Drum Roll

24 Festive Drums, a Malaysian ensemble, celebrates its
worldwide success on its 24th anniversary
Johor Baru's 24 Festive Drums celebrate their 24th anniversary with pride

It all started in 1988 when Tan Chai Puan and Tan Hooi Song were tasked with organizing a performance for the Ninth National Dance Festival in Johor Baru. 

These cultural activists shared the vision in using drums that traditionally echo the rhythm of life, to create a festive mood.  While Chai Puan, a businessman, talented poet and cartoonist, wrote the poetry, Hooi Song, a renowned musician, composed the music.

Founders, Tan Chai Puan [Left] and Tan Hooi Song
at Hu Nan Province, China in 2005
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.  They agreed that it should be a multiple drum performance but couldn’t decide on how many drums until Chai Puan read a poem by a Taiwanese poet who described the beauty of the 4 seasons in a set of 24 poems.  

This was the inspiration for the creation of a 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. They chose to use the Cantonese drums and depended on donations and sponsors to buy them from China.  The first set of drums was acquired through the goodwill of generous sponsors and contributions from the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association and the 5 Chinese clans representing the Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien and Hakka communities in Johor Baru.

Historical event at Johor Gu Miao on 12 June 1988
Each drum was painted with two bold Chinese characters that represent each of the 24 seasons.  The music and choreography are arranged to harmonize gracefully into a performing art that depicts the cycles of the 24 seasons in music, calligraphy and the rhythm of life.  Hooi Song, then the music master in Foon Yew High School, trained the first troupe of drummers and it was a memorable day in April 1988 when they gave their inaugural performance in the Ninth National Dance Festival.

The 24 Festive or Season Drums was to perform only for the opening ceremony but the performance so enthralled the audience that the troupe was asked to perform again the next day.  Some 2000 tickets at RM50 each were sold for the fest and the 2-day festival was so successful that it was extended for another day.  The drums show created a great impact and this positive response was a strong encouragement for everyone involved.

Johor Chinese Association stalwarts at the event in
Johor Gu Miao on 12 June 1988

On 12 June 1988, the 24 Festive Drums was officially recognized in a ceremony held at the forecourt of Johor Gu Miao or ancient temple. 

It was an auspicious event attended by the presidents of the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association and the 5 Chinese clans as well as Dato Kuek Ho Yau and the calligraphy masters who wrote the Chinese characters of the 24 seasons on the drums.

Tan Chai Puan [Seated Centre] with first troupe
of drummers at Johor Gu Miao, 12 June 1988
On 9 June 2012, just 2 days ahead of the Drums’ 24th anniversary on 12 June, representatives of the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association, the 5 Chinese clans and YB Mok Chek Hou, state assemblyman for Stulang, met to commemorate this special event at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk.

“While the drums are a cultural element from China, the 24 Festive Drums has its origins in Johor Baru,” said Chai Puan because many are not aware that this performing art is truly a Malaysian heritage.  Hooi Song received the Warisan Orang Hidup award from the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry, a week before he lost the battle to cancer in July 2008.  On 14 February 2009, the same ministry listed the 24 Festive Drums as a national cultural heritage.

Tan Chai Puan [4th from Left] and Mok Chek Hou [Right]
with representatives from the Chinese clans at 24th
anniversary celebration at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
As a memento of this performing art’s humble beginning, each representative received a framed photo of the original troupe taken at the temple 24 years ago.  In the celebration, the deep, dramatic sound of the 24 Festive Drums resonated from the front of the Red House and throbbed through the heart of old Johor Baru.  A tall tray of traditional Chinese peach-shaped birthday pau or buns was arranged on a Chinese drum, surrounded by 24 red candles that were lit up as a special birthday cake!

“I never imagined it would gain such popularity,” said Chai Puan, reminiscing on the creation of the Festive Drums and how this art of drumming has grown to more than 300 troupes worldwide.  There are now professional troupes in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Switzerland and the United States. 

Malaysian 24 Festive Drums half-time performance
at NBA games in Oklahoma City, 2010
He said there may be more than 50 troupes in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur alone and since 2008, when drumming was included in the primary 6 school syllabus there are now drum troupes in primary and secondary schools in East and West Malaysia and even among the physically handicapped!

From 2003, universities in China starting forming their drum troupes and in 2005, the Hu Nan province of China incorporated the 24 Festive Drums into their cultural ceremony to pay respects to ancient Chinese national ancestors, Emperor Shen Nong (Yindi) and the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi).  In 2008, Malaysian students in Oklahoma State University, Ben Loh Weng Kheong, Yeo Chee Kiong, Leu Guan Shyong and Tang Choon, started the first 24 Festive Drums troupe in the United States.  It was a very proud experience for this drum troupe who had the honour to perform at half-time for the NBA games in Oklahoma City in 2010. 

The 24 Festive Drums performing on their 24th anniversary
in front of the Red House at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk

Sultan Iskandar, the late Johor Sultan [Standing Right] applauding
the 24 Festive Drum performance at an event in Larkin Stadium
Malaysian 24 Festive Drums performing on their first visit to
Teochew city, China in 2008
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 June 2012

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