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Beats from the voice box

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"I listen to an instrument and want to become it," says devoted beatboxer Jason Tom, whose life of sound manipulation began at age 4 through the influence of iconic entertainer Michael Jackson, as well as comedic actor Mike Winslow of Police Academy.

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This inspiration would later catalyze into a series of life lessons, bringing Jason to the forefront of Hawaii's beatbox culture, slowly driving him away from his original childhood dream of becoming a comic book artist.

"It took me awhile to figure out I was beatboxing. I thought it was normal," says Jason about his emulations of Jackson from the 1991 album Dangerous. "I'd sing instruments, like a drum kit with a bass line and snare. I'd listen to an instrument and want to become it."

Despite given an early opportunity to play ukulele and tuba in school, Jason gravitated more toward his own body to produce sound. He was also later introduced to vocal techniques through his Professor Lina Doo, who showed him the 1999 Tuvan throat singing documentary Genghis Blues.

"I prefer to do ukulele with my mouth. I'm more coordinated with it," says Jason. "Your mouth is an instrument you're born with. It's the most organic instrument."

Sounding just like the real thing, Jason unknowingly fooled a classmate while attending McKinley High School.

"I was beatboxing in English class and then my friend turned around and asked, 'Is that a radio?', so that's when it hit me that beatboxing is something unique," says Jason.

Normally believed to be something behind the scenes, Jason began to think of his talent as an art form that could be performed. After seeing and hearing beatbox master Rahzel, and "Showtime at the Apollo" beatboxing contestant Elaine Chao, Jason finally decided to bring his skills to the stage.

His first public performance consisted of a classroom audience at Kapiolani Community College (KCC). It was during Professor Leigh Dooley's English class that Jason, along with dancer Andy Tran, exposed his skills.

Following this classroom performance, Jason slowly came out his shell to compete at a 2004 KCC talent show. Despite a loss, Jason continued to enter more talent shows and perform at open mics.

"I wasn't confident," says Jason about his first talent show. "But it definitely led me to more performances, and in 2006 I placed first with an original beatbox song. This made me realize that I needed to be original and creative if I wanted to win."

A year later, Jason won first place again at a poetry slam by performing his poetic beatboxing abilities.

"It broke a barrier," says Jason about his performance that helped him gain more confidence. "Beatboxing was starting to become more accepted here."

Unfortunately, this turning point was short lived. In 2008, while studying music business, Jason's drive dwindled.

"It was a tough period, and I felt like I was just going through the motions," says Jason. "I lost my creative side…but I believe all artists go through that."

Soon enough, with the help of music artist Makana, Jason found himself collaborating at "First Thursdays", and at the same time, found solace in religion through "Word of Life".

"I was seeking God at the time, so I did a prayer that didn't focus on me, but how others could benefit from what I do," says Jason. "I asked God to show me a sign."

Back on track, Jason entered the "Emerge Talent Show" - his make or break performance.

"After seeing an emcee named Kwalified, I realized I had to step up my game, so I got up there and did my thing. Turns out I had the loudest cheers and ended up winning," says Jason. "This show catapulted me to the next level. It motivated me and inspired me."

Over the next year, Jason created new techniques, upgraded his repertoire, and overall, evolved as an artist. Through talent shows and performances, he caught the eyes and ears of promoters and judges.

He became more involved with the Diverse Arts Center, both learning and teaching. In 2010, the interest in beatboxing had grown, so Jason taught three classes a week at his own The Human Beatbox Academy. Since then, he has taught students of all ages, from 4 to 50.

Workshops and guest performances at local schools have aided Jason's mission to "be that face…the voice and role model of Hawaii beatboxing", and in order to do so, a trip to hip hop's capital was needed. Supporters from Mighty 4 Arts helped raise funds to get Jason to the east coast.

For one month in 2010, Jason slept on the floors and couches of new-found friends, such as photographer Matt Marquez, in New York. It was during this time that Jason's world of beatboxing opened up on a global scale.

"There were people from all over the world at the beatboxing World Championships," says Jason. "I actually met a promoter from Germany."

Not only was he exposed to beatboxers from other countries, Jason also met one of his early influences - beatboxer Rahzel.

"It was an unannounced appearance," says Jason about Rahzel showing up to the World Championships. "I was totally star struck."

Now-a-days, Jason has fans of his own. He has performed on many platforms, such as TEDx Talks Honolulu, Hawaii News Now, and the Hawaii International Film Festival.

"When I perform, I try to show a repertoire of different genres and levels with my own personal style," says Jason. "I try to please my audience by giving them what I'm passionate about."

Even when allergies hit, asthma takes over, and a sore throat is causing pain, Jason doesn't stop his love for hip hop's fifth element, which sometimes brings him to doing three gigs a night.

"I have to drink water that is hot or room temperature, and sometimes take 'throat coat tea' to strengthen my vocal chords," says Jason, who has performed with cough drops in his mouth. "I even learned how to sniff on beat!"

Learning the culture, learning how to produce a myriad of sounds, and most of all, learning about himself, Jason has evolved from being a 4-year-old Michael Jackson emulator to becoming the face of Hawaii's beatbox culture - a face that is becoming recognizable across the globe.

His relationship with the students at The Human Beatbox Academy has brought a sense of togetherness and expression.

"We're more than a school. The academy has become a gathering place for beatboxers. We're a group whose purpose is to perpetuate the art form," says Jason. "People may not appreciate it as an art or as music…how to articulate your mouth to manipulate sounds. There are many misconceptions about it, but it's something that takes time - it's not over night. Anything you do to creatively express yourself is an art."

Though beatboxing in Hawaii may still be in its infancy, according to Jason, Hawaii's growing talent is something that could use more recognition.

"One of the goals is to bring event promoters to Hawaii because most of them are in Europe," says Jason who hopes to bring a world championships here. "As with all the elements of hip hop, there's going to be some biting, but these kids are learning how to bring originality and make it their own. I hope people can see that."

One of Jason's most dedicated students who has been finding his own twist on beatboxing is young teen Elijah Puchert.

"He started off as a b-boy, and after I met him and started teaching him about beatboxing, he started showing so much growth," says Jason about Elijah. "He entered a contest at Moanalua Middle School and won."

With his sights set on creating a beatbox documentary, Jason hopes to pursue more by learning, building, and teaching.

"It's so gratifying and challenging to replicate astral sounds and create dynamics," says Jason. "The best way to experience it is to see it and hear it live."

To see and hear Jason Tom, stop by the Diverse Arts Center in the Kaka`ako area. His classes are only $25 for one month or $10 for one session, each lasting an hour and a half. Check out www.jasontom.com for more information.

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