the instruments and melodies we get hyped up and have our emotions stirred up. How do you reconcile the spiritual practice with music?

When it comes to learning the Dharma, I do agree that music can make you more emotional, and make you less at peace sometimes. Hence, if I want to learn the Dharma, probably, one day I should give up music. 

However, I think music can be used for different purposes. For example, the music that I mostly create for the youths is with the purpose of attracting them to join the circle and to join the community to make friends. From the community, they can get to know a reverend. And eventually when they meet with troubles, they would have a lot of good friends and teachers to help them. So on that part, there is less limitation in the kind of music I can produce. I could do a pop song or even hip hop. But, of course the content needs to be appropriate for these type of genres. 

Actually, I can give up music now if I want to. But I continue to find that music is meaningful tool that I can use to inspire more people to come into the circle. But if I am already in the circle, and if I want to learn the Dharma, I don’t need music to that.

It is just like, when we want to eat, we need a bowl and we need fork and spoon, and so on. So, when we want to inspire some layperson to come into the circle, music can be a good tool that we can use. So I will just take it as a tool in that way. And people might say that, in that case, you become very 假 (fake), because (the songs are) not (written based on) true feelings. I do believe that at my age now, it is very difficult for me to write a suitable songs for the youths. This is because I’m at a different stage of life right now. So, for me to continue able to write songs that relate to the young ones, I would need to be in their circle and be in their youth environment. And because I have passion in it, I continue  to create these kinds of environments, and I’m also trying to learn from the younger generation.

When we do composition camps with them, they have melodies that would surprise me sometimes. And from that, I learn from them as well.  I think all these are means that we use to help people to get into the circles. But it’s not the ultimate target for individuals to attain Buddhahood or to learn Dharma. And that’s fine.

Q: What’s your aspiration for the Buddhist music scene?

There are a lot more things that we can do in the music scene. To continue to inspire more people into our circles is very important. This way, we can have a very well developed ecosystem. That is because music is also an industry which requires a lot of professions. We need talented musicians, arrangers, and on the technical side, we need to have very good audio engineers and mixing engineers and so on. All these require expertise. 

I think we still need to do a lot of work to build this ecosystem now in order to have people more focused on understanding Buddhist music and how they can use, for example, audio mixing technologies to improve and achieve the objective of Buddhist music and so on.  We also need to be more flexible in our content in order for the market to grow bigger and to attract more people to come in.

I do have difficulties finding some good musicians coming in to our studio and help us in Buddhist music production due to religious matters.  I hope that in future we can have more talented people join us, and that we can have different varieties of music made available. For example, some music can calm you down, there’s music that can inspire you to learn the Dharma, but there should also be some music that can attract the youths, some music that is interesting for children, some that can be sung along during activities with everyone clapping, dancing and shouting together. These are the kinds of music we can create.

Q: How can one start contributing to the scene?

Get a degree in music. (joking) They can call me. We are continuing our efforts in conducting composition camps. We also work with organisations like Singapore Buddhist Mission (SBM) for concerts and so on. These are activities that we can do to help organisations to inspire the younger generations to like music and continue their effort in this. 

That’s why, if this possible, I hope that a lot of organisations can come to realise the importance of this area and continue to put in some effort and energy to create these kinds of activities to inspire the younger generation. There can also be some kind of Buddhist music awards, so that we can continue to inspire people to come into the circle and allow this to become their profession.

Q: How can one can get in touch with you and join any upcoming composition camps?

We did sign up some artists and they produced their EP and singles. Those are almost like pop music. But it reflects the what people think of the current trend. For example, there are songs about working from nine to five that kind of feeling and still able to chase their dreams. These are the kinds of messages that we continue to share.

Le Music is also a good platform for us to continue to use music as a tool to help people, hopefully. Because now we are in a very fast paced society. And we don’t have time to stop and think about what is happening around us and what we should do next. So I hope that love music can be a platform for people to listen to some music and hopefully triggers or remind them that they can do something different thing in a very fast paced world, they can still refresh and do something that is meaningful for themselves.


Life lessons from Buddhist Music (Ft BuddySings!)

Life lessons from Buddhist Music (Ft BuddySings!)

As part of the Faces Of Vesak series, our podcast host spoke with the lead singer Pauline and the guitarist Kelvin from BuddySings!, a youth band that sprouted from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society (BUBS) in Malaysia.

The contents of this article are extracted from a podcast interview with them. Listen to the full episode here:

Cheryl: Tell us more about yourself and BuddySings!

Pauline: I’m one of the co-founders of BuddySings! and am currently the leader of the team.

Kelvin: I do most of the music production and arrangement in Buddysings!

Buddysings! is an outlet for us to share the joy and the values of Dharma through music. Music acts as a stepping stone for people to learn the Dharma.

Cheryl: How would you describe BuddySings! in three words?

Kelvin:

I’ll be more mainstream and say, music, fellowship, as well as learning.

Our events and programmes are all focused around music. Hence, music.

Fellowship because a lot of what we do is really centred around doing things together. As human beings, it’s very difficult for us to do things on our own. We always need to learn from each other and to actually do things together to split the workload. There’s a lot of fellowship involved in that and learning how to work with people learning how to enjoy accomplishments together.

Lastly, learning because there’s much more to running these things or any content creation platform than what meets the eye. You know, all the ins and outs, the tiny little things that the audience does not see. So there’s a lot of learnings in that area.

Pauline:

Wow. Great answer. Those three words just covered everything.

For me, I would say the first thing that popped up in my mind was roller coaster because we face a lot of ups and downs. This is especially so during the pandemic. It affected us a lot. But we also have the good times.

The second word, I would use to describe BuddySings! is experience. Similar to what Kelvin said, I really learnt a lot, especially from Kelvin, about audio production. I didn’t know so much technicalities go behind recording.

The third word is family. This is because through working together, I really got to know the teammates. And I enjoy the time that we spend after practice. We would go to McDonald’s to hang out and chit chat. I would say that it’s a time well spent that for me.

Cheryl: I really love the three words that both of you have shared with me. BuddySings! is beyond the end product, it is about the journey, the fellowship, and creating music that inspires people.

For me, from an audience point of view, the three words that came to mind was really fun, energetic and fresh. I watched your life mini concert, and was listening to the song Kattanuta, I felt it’s very new. Because we grew up in the era of Igemz, with the ‘old songs’, it has been a long time since we’ve seen such fresh music. Just seeing all of you come together and have fun on stage was fresh. So thank you for the music that you bring. I could really see that that strong bond that all of you have with each other.

Pauline:

It’s been about 10 years since we have new English (Buddhist) music. So, yes I do feel that ‘fresh’ is a good word to describe what we do. In the beginning, we were a bit worried, because it’s something so new — in terms of the arrangement, and in terms of the technology that we use in audio production.

Because everything was more modernised, we were a little bit worried about how people would perceive this, especially in the Buddhist community. However, we received good feedback and that kept us going.

Kelvin:

Yes. And more importantly, we’re glad that you enjoyed the concert.

Cheryl: What led to the formation of Buddysings?

BuddySings! was founded by three people. There’s me, Kelvin and Robin. The three of us were involved in the youth group of Bandar Utama Buddhist Society. Every year, we would organise a Buddhist camp for teens between the age of 13 and 17 years old, which are secondary school students.

One time, we were organising a camp called kataññutā. Someone just made a casual remark about having a camp song because we never had that before. No one took it seriously, except for Robin. He started to pen down some lyrics, and get some lines of inspiration. He started to write the chorus and created some melody.

At that time, it was 2018 and I was the one leading the camp committee. So, Robin approached me first and said, “Hey, I have an idea about a camp song, and maybe you could sing.” At that time, I was exposed to singing in my university and Robin knew about that. After that, we caught up Kelvin, whom we realised is really good in music, and shared the demo.

So, that is how the three of us came together and wrote down a song. In short, Robin started it, I finished the song together with him and we passed it on to Kelvin, and Kelvin made it beautiful. So we had a rough draft that was a home recording and we played it during the camp and a lot of people loved it. That’s when we realised that we got a knack for this and that we should continue.

We got that fire ignited within us and Robin started to write more songs and we all just came together. We got Madeline, which is Robin’s sister, and also Deborah, who plays the violin to join and form Buddysings! and continue to create music. So the five of us are like the original members of the band.

Cheryl: Tell us a little bit more about the obstacles you’ve faced on the creativity side and on the personal side.

Kelvin:

For me, from the music and production perspective, there is a problem that’s not only faced by Buddysings!, but throughout the Buddhist community. That is the lack of resources and manpower.

As you know, most of the times, we are doing this (music) out of our own goodwill and out of our interest. We don’t get paid for it and we do not earn anything from it. All we earn is the fun and the happiness and the joy that it (the process) brings.

Because of this (not being commissioned to perform and produce music), it’s difficult to attract people to join, to put in their time to actually make things work. Editing music, editing videos, creating and arranging, these all take time. As some people would say time is money, the lack of both time and money are obstacles for us.

But we were lucky enough to get a lot of support from the community as well as a lot of support from our parent body, Bandar Utama Buddhist Society (BUBS). We were fortunate for this and we were able to get through that (difficult times).

Pauline:

Yeah, I agree with him. In terms of commitment, because what we’re doing is voluntary, only those who has the interest or the passion will commit their time and effort into this. But because a lot of us are either a student, or a working adult like myself, it is hard to juggle between work, studies and other commitments.

For me personally, this trains me in the aspect of personal development such as managing my time, managing the stress levels, and managing our resources. Every little pockets of time that we have is precious as they can accumulate and contribute to (finishing) end product. On top of that, we work together as a team beyond the music production. We have to manage finances, manage the team, delegate the workload, etc.

For example, planning on who can take up the design, editing and audio, and then we have to find a time for everyone to come together or arrange for members to record individually. During the pandemic recordings had to be done remotely and virtually. Some of the team members do not have the proper equipment at home, then Kelvin, would have to go through a lot to edit our voices.

I believe that there’s always a better way to do things. If we find the right way to do it, and we have the passion and interest, we can definitely pull it off. After which, you will have that happiness and joy, and feel a sense of achievement that you have achieved as a team. This may help you think that the challenges are worthwhile.

Cheryl: What impact do you wish to create in the Buddhist community through ‘Buddysings!’ ? 

Kelvin:

I hope, Buddysings! would be a touch point where people get exposed to Buddhism and to have a taste of what Buddhism is like. And for practising Buddhists, we hope that the songs can be a constant reminder of the Buddhist teachings. The songs can be something that you listen on the way to work or on the way to school in order to be reminded of the teachings. This is the best that we can hope for.

Pauline:

Similar to Kelvin, Buddysings! acts as a touch point, and a medium to the Dharma. And I’m saying this from personal experience. Within the band, some of us have been attending Dharma school since primary school or when we were really young. We usually have sing-along sessions before Dharma classes. So that was when we were exposed to all these hymns. It was a whole lot of fun, and it’s very enticing or attractive method. It was a different way for us to learn and experience the Dharma. Music is one of the mediums to reach out to people, especially for the younger generation. With music, we would be able to connect better with the kids, youth, teens, especially with those who are avid music listeners.

Share with us the meaning behind the song Kataññutā

Kataññutā is a Pali word for gratitude. It means knowing or recognising what has been done for one’s benefit.

Mainly in this whole song, we wish to remind people to count their blessings, to appreciate what they have, instead of focusing on what they don’t have.

“We may be blinded by the wants in our minds, and losing what’s right in front of us.” – this is the bridge of the song.

It is a reminder that the things that we want are endless. We can want a lot of things, but doesn’t mean we can get them. We may feel very unhappy, frustrated, if we constantly focus on the things that we don’t have. There are things that is right in front of us such as family, love, food, shelter, these little simple things in life that we have that we may take for granted. Yeah.

I really like this verse a lot. Because it reminds me to count my blessings and to see things on the bright side on the positive side.

Cheryl: How has Dharma music helped or motivated you in your Buddhist practice?

Personally, Dharma music is a reflection of the Dharma is like and a constant reminder for myself.

We have written a song called “Nothing stays the same forever.” It’s still in the production pipeline, but I think not just with that particular song, but with all the songs that we write, we see how nothing stays the same forever.  From the minute someone writes down the lyrics, adds the melody and edits the track, you realise that the song would have changed a lot. For me, I also come to realise that the meaning of the song would also change a lot.

For example, Kataññutā was written for the camp. So the main objective or the main meaning for me was more of a summary of what happened in camp and summary of what we’ve learned in camp. But as we continue to make the song better and do edits, I realised that I started to take the song more literally. The song became a reminder of the things that I’m grateful for around me. And I am grateful for the opportunity to produce the song and being able to share the Dharma through music.

Cheryl: Where can people find you and your work?

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/buddysingsofficial/live_videos/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/buddysingsofficial/

Website: https://www.buddysings.com/

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3YEsuPF1LbWUenDl8OTwLh?si=rNiwEZ74QAWOChQ9inHuNA

Check out BuddySings!’s new single: Wheel of Life:

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