Surviving the performing arts

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Drum kit isolated

Drum kit isolated

Performing art groups like most societies start with a few members passionate about an artform – they want to gather regularly to practice and eventually perform for the public. Some remain non-autonomous, existing purely by members volunteering their ‘talents’, while others are structured with a Constitution to guide and a Chairperson and Committee to manage the society, its activities and funds. And these management positions are usually still on a voluntary basis. Besides membership fees, in order to earn extra money for the kitty, there will be merchandise to sell and gigs to perform.

Why would extra money be needed you might ask? To stage a concert for the public, there are expenses and some of these include venue rental, permit fees, lights, sound equipment, costumes and make-up. It all adds up to a substantial sum.

Funding comes in a variety of ways. Some groups have their own funds, with benefactors and patrons supporting them. But most have to ‘beg’. The usual process is to write to companies which they think have money to spare, and write to the Department of Culture and the Arts (JKKN), part of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for a grant. Usually nothing is forthcoming and grants from the Government are few and far between.

A group may also want to improve themselves, so commonly, experts are invited to hold masterclasses and workshops, and these do not come cheap.

Obtaining premises to practice and rehearse is another problem. It is all very well when the group is small, fellow members can volunteer their homes. But when you have over a hundred singers or a dozen or so energetic shigu drummers, rehearsal space becomes a major problem.

This is an opportune time to introduce Hands Percussion, affectionately known as HANDS. They are a self-funded drumming group which has survived 17 years in the industry. They had to move out from their space in a Kuala Lumpur mall to a shoplot in Sungai Buloh’s industrial park, in order not to disturb neighbours. Now they drum to their hearts content!

This group has survived predominantly by doing corporate gigs and teaching. Now what do they teach? 24 Festive Drums, a unique Malaysian drums performance evolved from the shigu and inspired by China’s seasons, celebrations and festivals. And this artform is 100% Malaysian, created by two Johorians in 1988. It is a popular extra-curriculum activity in Chinese-medium schools. At its peak, HANDS was teaching in 27 schools. HANDS now has nine full-timers who teach in 18 schools, mainly in the Klang Valley and as far away as Taiping, Kuala Terengganu and Sandakan, Sabah.

Hands

Hands

When HANDS was first formed in 1997, all of its initial members held their own respective full-time jobs. When more contacts were made and with teaching jobs in hand, they decided to go full-time. Bernard Goh, its founder and Artistic Director, a graphic designer by profession, had to teach everyday then. The group grew with more full-timers coming on board and part-timers too (today numbering about a dozen).

There is a steady pool of talents to draw from with HANDS teaching in so many schools. The members themselves do face their own obstacles when they announce to their parents that they want to be a drummer! However, perseverance, passion and dedication usually pays off when parents see the talent displayed at concerts. The group staged their first concert in 2001, When Percussion Meets, and there has been almost a production a year since then.

In order to maintain the level of energy needed at a typical HANDS concert, there is a strict regime of practice and exercises that need to be followed. As the part-timers are mainly students, they get together at the weekends to train. To be fit and flexible, they jog, swim, and do yoga. And to be complete performers, there are dance and theatrics lessons. The shigu is not the only percussive instrument the members play, others include the Malay hand drum (gendang), tabla, marimba, conga and of course, the gamelan.

The part-timers together with the full-timers, earn the real money for the group by doing corporate gigs. Because HANDS is such an energetic and visually exciting group to watch, they are an ideal opening act for any launch or event. They have been as far as Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in November 2010 to perform for only four minutes, for the opening ceremony of a ground-breaking ceremony of their Olympic Sports Complex!

As in any organization, big or small, what is needed is a leader who has a vision and a dream. Throw in hard work and passion, chances are it will thrive. And HANDS is a perfect example of survival in our performing arts scene.

Catch HANDS in action in Kaleidoscope III at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), 7-16 November 2014.

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