The Sound of Drums



The Sound of Drums
Visiting a Traditional Drum Maker in Xinzhuang

Text: Owain Mckimm
Photos: Sting Chen

Big drums are an important part of traditional temple festivals in Taiwan, and also feature prominently in the performances of a number of acclaimed local drum troupes. If you happen to see one of these big and often bright-red drums while in Taiwan, chances are that it was made by Wang Xi-kun, one of only a few local masters who still produce drums in the traditional way.

 

Master drum maker Wang Xi-kun, his face beaded with sweat, greets us at the large, open storefront of the Xiang Ren He Drum Workshop in the district of Xinzhuang, New Taipei City. Walls of freshly painted drums, stacked three high, segment the workshop. Half-finished drums bound with ropes rest on raised platforms, apprentices prowling around them tightening and adjusting the bonds. Electric fans hum and blow breezes from every direction, making little difference to the temperature of this furnace of human endeavor. Though the road outside the workshop blares with the modern sound of car engines, the patter and boom inside, as Wang tests one of his drums, makes everything seem somehow ancient, somehow archaic – these hand-made drums and their creator are an anachronism on this busy Xinzhuang street.

During the Japanese colonization of Taiwan (1895-1945), the street that is now known as Xinzhuang Old Street was a hive of theatrical activity, and as many as nine theater troupes specializing in puppet theater were based there. Their puppet operas were often of a military theme – of great battles, marching armies, and glaive-wielding heroes – and of course, where there’s war there must also be drums. So began Xinzhuang’s entwinement with the drum-making industry. In the mid-1920s, a young carpenter with a penchant for traditional opera named Wang Gui-zhi (the father of Wang Xi-kun) set up a drum workshop in the area and began providing drums to the theater troupes, as well as to the temples that abounded on the streets of Xinzhuang and the neighboring boroughs of Taishan and Sanchong.

Over the years, however, Xinzhuang has changed. Decades of industrialization and, recently, the opening of a new metro line have propelled the area to the forefront of development. Yet peering into Master Wang’s workshop, you’d be hard-pressed to admit that times have moved on. There are a few giveaways: Those with a keen eye for wood will notice that the drums are now made of rosewood rather than the Chinese cedar commonly used in the past, mechanical jacks raise the drums to tighten the hides – a job that once fell to burly men – and Wang’s apprentices wear high-street specs with trendy thick frames.

These appear, however, as mere glitches in an otherwise perfect time capsule. Wang’s industry is, like the art of drumming itself, something beautiful yet primal, and he remains resolute amidst the surrounding onslaught of modernity. Yet though the methods remain the same, the customers that commission Wang’s work are changing. The last twenty years have seen the rise of several drum troupes, such as the Grammy-nominated Ten Drum Art Percussion Group and the meditative, mountain-based U-Theatre, which have gained an added sense of grassroots authenticity by using Wang’s tailor-made drums. And in the last three or four years orders from drum-fitness groups, which use drumming as a way to shed calories, have introduced Wang’s drums to a completely new 21st-century audience.

Wang’s industry is something beautiful yet primal, and he remains resolute amidst the surrounding onslaught of modernity

Temples, nevertheless, remain Wang’s bread and butter. Taiwanese temples require drums for two important purposes – as part of the “morning bell, evening drum” set suspended inside every temple, and as key instruments in the zhentou or battle-array formation squads that perform at temple celebrations and festivals. For anyone who has attended these temple celebrations, or even been within hearing distance of one, the noise, incredible color, and seeming pandemonium (to the uninitiated) is not something quickly forgotten, and the battle-array troupes in particular are a sight to behold. Costumed performers take on the roles of folk gods such as Lords Seven and Eight – who escort the spirits of the dead to the afterlife – or the mythical Eight Generals – expellers of plague and evil spirits – and teeter back and forth in their flamboyant, oversized apparel. Holding it all together amid the chaos is the beat of the drum. Indeed, whether used to drive lion dancers into an animalistic frenzy or to set the pace for a Taoist priest to chant scripture, the beat of a drum underlines many traditional rituals of Taiwan. At a great many events the inquisitive would find that it is Wang who has created the tools that perpetuate this beat. And he does so resolutely, the old-fashioned way.

“There are three basic elements to consider when making a drum,” explains Wang. The first is the drumskin, which, under Wang’s watch, is almost exclusively made from water-buffalo hide – the older and more grizzled the animal the better. “Ten-year-old buffalo produce the best hide for making drumskin,” says Wang. “The older the buffalo, the tougher and more durable the skin is. In the past, when buffalo used to work the fields, their skin would be even tougher.” Nowadays, very few water buffalo are bred and none at all are used to plough the fields, so getting one’s hands on good, gnarled buffalo hide is not an easy task. As a result, many drum makers are resorting to ox hide as a replacement. But Wang insists on using only the best buffalo hide. He takes us over to an ornate temple drum in the exhibition center next to his workshop. The skin on one side of the drum is corn-yellow, with a fine, smooth texture – ox hide. The skin on the other side is coarse, with a hint of stubble, and is speckled grey-beige – water buffalo. Wang hits one side with the palm of his hand; then he hits the other. The contrast is obvious even to a layman. “Finer skin gives a milder, mellower sound, while coarser skin is more dominant, more powerful.”

While acquiring high-quality skin may be a headache, turning it into high-quality drumskin is the equivalent of a New Year’s Day hangover. It’s gory, exhausting, foul-smelling work. Once the section of hide has been chosen and roughly cut to size, the thick, black buffalo hair must be removed. Wang explains that the traditional way to remove the hair is by shaving it off by hand; the modern way is to dip the hide in a chemical bath. Wang, unsurprisingly, prefers the traditional route, as immersing the hide in chemicals affects the quality of the skin and, in the long run, produces drumskin which splits more easily and produces inferior sound. Wang then shaves the skin to just a quarter of a centimeter thick, using only his judgment as a guide, before letting it dry for a week in the sun.

“The second thing to consider when making a drum is the wood used to make the shell,” says Wang. “The wood can take up to a year to prepare, and it can’t be rushed. If you use wood that isn’t ready, it will seriously affect the sound and quality of the drum.” The wood is carved in the form of curved staves, not bent like those of a wine barrel, and dried in a special room for approximately 40 days, then further dried at room temperature for 6-8 months. The staves are then pieced together to form the drum shell.

The most important part of the process, according to Wang, comes last – binding the drum. Wang and his apprentices place the drum shell on a platform supported by four jacks. The outer part of the drumskin is threaded with thick hemp ropes and bound to a circular steel railing below the platform. As the platform is raised, the ropes tighten and the drumskin is pulled taut over the top of the shell. An almighty crack, like that of a whip, rings out through the workshop as the skin edges over the rim. Wang stops for a moment and checks for any anomalies. He orders an apprentice to raise one of the jacks a tad – another crack as the drumskin equalizes. Wang then tests the sound, hammering the drumskin with two wooden batons. Next, the drum is lowered, and an apprentice clambers on top of the drumskin and begins to leisurely dance what looks like an Irish jig. “This is called ‘trampling the drum,’” Wang explains, as we look on open-mouthed. “It’s done in order to develop elasticity in the skin. If you don’t perform this step, after about two years the drumskin will go slack, and you’ll get nothing but a dampened, muffled sound.” This process is repeated several times over a number of days, until the sound is just the way Wang wants it.

Making drums that stand the test of time is obviously important to Wang. One of his proudest possessions is a gorgeous crimson temple drum decorated with pink and blue chrysanthemums, rolling pastel clouds, and a pale-green Chinese dragon. The drum is over 70 years old, and was made by Wang’s father. Wang instructs us to stand next to the drum. Though he hasn’t struck it yet, one can still feel vibrations coming from within, like a storm brewing in the belly of this old beast. Wang hits it with an open palm, and the sound emitted is deep and sonorous, fading after a few seconds. “A good drum won’t become dull or muted as the years go by,” he explains. “As a drum ages, its potential should slowly emerge. It’s only after many years that the sound of a drum reaches its peak.”

“A good drum won’t become dull or muted as the years go by. As a drum ages, its potential should slowly emerge”

Visitors to Taiwan have no shortage of opportunities to hear traditional drum music. Ten Drum Cultural Village in Tainan has performances twice daily by the acclaimed Ten Drum Percussion Art Group (www.ten-hsieh.com.tw/e-culture/show.html). Alternatively, U-Theatre performs regularly around Taiwan as well as in its mountain commune on Laoquan Mountain in Taipei’s Muzha area (http://utheatre.glis.ntnu.edu.tw). In addition, Xinzhuang plays host to the International Drum-Art Festival in May and June each year. To see how the drums are made, you can visit Master Wang and the collection of drums he has on show at a display hall next to his workshop. Wang requests that large groups book a week in advance.

 

English and Chinese

Eight Generals八家將
Laoquan Mountain老泉山
Lords Seven and Eight七爺八爺
Muzha木柵
Sanchong三重
Taishan泰山
Ten Drum Art Percussion Group十鼓擊樂團
Ten Drum Culture Village十鼓文化村
U-Theatre優人神鼓
Wang Gui-zhi王桂枝
Wang Xi-kun王錫坤
Xinzhuang新莊
Xinzhuang Old Street新莊老街
Xinzhuang International Drum-Art Festival新莊國際鼓藝節
zhentou陣頭

 

Xiang Ren He Drum Workshop (响仁和鐘鼓廠)
Add: 171, Zhongzheng Rd., Xinzhuang District, New Taipei City (新北市新莊區中正路171號)
Tel: (02) 2992-7402
Getting there: The workshop is a 5-minute walk from MRT Xinzhuang Station, Exit 2.

 

 

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