It would be easy enough to get the wrong impression of Taiwan’s Ju Percussion Group. A casual trawl of online video sites will find the troupe, which headlines TaiwanFest next week, indulging in elaborately choreographed stickwork, slamming out thunderous beats on huge red barrel drums, and playing in ghostly white masks. “Some kind of Asian Blue Man Group,” one might think, but there’s more to this band than mere spectacle.
Yes, its shows are compulsively watchable, but Ju Percussion has a serious side, too. When founding member Tzong-Ching Ju initially assembled the ensemble in 1986, he was breaking new ground in Taiwanese culture; previous drum troupes had specialized in folkloric styles primarily imported from mainland China, such as the raucous drum-and-gong music that generally accompanies Lunar New Year celebrations. Conservatory-trained percussionists working from sheet music were, and still are, a rarity.
“Pretty much from the very beginning, Mr. Ju decided to build a new category of percussion music, which combined the western and the oriental, and also the traditional and the contemporary,” says group spokesperson Kuen-Yean Hwang, in a telephone interview from his Taipei home. “He was educated in Taiwan and later he finished his studies in Vienna, so pretty much his background is influenced by western music education. Most important, on the culture side, is that Taiwan is of course most influenced by the Chinese culture, but we were a colony of Japan for a while, and also the U.S. army had built bases here during the Vietnam War and Korean War. So it’s such a very special combination you can see in Taiwan.”
Hwang, whose own degrees include a master’s in jazz performance from the University of Southern California, points out that while some of the works Ju Percussion will perform in Vancouver certainly contain a theatrical aspect, that’s not the ensemble’s principal focus. “The theatrical part, actually, is only one face of our group,” he says. “We don’t play every piece like a theatrical piece. That depends on the composition, and we commission many composers from around the world, not only from Taiwan. So when the composer’s got any theatrical ideas, we are very open to accepting their ideas, and we try to cooperate with the composer to make them happen.”
Similarly, any parallels to the martial arts are more coincidental than intended. The group performs with ninjalike intensity, but that has more to do with extracting the sounds they want to hear from their instruments than with any nonmusical form of physical training.
“For example, on this tour we have a piece called Drumming Fest that is based on Cantonese lion-dance drumming,” Hwang explains. “In that piece, we use many drumming techniques that come from that really popular tradition, which is a lot like Japanese taiko. Just like in taiko, you need to hold your breath, and you need to lower your body, and you need to keep your body balanced. We’re not really trying to use any movement from the martial arts, but it looks, of course, very oriental or very Chinese—but that’s because of the music, not for the theatrical or the visual effect only.”
Ju Percussion’s Vancouver appearance—the only one on its current North American tour that will feature the ensemble’s full complement of musicians—will also show that this is more than a percussion ensemble. The evening’s central piece is a concerto for pipa and percussion, Zhong Kui Marrying His Sister Off, in which the lutelike stringed instrument will take centre stage.
“That is a very big challenge for us,” Hwang allows. “A pipa concerto is a very different sound, and a different timbre for the ensemble, trying to accompany a soft instrument—I mean, in terms of the volume—with very delicate sound. The piece has a storytelling kind of mood, so also we need to be careful about the sound. But it’s a very charming piece, and the audience, I think, will feel very surprised by how well the pipa can match the percussion ensemble.”
Ju Percussion Group plays a free concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on August 31, as part of TaiwanFest.