Lately, I’ve been hearing drums all around me.
There’s prominent drumming in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, which I can’t seem to turn off these days. There’s drumming in “Rhythm,” a short and excellent documentary that features my friend Neelamjit, the finest tabla player you’ll ever hear, at least here in Vancouver. And there was nothing but drumming in the Cultural Olympiad event, “Sound of the Ocean,” a show by the U-Theatre from Taiwan.
When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I’d start off with a brief history lesson on drumming. I tossed the idea after I realized a history of using our hands, complete with opposable thumbs, on a surface to make noise dates back to when we were primates far from the savannah, making music in the trees. That, and show me a culture that has never practiced rhythm in its history. So the best I can do is write about what happened when I watched and listened to “Sound of the Ocean.”
The show began with each performer silently walking on stage and taking their place in front of their instrument. After about five minutes of this, you’re on edge because you know what’s coming. But you’re still unprepared for the wave of sound that hits you out of the silence when they first touch their sticks to the drum skin. I’m not blind or deaf but if I were both, I can’t imagine it stopping me from experiencing some part of a drum performance like the one I watched. Each move the drummers took was a means to an end: the beat of a drum. But the movement that was created was more like a dance than a gesture. And you could feel the power of the vibration of the drum in your seat and through the balls of your feet.
At one point, there were 15 people on stage, each of them drumming in perfect time. They knew the music and count inside and out. But watching them, you would never know when the rhythm or tempo was going to change up. When it did change, it happened in perfect sync. You know that feeling you get when you say a word at the same time someone else says it too? Jinx! It’s like that, multiplied by a thousand – a silent little victory inside your heart.
Huang Chih-Chun is the music director and drum master at U-Theatre. He tells us
“the changes in loudness remind us of the adaptability of water that flows downhill, willingly complying with the slope. The silence stands for the largest drop, and it’s also the moment of not knowing. The drumming remains unbroken despite intermittent strokes. But the intervals are not made of silence; they are filled with the primordial sound “om,” which in Buddhist cosmology fills the universe.”
I think I want to see more drumming. Watching those beautiful performers exercise perfect rhythm made me feel grounded and connected to everyone else in the room who, for all I know, were all thinking the same thing: “I know this sound. It reminds me of something from long ago – it speaks of home and earth and beginnings.”