First, he lets out a bass kick, follows it with a rapid burst of snare drums and high-hats, goes back to a couple of bass kicks, then rounds it off with an extended snare shot. Around him, the audience’s reaction changes from surprise and open-mouthed amazement to delighted clapping. The moves sound straight out of a judo manual, and they certainly pack as much punch. “Everyone is amazed at first, then they start singing and dancing along,” says the 22-year-old Finn, still panting after giving an hour-long performance in Levi, Finland.
Zenger is a beatboxer— a part of a small and talented tribe of artists who use vocal percussion to make ‘music’. They produce drum beats and rhythms and imitate musical instruments and even screeching turntables, all using their mouth.
While India already has forms of vocal percussion- bols in North India and solkattu in the south, this particular form traces its roots to the hip hop tradition in the early 80s.
Zenger, who has shared the stage with soul singer James Brown and opened a concert for Kanye West, believes he is the only beatboxer who takes the art seriously. “I’m the best,” says Zenger with a smile. “Seriously, without being boastful, I think I’m the only beat boxer who’s doing this as music, not just for fun. Beatboxing for me is just like [playing] an instrument.” His dedication shows- his first solo album is currently in the making.
Coming from a family of musicians and having himself studied the piano at a Finnish music conservatory makes his job simpler, says Zenger. “It helps that I’ve been doing music all my life. If I think of something or listen to a piece, I can do the beats to it.”
So how can one learn to beatbox? “You aren’t born with it, but yes, you have to be talented. You need to have good nerves and concentrate hard,” he says. Zenger practices for five hours every day- quite an achievement, given that he suffers from asthma. And he also listens to Indian classical music, “especially Trilok Gurtu”, because “it is very similar [to beat boxing].”
“It’d be my dream if I could do this for a living. I’m trying to get more shows and travel to more countries,” he says, “because beat boxing is an international language — everyone can understand it.”