Cover Story: Vision 20: A drum thing - Bernard Goh, founder and artistic director of Hands Percussion

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.
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They have come a long way from being just a bunch of Chinese drum players wanting to push the boundaries of their craft.  But maybe founder and artistic director Bernard Goh already had a vision of the path leading to what multi-disciplinary performing arts ensemble Hands Percussion is today.  By his own admission, his “greed” to explore as an artist has driven the group’s evolution in the 20 years since its formation.

On whether he had imagined they’d come this far, Goh pauses for a moment, then says: “Yes, of course. But don’t ask me about success, or if I think I am successful. I just think I am very lucky to have a bunch of people who still believe in what I am doing, or what Hands is doing.”

Nevertheless, Hands Percussion’s achievements speak volumes about its talent and boldness. Last year, the group marked a milestone when it brought the best of its fusion music to Dewan Filharmonik Petronas for the first time in September. Five days later, it put on two  successful percussion shows at the three thousand-seat space of Plenary Hall, KL Convention Centre.

It was but only a few years ago that Hands started their percussion training. A study of the performers’ daily routines gives an insight into their accomplishments. During a visit to Hands’ rehearsal space and headquarters — a nondescript factory warehouse in Sungai Buloh — in 2013 for Tchaikovsky on Gamelan, we learnt that the full-time members took physical movement, gamelan and Chinese philosophy classes, on top of their usual drumming and composition-related training.

“We’ve currently stopped the philosophy class as the teacher has left. Tai Chi lessons have also stopped, so we just do self-practice. But movement-wise, we are now working with a teacher to learn how to develop a warm-up routine tailored to each body,” says Goh. “Other than that, percussion lessons are the current focus — two of the members are learning music arrangement, three of them marimba … then they work on their compositions, followed by night rehearsals when the part-timers come in.”

At present, the group consists of 10 full-time members and 15 part-timers, along with students from its academy. It performs abroad at festivals or private shows regularly and is probably one of a handful of “world-class” performing arts groups that have emerged from Malaysia.

    Hands is an anomaly in the local performing arts landscape, to say the least. Actually, it is more of a feat if one considers that it is a privately funded company.

Besides talent and fortitude, Goh’s relentless pursuit of new possibilities in Malaysian art, often done through the amalgamation of existing forms, such as the gamelan, has since become a hallmark of its multi-instrumental repertoire.

He stresses, however, that Chinese drumming remains the core of Hands. Some may argue otherwise, like ex-members and students who decided that change was not for them. Goh admits that it has been a bittersweet experience, but reveals a teacher’s heart by giving them his blessings. “It’s fine if some of them come and tell me they don’t want to head in that direction. For those who started their own groups, they didn’t leave Hands to go flog insurance or something else. So, that, for me, is still a blessing...that they still pursue this.”

But Goh has also learnt to not carry the burden of change all by himself. “I have to be very honest with my team. Everyone makes decisions for themselves and together. If there is a show or a decision to be made, I tell them the conditions outright. If they all agree, we go; if not, we don’t go. What I will not tolerate is the blame game afterwards or resentment.”

As much as he hates to acknowledge it, Goh says securing finances is the biggest challenge for the group, although he follows this statement with a seasoned shrug of the shoulder. The tougher challenge, he shares, is steering a diverse group of people in one common direction.

“I have those who have followed me from the beginning and are now in their forties, who would want some recognition and measure of achievement for their work. I have the 30-year-old who wants to get married and start a family, and even teenagers who are 17 years old. The most difficult thing is to explain to them the same goal in a way that they can relate to.”

Even as the group gears up for a few shows this year, beginning with the Wind of Nomads concert this month in another collaboration with West Africa’s Dafra Drums, along with marimba player Tan Su Yin and cellist Florian Antier, it is also in the midst of its first-ever nationwide drumming tour.

“It is almost embarrassing to say but we haven’t done a tour around Malaysian cities before,” Goh says candidly, opening up about his desire to not only perform in smaller towns but also to be deliberate about creating an inspiring experience in venues that the group never thought Chinese drumming would go to. “People have a perception about Chinese drums, that it is not a high art form. In the past 20 years, we have changed that bit by bit. We don’t want to remove its history but to add to it and build a new culture.”

While artistic growth is what drives the director and bringing arts to the people is what feeds him, it is clear that the true motivation for Goh is to create resonance in the hearts of Malaysians. “Hands doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to everyone. That’s why we can represent Malaysia out there. If through our work we can plant seeds of appreciation for art and culture, for us to enjoy and cherish while making it a tool to bring change to our community, that for me is a personal achievement. I strongly believe art has that power.”