Wind of Nomads
Performed by HANDS Percussion, with Dafra Drum
Lambang Sari, Istana Budaya
4-13 August 2017
Review by Kakibangku
Showcasing all they have learned in their 25 years of existence, HANDS Percussion blew the roof off the seldom-used venue of Lambang Sari in their recent jubilee production Wind of Nomads. Featuring a plethora of percussive instruments as well as dance and movement, together with guest artists including West African ensemble Dafra Drum, the show coalesced into a surprisingly cohesive whole. Helped by tasteful styling and staging which suggested a musical gathering on some distant desert plain, Wind of Nomads displayed the undeniable skill of the HANDS Percussion team, as well as a mature artistic sensibility.
In the opening, the HANDS performers drifted onto the square white stage as if lost and searching, amidst the sound of wind. Overhanging the stage, a huge round canvas was lit with a shifting wash of bright red, yellow and orange, like a sun seen through a sandstorm. Its presence was overwhelming at first, but I soon forgot it as my focus was drawn towards the performers and their instruments, as soft rhythmic accompaniment soon surged into powerful waves of sound. Both the massed movements of the performers and the hovering sun reminded of the opening of the London Olympics in 2012, choreographed by Akram Khan — it effectively set the stage for the voyaging theme of Wind of Nomads.
The movement-based ensemble of the beginning soon gave way to more music-centred segments, exploring various percussive sounds from different regions of the earth, giving the work a distinct flavour. The most pleasant surprise was the 21-stringed harp-like instrument from West Africa called the kora, played by Dafra Drum member Flatié Dembelé. The magical melody charmed every member of the audience, who strained their necks to catch sight of the instrument, as the player sat almost tucked away in a corner. So did the Chinese erhu player, Lim Wei Siong, who was featured only once. This was something of a pity, as the erhu complemented the percussion well, anchoring the show with a weighted melody, compared to the more uplifting mood of the wooden marimba, played by Tan Su Yin, and the African instruments.
But the real ringmaster of the show seemed to be Olivier Tarpaga, a drummer and dancer from the West African country of Burkina Fasso. Jovial and generous, with an enormous grin, he lead the HANDS performers in playing the djembe, as well as his own drums adorned with clinking nets and cowbells. Striding across the stage singing and calling, his energy seemed to infect the performers as well as the audience – this was certainly the smiliest HANDS Percussion show I have ever seen!
Artistic director Bernard Goh has been adamant that HANDS performers attain diverse abilities, beyond the Chinese 24-season drum for which the group is most known. He has pushed them into other musical realms, like gamelan in the past, and now West African drumming, as well as challenging them to incorporate movement into their performances. In Wind of Nomads, the long training seems to have paid off. Clad in elegantly understated costumes in pale linen designed by Lian Kian Lek, the HANDS Performers seemed almost as comfortable with the choreography (created by JS Wong as well as Olivier Tarpaga) as with the drumming. A dance solo with a long bamboo pole demonstrated great physical mastery, and a later duet, performed entirely by two dancers balancing atop one massive drum, created a soft, lyrical mood of physical connection.
I enjoyed how the second half of the show introduced new elements, especially the amplified sound of water trickling and the knocking of bowl-like shells made out of gourds, allowing the audience to see beyond the concept of a ‘drum’ as the main instrument of percussion. However, the voyaging theme dissolved in the second half, which seemed a more loosely-linked medley than the first. But these dramaturgical shortcomings were forgotten, especially when the HANDS performers released their usual explosive energy levels with the climactic final number featuring the 24-season drums.
HANDS Percussion performances are always expansive in their use of space; part of their signature style is the performers jumping, swinging their drumsticks, and making large gestures, throwing out energy to the audience who return it multifold. This show in Lambang Sari, with its rather restricted stage space, was somewhat of a departure for HANDS. The performers struggled to adapt; in the early shows, there were times when they collided with each other, although by the final performance these kinks had been worked out. Happily, the sound engineering was sensitively adjusted so that the levels were not deafening, even though it seemed like the performers were sometimes right on top of the audience. And if this performance lacked HANDS’ usual epic scale, there is always the upcoming production, Percussion Paradise, which opens in the much bigger venue of the Plenary Hall, KL Convention Centre, on 30 September this year.
On opening night, there were several refugee children amongst the audience, provided with free tickets by HANDS’ Project Candlelight. I must commend HANDS, and artistic director Bernard Goh, for their unsurpassed passion to engage with the community beyond an elite music audience. Since its inception, HANDS has built a track record of fantastic outreach programmes, from engagement with secondary school drumming clubs, to bringing drumming lessons to underprivileged communities, and now working with the refugee community. Other established performing arts company would do well to learn from this model.
Kakibangku is a dabbler in many things artsy. He dabbles in writing, performing, parenting (his cats) and travelling. You could say he’s a professional dabbler. As Eddie Izzard would say, “Jack of all trades, master of a select few.”
All photos by Claes Chong, courtesy of HANDS Percussion.