Taiwan Has a Unique Culture
Visiting the Ten Drum Culture Village in Tainan
By Steven Crook
GrammyAward-nominated Ten Drum Art Percussion Group has created a fascinating culture park centered on traditional drumming on the site of a disused sugar refinery in Tainan County.
TRADITIONAL TAIWAN moves to the beat of a drum. During temple rites, massive mechanized thuds alternate with the tolling of a bell. When chanting litany, Daoist priests keep up a constant tick-tocking on small, fish-shaped solid-wood drums. During the solemn rites every September 28 at Taiwan's Confucian temples, drums of five different sizes are played.
Even in the 21st century, drums, bells, gongs, fireworks, and firecrackers form the soundtrack for religious parades and temple celebrations, and thanks to the efforts of Ten Drum Art Percussion Group, a performance and educational troupe, drumming –inspired by, yet not beholden to, tradition – is becoming a part of Taiwan's modern urban culture too.
The group has performed at the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000, at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, and more recently in the Czech Republic.
Since 2007, Ten Drum's base has been a disused sugar refinery in the south Taiwan city of Tainan. On one of those beautifully sunny and supremely comfortable days that make winter travel in southwest Taiwan so pleasurable, Travel in Taiwan toured what's now called Ten Drum Culture Village, met with the group's founder and "regimental commander," Hsieh Shih, and took in a thrilling performance.
"If visitors to this village and the audience at our shows go home with just one idea in their heads, I hope it's this: Taiwan has a unique culture," Hsieh informed us. "We hope they can better understand Taiwan's original and authentic folk culture."
SOME PEOPLE IN TAIWAN today consider folk arts such as drumming to be somewhat low-class, and zhentou (the gaudily made-up and ornately attired "battle array" squads who perform during religious celebrations) to be synonymous with gang culture and delinquency. However, Hsieh doesn't try to obscure the links between drumming and the raucous festivities that mark deities' birthdays and other events of spiritual importance – rather, he builds on them.
One piece the ensemble regularly performs features eight men and women dressed as, and moving about in the manner of, the mythical Eight Generals (bajiajiang). Another, inspired by the well-known Songjiang Battle Array tradition, includes martial-arts moves.
Hsieh, who has composed the vast majority of the 60-plus works in Ten Drum's repertoire, has also drawn on episodes in Taiwan's history. One of the five pieces on Island of Drums, a 2009 Ten Drum album that scored a Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional World Music Album category, depicts in sound the coming to Taiwan of Koxinga, the Ming Dynasty loyalist who in 1662 evicted the Dutch from their colonial base in what's now Tainan (and from the rest of Taiwan).
Born in 1972, Hsieh Shih has often spoken of his desire to modernize and popularize Taiwanese drumming and to win a place for it in global culture. His father managed a Daoist temple, so it's hardly surprising that drumming is in his blood. He's been beating drums since he was three years old, and he founded Ten Drum in 2000. The "Ten" in the troupe's English name is a direct translation of his given name, "Shih."
Around 6,000 students at over 100 elementary and high schools throughout Taiwan have attended Ten Drum percussion classes. Individuals who learn drumming don't just acquire musical skills – they also strengthen their muscles, improve their posture and physical coordination, and release stress.
"Most everyone can learn to drum, if they've a passion to learn," said Chiu Ya-hui, chief of performance at the village. "Mastering the basic steps is the most difficult, and not everyone has the necessary patience to learn them. Of course, different people learn at different speeds."
"Most everyone can learn to drum, if they've a passion to learn"
TEN DRUM CULTURE VILLAGE has three aims, said Wu Tsuei-min, the village's manager. "Firstly, we want to present Ten Drum Art Percussion Group and its music. Secondly, we want to preserve the history of Taiwan's sugar industry. Thirdly, we want this place to be an ecological attraction."
To underscore Ten Drum's commitment to the second and third goals, Wu showed us two very different parts of the five-hectare site. The first was the smokestack that visitors see long before they enter the village, and which now bears the words "Ten Drum" in English and Chinese. The interior has been cleaned and fitted with lights; visitors can step in, touch the old bricks, and gaze up at a tiny circle of blue sky, 67 meters above.
She then led us to an area where staff cultivates plants attracting butterflies. Looking closely at the leaves, we spotted scores of crimson caterpillars. Nearby, we met an eight-strong group of full-time drummers tending small vegetable plots. Here they grow tomatoes, chilies, pumpkins, strawberries, and herbs; neither pesticides nor chemical fertilizers are used.
This isn't the only outdoor exercise that troupe professionals are expected to do. Each day begins with a five-kilometer jog. The importance of rigorous physical preparation became clear when rehearsals began. Ten Drum performers must be capable of striking 150 to 180 beats per minute for several minutes at a time, while at the same time maintaining postures that would challenge a gymnast.
Ten Drum performers must be capable of striking 150 to 180 beats per minute for several minutes at a time
According to Wu, the drummers often suffer backache and shoulder strain. Wrist injuries can be a problem. Surprisingly – given how loud unamplified drums can be – hearing loss isn't a threat.
Just as the performers need considerable strength and stamina, the equipment that's on the receiving end requires maintaining and, from time to time, replacing. During the warm-up for the morning show we enjoyed, a drumstick shattered. The nonchalant way in which the young man stepped back from his drum, picked up a replacement, and then seamlessly rejoined the performance made me think this was nothing out of the ordinary.
When I asked him about this later, Yang Yu-wen, "vice regimental commander" at the village, told me that on average sticks break "one or two times during each full-length show."
FOR HARDWARE AFICIONADOS, the Ching Ci Lin Drum Factory is perhaps the most fascinating place in the village. The word "factory" implies a production line, but this is really an artisan's workshop where Chang Chi-hsiang, an outgoing man in his fifties, answers questions about the drum-making process while working on instruments of all shapes and sizes.
Chang is one of a dying breed. Nowadays, no more than six or seven traditional drum makers are still active in Taiwan. The woodwork is outsourced so Chang can concentrate on preparing the leather (usually from water buffalo). He stretches hides over drum cases, then tightens and adjusts them until the membrane is taut and the sound is just right.
Working with fresh hides can be very unpleasant on account of the smell, and Chang says this is one reason why so few young people are interested in following in his footsteps. According to Chang, the drums used by the troupe typically last three to five years.
SO WHAT IS a Ten Drum show like? There are lighting effects and dry-ice blows across the stage, and it goes without saying that some sections are very loud. However, it's not a rock concert – some passages are slow and subtle, while others showcase breathtaking speed and dazzling dexterity. The drums’ skins are sometimes hammered, sometimes tapped with fingertips. The rims and sides are smacked to produce clattering rhythms.
Other types of instrument – Western as well as Eastern – make guest appearances, and at times just one of the people on the stage beats a drum while the others strike kung fu poses or perform dance moves. Ten Drum performances are always more than simple aural stimulation – and never less than stirring.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ten Drum Art Percussion Group (十鼓擊樂團)
ENGLISH & CHINESE