Get the inside information on the percussion group that has wowed the nation for the past 15 years withtheir technical skills and theatrical performances. Sarah Rees met with hands percussion to discuss parents, prospects, and well percussion.
For those who haven’t experienced a Hands Percussion show, it is difficult to describe the electrifying and stimulating combination of technical prowess and theatrical splendour that makes these shows so much more than a percussion performance. The rhythms seem to enter into your soul as hands beat and move faster than your eyes can follow them, with teams of people so perfectly in sync that you feel sure they must be robots, programmed to keep time.
Hands Percussion celebrated its 15th anniversary last year, and the company continues to strive to offer a uniquely Malaysian experience, combining the core instrument of the Chinese festive drums with all manner of local and regional percussion, and sourcing local talent to create fabulous shows and delight audiences at home and beyond.
For Artistic Director Bernard Goh, who has been manning the helm of Malaysia’s premier percussion group since its formation in 1997, the stage serves as a canvas for this former artist to create his work, and his performances are more creations than musical events. “I don’t paint anymore,” he tells me. “My painting is on stage, just without a canvas or a brush.”
He may have earned his pre-Hands living as an art teacher and graphic designer, but Bernard was always drawn to music, playing the trumpet in the school band until problems with his teeth forced him to switch to the tuba. As he reached adulthood, a chance encounter with a 24 Festive Drums teacher threw him onto a new path of pleasure. “This style of drumming is established now,” he explains, “but back then it was new, it was edgy, and I was overwhelmed with this new way of drumming.”
After travelling the length of the country to engage in his musical pursuits, Bernard returned to his native Seremban to set up his own branch of 24 Festive Drums, but it wasn’t long before his relentless creativity brought him up against the restrictions of the style. “I’d reached the limit with the festive drums,” he recalls. “It is tightly regulated and I wanted more input, so I started looking at different instruments and styles to include, and formed a new group of my own.”
And thus Hands Percussion was born, albeit in humbler circumstances than it would come to be in just over a decade: a space in the school where Bernard was an art teacher. Little did Bernard know that, 15 years later, Hands Percussion would have a schedule that takes them touring the globe, making their mark of the international percussion scene with their unique Malaysian style.
While Bernard may be the artistic brush of Hands Percussion, the company relies on skilled, dedicated performers to bring his paintings to life. With a team of eight full-time performers and numerous part-timers, the company is able to create elaborate shows that move from delicate solos and duets to stirring, dramatic group sequences that are as exhilarating to watch as they must be to perform. While the whole company performs as a ceaseless, impressive whole, there are two young men in particular whose sheer skill and power draw the eye of any audience member. They may perform as a seamless pair, but Jimmy Ch’ng and Jack Wan appear in person as more of apprentice and master; the former being the only original performer in the company, and the latter being the newest prodigy to join the ranks.
“Jimmy was a born percussionist,” says Bernard, clapping a hand on his longterm student. “He was a pampered kid!” Jimmy laughs away this comment, but admits that he was born into a musical environment, and his dad – himself a skilled musician – provided him with his first experience of traditional Chinese instruments.
“At the performances we went to I would always be drawn to watching the drummers instead of anyone else,” he remembers, “and I wanted to learn.” Jimmy also found his first training at a branch of 24 Festive Drums, and met Bernard via his brother Eric, who is a longterm friend and still heavily involved with the company.
Jimmy is a core member of the group, undertaking composing and performing duties that have seen him win all manner of prizes at the BOH Cameronian Awards and impress drummers from all over the world. Accolades have no merit for the passionate performer, though, and his thirst for learning more and expanding his skills base is unquenchable. “I am definitely not going to give up,” he says, when I ask of the future. “I want to do more collaboration with overseas performers, and I have so much more still to learn.”
If Jimmy is the old hand, 23-year-old Jack is the upstart, the youngster still chomping at the bit despite having been involved with the company since the tender age of 15. “Every moment is a new experience, even if you are doing the same thing again,” he says, his face shining with contentment. “I look forward to every single day.” And the days are tough for the full-time members of the company. Tuesday to Sunday, the performers have a packed schedule of classes and practise sessions, undertaking training themselves in all manner of drumming techniques as well as theatre arts, yoga, and modern dance, and all this before they begin to start exploring and composing new works.
For Jack, the transition from school student to professional drummer was made even harder by the lack of support from his parents. “They just rejected the idea,” says Jack with a sad smile. “They didn’t understand how I could earn money, how I could have a good life by pursuing drumming.”
Nothing could stand in his way, and Jack joined Hands regardless, buying his parents tickets to every performance in the hope that one day they would come.
“Eventually they did,” he explains, “and now they think it’s great, especially now they understand about Hands’ Balik Kampung tours – they can see how meaningful it is.”
As the performers train, a separate group of full-timers commit to an outreach programme that takes performances into schools and on Balik Kampung tours into rural areas all over the country. “We need to let them know what can be done,” says Bernard of the villagers they encounter on their tours, “and it gives such good memories for the kids to cherish.”
Making memories is one thing, but Bernard must also look to the future, and navigate a way for Hands to survive in an environment where arts and culture gets limited funding. “We have doubts,” he admits when I ask of the future for the group, “but we must believe in what we do, or what’s the point? We are a family, we are bound together, and we still have so much to explore!”
The new year begins another round of activities for the company, and while it will be the end of 2013 when their largest show takes to the stage, the calendar will be peppered with smaller performances, overseas tours, and another school tour for the outreach team.
The long-term goal for the company is to bring their unique approach to percussion further into public consciousness, to make the nation proud of this Malaysian style that merges traditional instruments with Western beats and stunning theatricals to create award-winning shows that fly the Malaysian flag at events and competitions all over the world.
“We strive to draw on all the specialities of the country,” explains Bernard at last, “we are proud of our heritage, and we strive to be unique in the world. Hopefully one day, this is what people will know as Malaysian percussion.”
For more information on Hands Percussion,visit www.hands.my.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Jan-Feb 2013
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