The drum is thought to be the oldest known musical instrument in the world that is utilised by virtually every culture for a multitude of purposes since the dawn of humanity. However, as time passes and humans migrate, matters and ideas surrounding them too slowly evolve accordingly. And this is the foundation of HANDS Percussion Wind of Nomads. A three-year project between Hands and DAFRA Drums of Burkina Faso, West Africa, the theatrical musical performance reflects the unique nature of human and cultural migration, recreating the passage of energies throughout generations, globalisation and integration. Behind the percussive work is Bernard Goh, the artistic director of HANDS.
The first time I met Bernard was at the HANDS studio in Sungai Buloh early this year. He informed me that his team has scheduled a list of plans to commemorate its 20th anniversary and clearly nobody is more excited than himself. “We started off with a nationwide tour in April, and now we’re in the midst of preparing for the Wind of Nomads concert, DeafBeat’s 10th anniversary concert and Percussion Paradise, which will be part of the Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival, Diverse City 2017,” Bernard reveals. Despite the tight gap line between the three staging, Bernard has managed to juggle between his personal and professional time equally. “In and around of rehearsals, there are training sessions, meetings, coaching and corporate commitments slotted here and there. But with good planning and discipline, anything is possible.”
As a sneak preview, Bernard instructed his members to run through some rehearsal drills. In an instant, fiery pounds and roaring sounds replaced the once tranquil space. The sudden change of atmosphere startled me for a moment but I was quickly captivated by the drummers’ energy, precision and theatrical performance. Like the heartbeat of an art form, each strike was turned into a string of exciting rhythms and lively beats.
“The rhythm needs to first come from your heart before travelling to your head and out through your hands”
How did the staging for wind of nomads come about?
I have known Olivier Tarpaga (artistic director of DAFRA Drums) for a long time. We became friends while sharing our ideas and discussing drums, music and the performing arts industry via emails. Even though we have the same passion for drums, we do have different approaches to playing and learning the instrument due to our contrasting upbringings and cultures. But it didn’t matter to us. We remained strongly connected till today. Olivier was the djembe instructor who taught my members the art of playing and understanding this versatile African drum. Apart from playing the instrument, the djembe comes with a dance that requires a lot of souls. This, Olivier says, he could see in our members. Our discussions further led us to curate this project, which reflects two cultures coming together.
What were some of the challenges faced during the curating process?
As Olivier lives in the US, arranging classes, workshops and rehearsals was logistically challenging. We agreed on a three-year project in which he would come to Malaysia once or twice a year for two to three weeks to conduct classes with my team. During the initial stages, language was a barrier especially for the younger members but it eventually worked out and now both students and teacher have a close bond. No one can resist the soulful beat of the African djembe! During his absence, we would record our sessions and send to him for review. However, I think the biggest challenge was reverting to the authentic and ancestral way of playing those drums. It’s not as simple as using your bare hands to produce sound. The rhythm needs to first come from your heart before flowing to your head and travelling out through your hands.
What had been the best part of curating this show?
For one, I’m proud of my members who remained persistent in spite of all the obstacles. They have grown tremendously as compared to the beginning and their persistence is admirable. Next would be the fulfilment of witnessing the Wind of Nomads gradually coming together despite all the communication and logistic challenges. And lastly, to be able to bring two vastly diverse cultures together by influencing and blending each other through art.
What are some of the similarities and differences between African and Asian percussions?
The mere mention of Africa and Asia brings to mind so many differences: people, language, food, culture, life, and what more of instruments and music. Of course, percussion instruments from these two continents would undoubtedly require an unexceptional amount of years to master. However, the origin, history, shape, sound and playing disciplines are not the same and by only associating ourselves to the djembe, it has managed to teach us far more than we had anticipated. The fact that the African djembe is played using bare hands stands in contrasts to the Chinese drum that is traditionally played with mallets. Learning to create rhythm and music from our hearts and souls as well as dancing while carrying and playing this goblet-shaped African instrument has been an extraordinary experience. The dedicated discipline of its player is crucial in order to capture the essence of its ritualistic drumming patterns and harmony. It is only by understanding and displaying such requirement can we then attempt to bring out both cultures in a rhythmic synergised manner.