Taiwan band beats it up in style

The stage is covered with different surfaces, drums and sticks, all conducive to the creation of sound. The drummers shake their heads in time with the drumbeats, their rippling muscles barely containing their energy, which is a heady and contagious force that spreads like a plague, leaving the audience pulsating in awe.
The spontaneous and the synchronised come together in a grand display of virtuosity. One wonders: is this is dance, or are these drums, for the performances
seem so keenly choreographed, with great attention to detail. As radium-tinted hands glow and march across the darkened stage, it is hard to remember that the Ju Percussion Group (JPG), is after all, a percussion group.
Formed in 1986, the JPG is Taiwan’s first percussion ensemble. Its founder, Tzong-Ching Ju, beautifully links the art of percussion to its most visceral form as the heartbeat of the human body.
A group of endearingly creative artistes who find rhythm in everything they perceive, they have set world stages aflame with the power of their percussion. These eclectically dressed artistes play a wide range of percussion instruments, making a keen shift from plain music-making towards discursive approaches to the performance of percussion music, incorporating elements from theatre, dance and many other art forms. The group that presented its “Heartbeat of Taiwan” performance in New Delhi on Monday night, will now take to the stage in Mumbai on April 21, presenting a suite of four well-loved Bollywood film scores.
Tzong-Ching Ju started the JPG with friends and students who were also passionate about percussion music. Speaking about his background in music, he tells us, “On graduating from the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts, I continued studying percussion at Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna and received the diploma of Music Performer in Percussion in 1982. After returning to Taiwan, I was the principal percussionist of the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. In January 1986, I founded JPG to promote percussion music. Since then, I have also served on music society boards and in universities. Now, I am the president of Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA) and the artistic director of JPG.”
He goes on to comment on the gradual acceptance of percussion music.
“A few decades ago, people in Taiwan thought of percussion music as cacophonous, something that could never be melodic. Concert hall opportunities were few and far between. However, percussion music is the earliest form of instrumental music known to human beings. I believe that it enjoys a close relationship with rhythms like the heartbeat,” he says.
The JPG has been instrumental in popularising percussion music in Taiwan. Currently, it comprises 11 percussionists and one composer-in-residence. Group members play western percussion instruments as well as Chinese gong-drums, drawing on forms of Asian traditional music too. The group is devoted to performance, education and the promotion of percussion music. Innovation has always been a priority; they aim to present fresh perspectives on percussion by integrating the traditional with the modern.
While performing, the JPG uses masks reminiscent of butoh and costumes that accentuate the theatrical edge that some of their pieces have. Such dramatic works are an interesting study of how the percussive element can be foregrounded in inter-disciplinary performance work.
Speaking about a piece called Solar Myth, which they will perform at the NCPA in Mumbai, Tzong-Ching says, “Percussion music has many genres with distinctive styles. There are many possibilities when they meet each other with the intervention of theatre, dance, technology or other art forms. For instance, in Solar Myth, three mask-wearing performers devoid of facial expressions perform on the xylophone, creating a competitive atmosphere. The interaction between the performers gives rise to dramatic musical tension and stimulates the audience by creating interesting visualisations.”
Tzong-Ching reveals that the most challenging part of collaborations with other artistes and art forms is finding the perfect balance between percussion and the other forms. “Percussion music is played by hand and is connected to the whole body. We make intuitive adjustments during the process of creation and discuss our actions with choreographers or performers to reach perfection,” he explains. And perfection they have achieved; they are highly sought-after collaborators and have worked with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Lan-Lin Theatre and National Kuo-Kuang Opera Company among other internationally renowned groups.

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