Post Curtain Call:
Winds of Nomad

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They are rare but they do exist – that handful of performers that may as well stamp ‘satisfaction guaranteed’ on their tickets. Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, HANDS Percussion is one of these companies. A group that for two decades has led the performing arts scene in terms of artistry, technique and imagination.

Last night’s ‘Winds of Nomads’ measured up to its fans’ expectations by – once again – soaring over them. This is because Artistic Director Bernard Goh has never allowed his drummers to limit themselves to a comfort zone. He continuously pushes them to try, to learn – and often perfect – yet another technique or instrument, “no matter how much they curse me.”

For this concert, Bernard had his drummers ‘properly’ learn the djembe – a West African drum they played on their laps, held under the arm or hugged between the knees. The group also made sounds with water, wooden buckets, ladles and something that looked like an armadillo buried in the sand. They made sharp cracking sounds by hitting it with what looked like chopsticks, and rich hollow sounds with the sides and heels of their hands.

The performance started slowly, with sounds of… what? The ocean, perhaps, or maybe it’s traffic. A large circle, a sun, hangs low over the stage. Mist floating over it is lit to an orange yellow. Is the sound then a sandstorm? The HANDS Percussion team undulates onto the stage, in long dancelike movements. In the corner, a guest musician lightly scratches the surface of his drum, eventually coaxing out soft sounds with his fingertips.

The dancing is stiff; some move with more ease than others. This is one of two segments in which I recommend the audience close their eyes. This dancing relegates sound to the background, and that is not where it belongs. The performance really takes off when dancing gives way to percussion. The performers sprint around the stage, clambering over a pyramid of Chinese Drums. They snap their fingers, slap their bodies and click their tongues. They pant rhythmically, gradually inserting voice to their “huh-huh-huh!” sounds.

The performance was a collaboration with HANDS’ long-time friend in music, Olivier Tarpaga of Dafra Drum and featured local and international guest artists. It saw the welcome return of Suyin Tan and Yon Nian Shee on marimba, and Lim Wei Siong on ehru. Olivier and fellow countrymen/musicians Flatie Dembele and Wilfried Souly were born in Burkina Faso, though true to the nomadic theme they have lived in and visited numerous countries, bringing their music with them. Flatie’s gift to the audience is his mastery of the kora; a sort of harp. He plays first a solo and then a duet with the marimba – the second time I recommend closing your eyes and letting the music wash through you without visual distraction.

international guests burst with the joy of the music and are matched in skill and energy by the HANDS’ players. In beautifully coordinated movements, the drummers fly from one instrument to the other, hands and sticks a blur crashing down on the drums’ skins. This is the HANDS Percussion experience – beats that hollow out your bones and thump on your sternum. They enter through your skin, fill your lungs and pump your blood. When they suddenly go silent, it feels like you’ve been ripped of your life-support machine. It takes a few minutes for your body to remember how to keep its own rhythms.

No wonder HANDS Percussion performances are so addictive. No wonder the audiences keep coming back.

Catch Hands 20th Anniversary Concert ‘Winds of Nomads’ from now until 13 August at Istana Budaya in KL.

4 and a Quarter - limes