Hands Percussion: The Musical Ensemble Drumming Up Support For A Malaysian Artform
Somebody viewing a 24 Festive Drums performance from Hands Percussion (Hands) might be excused for thinking it’s a performance from a troupe from China. Far from it, for while the drums (shigu – lion dance drums) originated from China, this particular artform was conceptualised in Malaysia. It came from the creative minds of Tan Chai Puan and the late Tan Hooi Song in 1988.
Their pupils, Hands co-founder and artistic director Bernard Goh and Eric Ch’ng (who has since left the group) felt it was only natural to incorporate the 24 Festive Drums as their starting point when the group was formed in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) in 1997.
Goh explains that while they are proud of this Malaysian-creation, they also have worked hard at reinventing it – and to keep it current. However, some purists and critics are not happy with their innovative ways.
“The biggest challenge we faced was in reinventing the art form with new playing styles and techniques, movement and introducing instruments other than the traditional shigu drums. We felt that in order to progress with today’s world, the art form had to evolve along with it. Most of our fans or audiences appreciate and understand our work and believe that change is progress. As long as we are not disrespecting the art in any way, I think we are on the right path,” he notes.
Evolving And Elevating
An oft-used phrase to describe Malaysia, would be a melting pot of cultures (which their tourism body uses in their famous tagline – “Malaysia Truly Asia”), with the very diverse Malay (making about two-thirds of the population), Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazandusun, the indigenous tribes of Orang Asli and many more. So how does a group that plays Chinese drums fit within that diversity?
“My passion for various types of music and instruments started from a young age, my parents were always listening to a variety of music and that got me hooked. Naturally in Malaysia, in schools, we were exposed to the many aspects of our multi-cultural society including their respective music, instruments and costumes so at some point or other I knew I would include these elements in my productions. There was no other way. It was all part of our culture, part of me, of being Malaysian. The first non-Chinese instrument we used, was the sitar,” Goh explains.
He and the group used the universality of music and how rhythms and melodies are connected directly to emotions and the heart as their basis. Goh divulges that it is a difficult process, as learning new instruments or a new technique of playing and instrument takes dedicated teachers, hard work and gruelling rehearsals.
“Like in our last production Taksu in 2019, it took a span of over three years with various workshops and numerous rehearsals to learn the Balinese gamelan. Its sound is sharper and tempo much faster than what we have been used to with the Malay and Javanese gamelans.”
Caption: The pulsating 24 Festive Drums as part of the 2002 Ritual Of Drums performance. Photo: Hands Percussion
Most of the reviews all point to the fact that most of their productions include elements of dance, choreography, acrobatics, lighting, costumes and multi-media with pulsating and high energy and physicality. It all sounds complicated and even exhausting to put together.
“The group train and practice regularly, even when there is no upcoming production or performance. This is to ensure there is constant movement, continuity and connection with what they are doing. Rehearsals of course become more intense and regular when a show is close to its opening night. There is regular wrist training as well as other classes, like movement and classes for other instruments like the marimba, Balinese gamelan and so on.”
Goh emphasises that the performers are expected to keep fit on their own, as well as attend scheduled group running sessions. He says the key is also having an overall positive attitude while adapting a self-motivating approach to their work.
Caption: “We worked with Dafra Drums from USA/Burkina Faso who were experts on the djembe. Every aspect of the process is worth it. As performing artists, we do have our own expertise but we also need to take big risks in order to improve. Learning new instruments (like the djembe) and incorporating it into our shows adds versatility and depth to the performance as well as to the performers themselve,” says co-founder and artistic director Bernard Goh. Photo: Hands Percussion
Retrospectives And going forward
Hands has performed all over the world, which includes France, Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Qatar, Dubai, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They have also performed in Hawaii at the East-West Centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2010. Now 10 years later, they will be heading back to the US in March for a series of performances in Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, performing their 80-minute classic Drumbeat Inferno.
Not bad for a group comprising of nine full-time performers, 25 part-timers and 15 trainees comprising of men and women.
“We look forward to widen the reach of our world-wide audience. With multiple local and international performances, new instruments, drumming techniques and choreography our troupe has only grown stronger and more diverse. Their performance will have more depth, precision, maturity and technical prowess.”
Goh admits though that it has not always been a bed of roses, citing the lukewarm response to their 2016 production of Opium. It had multiple sites for different performances and audiences were supposed to move along with it and the entire show had minimal drumming elements.
However, there were many highs including the 2011, Ri Yue Chu Yin where they introduced the gamelan ensemble, further elevated in 2014 with Tchaikovsky On Gamelan, which tested the ensemble. Goh speaks of their concert, Synthesis, in 2016 at the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur as one of the high points. The acoustics in the hall were excellent and beautiful to experience.
Caption: Hands have incorporated the use of gamelan in some of their performances. Bonang baron and bonang penerus instruments (part of a gamelan ensemble). Photo: Hands Percussion
He also considers it an honour for Hands to have represented Malaysia at the century-old Marjanishvili Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia for The International Festival of Theatre in 2018. They also achieved a first in 2009 at the International Folkloriada Competition in Dijon, France, when despite being not in competition was given a first ever in the competition special award.
That said, it is rather hard keeping the group going for so long.
“It’s difficult as people do come and go. It isn’t easy to find a drummer who is skilled and also dedicated to a lifestyle that is demanding from many aspects. However, we do have trainees that run parallel to our full-timers, and one or two eventually do become full-timers. We hold trainee recruitment drives once a year and most are from students in schools that we coach at.”
Goh wishes that emphasis is placed on performing arts especially at the primary school level (that’s for those seven to 12 years old), programmes that are creative, active and affordable and access for school children to watch performances for the exposure and interest. And of course, he cites the perennial problem – more funding.
His other wish – to put on a bigger, better new production at the world-class Petronas Philharmonic Hall.
Time will tell. But in the meantime, can we get a drum roll for all of the achievements that the group has garnered? We could all give them a big hand, to say the least.
Cover Image: Claes Chong
Writer | S. S. Yoga
Yoga is a freelance editor/writer/media consultant who does not like to be limited in his interests and hence occasionally gets TMI-infections. That does not stop him, though, from exploring many rabbit holes all over the world. He loves the challenge of organising data and experiences.