Founder and artistic director of Hands Percussion Malaysia, Bernard Goh, has always had a penchant for collaborating and pushing the envelope when it comes to artistic performance. For the last two decades, he has faithfully led his percussion troupe from strength to strength as it gained a reputation for being one of the foremost percussion units in the region.
In October, Hands once again staged a jaw-dropping performance, Taksu, at KLPac, marking a creative milestone for the group in its efforts to pay tribute as well as reinvent Malaysian traditional music and art.
The production focused on the concept of the shigu, or Chinese lion drums, being in conversation with Malay and Balinese gamelan. This was not the first time Goh had done something unusual with gamelan – in 2011, Hands presented “Ri Yue Chu Yin” and in 2015, it added a classical twist in “Tchaikovsky on Gamelan”.
“I have always enjoyed introducing new instruments to the members of Hands,” said Goh in an interview prior to the Taksu shows, adding that it never has been or will be his intention to do something new simply to wow audiences.
“I grew up in a kampung so my exposure to music and culture from other races was always there, even from an early age. But that isn’t the case with everyone,” explained the 49-year-old, sharing that he continually looks for ways to challenge his performers.
While Hands had done Malay gamelan before, Balinese gamelan was a much higher bar to tackle. Goh revealed: “So much so that many of the team had to ask themselves if this was the right path for themselves… I want that. I want each performer to think and find meaning, not just be technically proficient. When they have an opinion, they are able to have a conversation about each performance and that, for me, is crucial.”
Hands Percussion is the first and only, fully professional, self-funded, percussion group in Malaysia. With nine full-time members, 14 part-time and 20 trainee performers, the group operates of out of a double story office and studio space in Sungai Buloh, which has been its headquarters since 2009.
Starting out with the traditional 24 Festive Drums as the focus of its shows, the group’s repertoire has grown so vast, it is a clear testament to their drive and artistry. The gamelan, djembe, kompang, gendang, timpani, marimba, dance and stylised movements are often seen in their productions such as Taksu, in which they collaborated with Gamelan Yuganada from Bali, local choral outfit La Voce Choir, and Kelantanese artist Zamzuriah Zahari and gendang specialist Mat Din Hussin.
Hands has nearly 30 productions under its belt and has performed at international art festivals around the world in France, Belgium, Greece, Bali, China and Taiwan.
While Goh originally learnt shigu drumming from Tan Fui Choong, one of the founders of 24 Festive Drums, a unique Malaysian drums performance recognised as a National Cultural Heritage, his passion for the industry and emphasis on evolving has led a diverse array of performances and collaborations including with Dafra Drums (USA & Burkina Faso), Gamelan JingGong (Bali), Max Riefer (Germany), Ben Walsh (Australia), Kamrul Hussin and Geng Wak Long (Malaysia), Temple of Fine Arts (Malaysia) and Abbos Kosimov (Uzbekistan).
Granted, some of Hands’ performances over the years may have been a little avant garde but for Goh, that is never a problem.
“For me, at this stage you have to get a good balance, you can’t be overindulgent as an artist and just do what you want. But on the other hand, you must also educate your audience,” Goh said. “Our audiences have grown with us and witnessed our progress. If we only do the same old stunts, no growth takes place. We want to push ourselves. And I believe that people love us because we continue to challenge ourselves.”