24 Festive Drums' dramatic art of drumming

On 14 February 2009, 24 years after this dramatic art of drumming was founded in Johor Baru, the 24 Festive Drums was recognised as a National Cultural Heritage by the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry.

The Foon Yew High School drum troop performing
the 24 Festive Drums in Teochew City in 2008
Since its inception at Foon Yew High School in 1988, the 24 Festive Drums’ unique art of drumming has spread nationwide and abroad.  While it uses the Cantonese drum, the whole concept of the 24 Festive Drums was created by cultural activists, Tan Chai Puan and Tan Hooi Song, right here in Johor Baru.

When the Foon Yew High School drum troop presented their performance of the 24 Festive Drums in Teochew City in 2008, this art of drumming was introduced to China.

This performance so impressed the spectators that they were keen to start their own drum troops.  Malaysian students in China then helped to pioneer the first drum troop in Hokkien province, which now numbers some 300 drummers!

Poster for the 4th International Invitation
24 Festive Drums event in JB 
This art of drumming has since spread across China and was even incorporated into the cultural ceremony to pay respects to ancient Chinese national ancestors in the Hu Nan province.

Beside Malaysia, there are now more than 300 drum troops worldwide including professional troops in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.

Since the inaugural Drums Festival in 2010, Johor Baru has hosted a Drums Festival every two years for local troops to pitch their skills at a progressively high level of competition and for international troops to show off their drumming talents.  

So this September, drummers nationwide and from the world over are coming to the 4th International Invitation of 24 Festive Drums event happening on September 17 in EduCity Indoor Stadium.

To better appreciate the 24 Festive Drums, we look back on how it all started when Chai Puan and Hooi Song were tasked with organising a performance for the Ninth National Dance Festival in Johor Baru.  They chose to use traditional drums as drum beats created a festive mood and echoed the rhythm of life.

Information plaque on Tan Hooi Song [Left] and
Tan Chai Puan [Right] displayed in the Drums Cafe
While Chai Puan, a businessman, talented poet and cartoonist, wrote the poetry, Hooi Song, a renowned musician, composed the music.  To enhance the presentation with a blend of drumming, music, poetry and dance, they sought the help of Yu Sing Kong, a master in the art of Chinese crosstalk and Charlie Tan Cheng Swee, a choreographer.  This unique collaboration became fondly known as Three Tans and One Yu.

While they agreed that this should be a multiple drum performance, they couldn’t decide on how many drums until Chai Puan read a poem by a Taiwanese poet who described the beauty of the four seasons in a set of 24 poems.

This inspired them to create a drum performance based on the 24 seasons in the lunar calendar, traditionally marked by festivals that has guided the lives of the ancient Chinese agricultural community for thousands of years.

Using music scores and sketch illustrations, the creators spent a great deal of time discussing the basic rules and formations before they finally agreed on its dramatic presentation.

A replica of an original sketch used by the creators
of the 24 Festive Drums' art of drumming
Then funds had to be raised to buy the drums from China.  The first set of drums was acquired through the goodwill of generous sponsors and contributions from the Johor Baru Tiong-Hua Association and the five Chinese clans representing the Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien and Hakka communities here.

Calligraphy masters were invited to paint each drum with two bold Chinese characters that represented each of the 24 seasons.

After the music and choreography were arranged to harmonize gracefully into a performing art that depicts the cycles of the 24 seasons in music, calligraphy and the rhythm of life, the first troop of drummers was trained by Hooi Song, who was then the music master in Foon Yew High School.

It was a memorable day in April 1988 when the 24 Festive Drums made their debut at the Ninth National Dance Festival.  The drum troop was to perform only for the event’s opening ceremony but their performance so enthralled the audience that the troop was asked to perform again the next day.  The drum show was so well received that the fest was extended for yet another day!

A wall art installation in the Drums Cafe
On 12 June 1988, the 24 Festive Drums’ art of drumming was formally recognised in a ceremony held at the forecourt of the Johor Gu Miao or Old Temple at Jalan Trus.

While Chai Puan is still actively involved in promoting the 24 Festive Drums locally and abroad, Hooi Song lost the battle to cancer in July 2008, a week after he was honoured with the Warisan Orang Hidup award from the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry.

The 24 Festive Drums is also the inspiration for the Drums Café, opened and operated by drummers, for fans of the 24 Festive Drums to chill out over good coffee and a small menu of local food while they admire the café’s charming drum-themed décor. 

The café is designed with information for guests to learn that while the drums are a cultural element from China, the 24 Festive Drums has its origins in Johor Baru, a performing art which is a proudly Johor-born, Malaysian heritage.
Find out more about corporate team-building with the art of drumming at Drums Café, No. 39 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru.  Open daily 11am to 10pm.  Tel: 607 – 2200955.

A version of this was published in the September 2016 issue of Xplore Johor

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