Hands Percussion celebrates 25th anniversary with 'Thunder' festival at Istana Budaya

Drums of all shapes are coming to life under one roof, as renowned groups join the beat and showcase their talents.

Hands Percussion Team 1 is ready to rumble after two years of virtual performances (Photo: Claeschong)

Reaching the quarter-century mark is reason to celebrate. As Hands Percussion rolls out its drums again from Oct 6 to 9, founder-cum-artistic director  Bernard Goh will be watching from the wings and figuring out its next move.

Plans for the next stage of this boisterous, rousing group’s journey have been stymied by the pandemic, which scaled down activities drastically. “We did online classes and showed our videos when invited to perform.” But after holding on for a year, Goh had to tell five core members to go, among them those who joined Hands from the age of 10 and now have children themselves.

“I have to find a way, talk to people and think of how to maintain and sustain the company. But no complaints. Everyone is having a tough time. I think it’s good, a challenge that makes you pause and rethink how things are going to be.”

First, the 25th anniversary celebrations, billed as Kaleidoscope 6 — Hands International Drumming Festival “Thunder”. It will be held at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, which Goh has a soft spot for — “It’s a national venue” — and a good feeling about drawing audiences to. “I believe if you have the will and a good team, and the management is right, we can fill IB. We can make things happen.”

What will happen, starting Thursday, is drums of all shapes coming to life under one roof, as renowned groups join the beat and showcase their talents.


Goh: After 25 years, you don’t look back and say, ‘Wah, what’s our achievement?’ You look forward. (Photo: Shahrill Basri/ The Edge Malaysia)

The programme will focus on Malaysian groups, such as Tyffin Box, a quartet that has been performing together for three decades; the Dhol Ambassadors on double-headed drums; Baizam Generation (known for its dances, traditional and modern music combinations); Orang Orang Drum Theatre (which combines drumming, movement and theatre); Gangsapura Gamelan Group; Souls Impact Percussion (featuring movement, martial arts, traditional Chinese drum work, and Western and Chinese percussions); and Teams 1 and 2 from Hands Percussion. Canadian guest artiste Ziya Tabassian will play the tombak (the Iranian drum).

Evening performances aside, students from DeafBeat and Teo Chew Association will show off their drumming skills during the day, with Handpan by Jian Hao, Waaiwaii Drum and Batteryheadz busking at various time slots. There will be workshops on the Mak Yong/Mek Melung and Indian instruments, day-long Kaleidoscope creative markets over the weekend and an International Artists Symposium on Oct 9. The speakers are Tabassian,  Larry Hwang from Taiwan, Tomas Nilsson (Norway), Oliver Tarpaga (US),  I Wayan Sudirana (Indonesia) and Goh.

On the Kaleidoscope title, he explains it reminds him of children making those toys using the same materials — cardboard tubes, mirrors, coloured paper — and producing endless images. “These keep changing as you twist it. The kaleidoscope reflects the drumming community — there’s a variety of sparks within its constant heart.”

Through Hands’ drumming festivals, organised every two years since 2009, he aims to gather friends and groups to exchange ideas and create. “We need to pull people together. I always feel we have to create opportunity. You cannot wait; you have to knock on doors.”


Gangsapura Gamelan Group (Photo: Gangsapura Gamelan Group)

He likes connecting people and can visualise performers from different disciplines crossing paths and working with each other. “When I see a good show overseas, I want to bring it here so Malaysians can enjoy it too,” says the former artistic director (2016 to 2020) of the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Petaling Jaya.

“The performing arts make people watch and believe in something. I believe people need that connection” — which he has missed physically because of Covid-19. “It’s time to reconnect.”

Goh feels drums make the ideal conduit because there is no language barrier when one strikes a beat. These instruments suit his character too, because he goes straight to the point instead of taking twists and turns.

Two-and-a-half decades of helming Hands have convinced him there is potential to turn drumming from a passion into a career. But not spared Covid-19’s cruelty to the arts the last two shaky years, he is forced to take stock, look at things differently and ponder the future of his players — where to go next and what they can do besides drumming.

“Many of them joined us straight after Form Five and are very focused and good at playing. Three months into lockdown, they started telling me, ‘I can’t write a proper proposal or a formal letter. I don’t know anything, Sir’.”

This year has seen his stalwarts taking on new roles and multitasking. “They help to arrange things and see clients,” says Goh, who became an art teacher at Chong Hwa Independent High School KL, after getting a diploma in graphic design from the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1993. He was already coaching Chung Hwa’s drumming society and when he eventually set up Hands in 1997, its then principal Tan Soon Hock let them practise in the school, before they had a studio.


Students from the Hands Percussion Academy (Photo: Hands Percussion)

The last decade has been one of change for Goh, 51, who says: “I’m no longer a player. I can play, but with a full repertoire, I cannot fool people lah. I’ve lost touch for so long.”

Hands’ core team is very lean, but there are 24 part-time members it can pull in when the need arises. “I’d say I can still put on a solid show, but not overseas for now,” says Goh, who has led his drummers to international art festivals and events in Europe, Australia, Hawaii, Turkmenistan, Qatar, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

In March this year, they performed at Expo 2022 in Dubai, and invitations are starting to come in, he shares. “After 25 years, you don’t look back and say, ‘Wah, what’s our achievement?’ You look forward. Everything has changed now. After Kaleidoscope, and our own drumming festival in December,  we will need to look at things long term.”

Just as bands can change their lead singers, a new artistic director can lead a group in fresh directions. “But if the music is good, the band is still good. The foundation has to be there; my training method has to be there. I’m trying to make youngsters realise even if you are talented, you need to have that foundation, otherwise, you won’t last long.”

With savings emptied, the prospect of starting from zero again is doubly daunting. But Goh takes comfort that many others are suffering too. He just has to “gather people with the same attitude and start again”.


This consummate artist expects his group to give their best, always, regardless of whether they are doing a drum performance or a commercial show (Photo: TRBAN Photography)

Hands may not be able to travel with 30 people, 40 drums and tons of equipment to Adelaide anymore, but he can try to create a show with six to eight drummers and make people go “Wow!” There is no lack of invites to perform and the challenge, always, is “I want it to be good.”

This calls for every performer to be responsible for the show. It also means one cannot simply substitute, say, a gendang for another drum because the sound is different, Goh emphasises.

“We have long passed the cari makan stage. Every time we go out, we have to be very good. When you set standards like that, the drummers follow. They now know why I want to hire another lorry to bring that drum.”

This consummate artist expects his group to give their best, always, regardless of whether they are doing a drum performance or a commercial show. “It’s the same.” Similarly, he appreciates how audiences respond to Hands, whether it is a standing ovation in a foreign country, or claps from a bunch of children at a badminton court in Jinjang. “It’s the same, because you are touching people.”

Goh is happy he can still coach and influence youngsters to realise talent is a gift and that they can use it to touch people and convince them “the performing arts are important”.

As someone who had no role models when starting out, he does not worry about imitation or people stealing his ideas. “If you are confident enough, ideas will come.”

With classes in school and at his newly established Hands Percussion Academy, he feels it may be a good thing if the young ones can imitate those who precede them. “Slowly they will evolve and come into their own. You need that journey to reach there.”


"Kaleidoscope 6 — Hands International Drumming Festival ‘Thunder’" will be held at Istana Budaya, KL, from Oct 6 to 9. See here for programme and ticketing details.

This article first appeared on Oct 3, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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