Primal Passion, Youthful Energy in Dong Dak Drum Beat Concert

All photos by Ban Teng Ruen.

Dong Dak Drum Beat Concert

Orang Orang Drum Theatre, Soul Impact Percussion and 24 Festive Coaches Association
17 March 2016
Pentas 1, KLPAC

Review by lengpg

The 24 Festive Drum was founded in 1988 by Tan Hooi Song (1947-2008), recipient of a Living Artist Heritage Award in 2001, and the poet Tan Chai Puan. Via the manipulation of Southern lion-dance drumming, or shigu, the founders used the movements of farming and the twenty-four seasons of the Chinese lunar calendar as inspiration. The expressive drumming movements and sound produced by the 24 Festive Drum technique are connected and structured according to the characteristics of different seasons, such as transplanting rice seedlings, wishing for rain, harvests and celebrations. Since 1997, HANDS Percussion, led by Bernard Goh, has played a major role in popularizing the 24 Festive Drum, streamlining the presentation of the drumming technique to the general public, and experimenting with integrating drum performance with other forms of performing arts for theatrical staging. Former HANDS performers Boyz Chew Soon Heng and Zyee Leow Sze Yee established Orang Orang Drum Theatre in 2013, keen to search for the so-called ‘drum theatre’, combining percussion with physical theatre. Within a short period of time, they have travelled to Italy, Belgium and Germany, and won several BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.

Co-produced by Orang Orang Drum Theatre, Soul Impact Percussion and 24 Festive Coaches Association, the Dong Dak Drum Beat Concert consisted of four works, meeting the theme “Discovering Creations, Recollecting Classics” – while celebrating new creations, the concert brought back the classic repertoire that had inspired the practitioners years before. Boyz and Zyee were the artistic director and musical director respectively for the concert.

‘Rhythm of the Drunken Souls’, performed by Foon Yew High School 24 Festive Drum, Johor Bharu, opened the performance of the night. This classic repertoire was created in 1999, performed by the same troupe, which is the first 24 Festive Drum troupe in the world, founded in 1988. In the first half of the repertoire, they performed steadily within the conventions of the 24 Festive Drum: unison drum beats with specific gestures, canon repetition, and predictable travelling from drum to drum. As the structures became more rigid and militaristic, the performers started to act drunk, with the drums symbolizing enormous wine jars. Drunken movements and actions such as drinking, tossing, dancing as if holding a cup in the fist, walking and running heads over heels were incorporated into the technique of the drumming, and changed the quality of the sound. The young performers gave vent to some emotion, perhaps depression – reflecting a sense of being Chinese Malaysian at the time the piece was made. The piece has been significant for the last decade as it broke away from the relationship between farming activities and the movement-drumming performance, and was used as a medium for the contemporary expression of the youth, as stated in the program book, “(The piece) is an imagination of the youth – at the very young age of the 24 Festive Drum”.

All photos by Ban Teng Ruen.

The sound of the membrane of the shigu drum is not sufficient to express diverse feelings, and consequently the 24 Festive Drum utilizes the whole drum including the drum sticks, the metal ring of the drumhead, the circular band around the body of the drum, the different wooden barrel parts, and even the floor. The second piece, ‘The Crying of the Crowd’, was performed by SMJK Yu Hua 24 Festive Drum, from Kajang, Selangor [pictured above]. Wearing costumes like aborigines, the performers used bamboo sticks as props and instruments to enhance the atmosphere of a forest. Interlocking sound patterns were produced from the grounded drums and the light bamboos, and movements were stylized as if to embrace the joy of sharing what happens in the forest. Choreographic manipulations of the bamboo and floor patterns shaped images of a well-balanced environment. However, the narrative did not have a happy ending. Invaders came with arms to raze the forest, and the aborigines started to defend their lands. Seemingly, the performance touched on the issue of environmental protection and preservation; however, issues of self-recognition, decency and integrity are also easily associated with the work. In the piece, the fight to gain the ownership of the land is a metaphor to show that the simplicity of life can only be obtained through struggle.

‘The Ray of Dream’ [pictured below] depicted the lostness and depression of a bunch of white-collar workers who later regain their confidence after recognizing the purpose of their lives. Performed by SMJK San Min 24 Festive Drum Team from Teluk Intan, they wore collared work shirts with ties as costumes, and used A4 papers as props. Rigid working life in the city was depicted through a monotonous repeated beat and office-related utilitarian movement; dissatisfaction and frustration were expressed through screams, and papers scattered all over the floor. When tempers rose, they scrolled their papers as sticks for drumming and hitting. Papers used with different drumming techniques produced various sound effects suiting different plots of the performance. When the storm of anger has been expressed, the performers were reintegrated into society with support and hope.

All photos by Ban Teng Ruen.

The first three performances were all performed by secondary students, and I highly praise them as I understand their persistence and the challenges they face. They are all able to move as dancers and percussionists. Their movements were aggressive, nimble, and sharp; the complicated beats were executed accurately. The young performers bore themselves well as weighty and recognisable characters such as drunks, nature protectors, and white-collar workers; the themes provided them with an opportunity to embody their imaginations. Great kudos to their coaches and composer-choreographers who were rarely acknowledged in the program.

The final piece of the night was ‘The Era’, a classic repertoire performed by Orang Orang Drum Theatre [pictured below]. The performance began with a projected animation of waves in the sea, and Chinese characters related to the migration of the Chinese to Malaya/Malaysia: ‘cross the sea’, ‘move to the South’, ‘reclamation’, and ‘settlement’. The piece, which involved 31 performers, combined various elements of theatre presentation, seeking for greater possibilities in the genre called ‘drum theatre’. A few well-designed scenes with their matchless sound-movement visualisation impacted me. Short phrases of customary greetings in different dialects (Hokkien, Hakka, Teochiew and Cantonese) were recited and formed into a rhythmic jingle, to showcase the existence of various dialectic groups of Chinese people in Malaysia. Zinc aluminium roofing sheets (with spills of red paint on them) were manipulated as shields, and they formed a unique visual effect on stage. A bully character intimidated the people and forced them to come out from behind their shields; he whipped a rattan stick in the air and on the zinc sheets, and the victims reacted to the sound he produced, fabricating an atmosphere of violence. Drums were arranged as a fortress, while the performers marched around cluelessly as if they were unafraid of death. They trembled with fear and pain on the floor as if tortured; and lined up with various gestures that illustrated they had been silenced by force.

Gradually, the performers regrouped, and began to perform aggressively and fearlessly, their depression receding as they drew professional pride from their trained drum skill. Red cloths were used as drum sticks; they waved and danced with the cloths and shaped several types of circles and figure eights. The soft props could not really drum – the real drumming and the impact of the cloth on the drums was synchronised fluently. The jubilant performers carried on celebrating, filling the theatre with ecstasy and hope.

The 24 Festive Drum movement may have started with the idea of carving out a space for youth to participate in and celebrate Chinese cultural heritage in a Malaysian context, but this genre of performing arts has gone far beyond its starting point. Its practitioners today create contemporary manifestations of issues that relate to them, dealing with what it is to be something that is both new and a fusion of all the sources they can claim as Malaysians. There were more than 100 performers from the Centre, North and South of Peninsular Malaysia involved in the concert, and it fed the audience with primal passion and youthful energy. I spoke to a few friends who had performed or been inspired by the repertoire many years before. They were mesmerized, and felt as if their rhythmic bodies were drumming and moving alongside with the performers. The concert made them feel very nostalgic and proud of being a drummer. In the words of Mon Lim, the concert’s producer, “Once a drummer, always a drummer.”

All photos by Ban Teng Ruen.

All photos by Ban Teng Ruen.

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