The Drum­mer

Zhu Liangcheng: The Guardian An­gel of Zhoushan ‘gondgs and drums’

That's China - - Je T'aime, Dinghai - Text by / Li Jing

The drum­mer

Evening closed in as re­peated fail­ures of GPS nav­i­ga­tion led to our car be­com­ing a lit­tle lost in the hub­bub of a cross­road in front of the city’s West Bus Ter­mi­nal. Zhu Liangcheng emerged from nowhere on his elec­tric bike and greeted us from afar. “Fol­low me,” the man said, and af­ter a swift ride from the main road into a labyrinth of coun­try houses in a res­i­den­tial quar­ter called Zhu­ji­atang, we were in front of a two-storey man­sion the man humbly de­scribed as “just so so”.

His chatty wife had barely greeted us in the liv­ing room when Zhu Liangcheng dashed into the base­ment – his ‘work sta­tion’ - like a child dy­ing to show off his gifts from Santa Claus, sug­gest­ing we take a look at his drums and para­pher­na­lia.

Like a pa­tient mu­si­cal teacher, he un­veiled his beau­ti­ful gong en­sem­ble, adorned with dec­o­ra­tive swirls, and fit­ted with two golden dragons to be placed on top. With the five drums and 13 gongs of vary­ing sizes all set up prop­erly, Zhu Liangcheng was ready for the open­ing of a show, with beads of sweat form­ing on his fore­head and tem­ples.

With the drums painted red and em­bel­lished with pink flow­ers, Zhu’s at­tire seemed to match per­fectly as he was hand­somely dressed in a but­toned-up shirt fea­tur­ing a pais­ley and floral print. See­ing Zhu gaze lov­ingly at his drums, one could imag­ine

his heart beat­ing to the re­ver­ber­at­ing sounds of the drums. “Will the neigh­bours com­plain about the noise?” I won­dered.

“No wor­ries,” he beamed, “For us ru­ral peo­ple, it is al­ways a happy mo­ment to hear the drums. Ev­ery­one will join the fun. It is not like liv­ing in one of those apart­ment build­ings in the city, and that’s the good thing about liv­ing in the coun­try­side.”

“Are you al­ways so happy?” I chal­lenged.

“Why not? I have mu­sic. I see no rea­son for not feel­ing happy,” he shot back, his face wreathed in a big smile, caus­ing me to smile as well. Upon meet­ing Zhu Liangcheng, one can eas­ily come to the con­clu­sion that he is the hap­pi­est man in Ding­hai. For Zhu Liangcheng, drum­ming is in­dis­putably his num­ber one pri­or­ity. “What if you are too busy to get ready for a show?” I ven­tured. “That’s not a pos­si­bil­ity at all,” the man cocked his head like an un­rea­son­able child.

His bet­ter half was busy at that time mak­ing tea for us, sup­port­ive of her hus­band and smil­ing back. “That’s him, al­ways feel­ing so jus­ti­fied when it comes to drum­ming,” she said.

The man’s most re­cent drum­ming show was at a na­tional ‘drums and gongs’ com­pe­ti­tion held in Shanxi Prov­ince. “On the na­tional stage, Zhoushan drum­mers are the best in Zhe­jiang and I am the best in Zhoushan,” he an­nounced, bub­bling with ex­cite­ment.

“The drum­mer is like a con­duc­tor who can­not af­ford to make any mis­takes on the stage,” Zhu Liangcheng ex­plained his role earnestly, brac­ing up for his show. His eyes closed and with two drum­sticks poised in po­si­tion, Zhu Liangcheng held his breath and set the tempo with the first strike on the drum skin. The air seemed to freeze as ev­ery­one lis­tened in­tently, our spir­its in­vig­o­rated by the ris­ing sounds.

Zhu’s pow­er­ful smile did not leave his face as he be­gan to pound the drums. One can be­gin to un­der­stand the mean­ing of ‘pas­sion’ from ob­serv­ing Zhu’s drum­ming tech­nique. Stand­ing in front of us in the sul­try base­ment was a Her­bert von Kara­jan con­duct­ing Ilde­brando Pizzetti's opera As­sas­sinio nella cat­te­drale in 1960, with an ace up his sleeve. He was so in­tox­i­cated in the roll of the drums that he seemed to be per­form­ing for a thou­sand spec­ta­tors.

Every strike was ma­neu­vered with sov­er­eign com­mand and el­e­vated feel­ings, and was as nat­u­ral and smooth as float­ing clouds and flow­ing

water.

The rhyth­mic flow was pre­cise and cal­cu­lated in his solo recital, as he in­ter­preted each move­ment ac­cord­ing to his imag­i­nary part­ners who he would nor­mally per­form with. The beauty of the high-pitched and res­o­nant drum­ming, can be ap­pre­ci­ated both in its sin­gu­lar­ity and when ac­com­pa­nied by the gongs. These unique sound­ing drums are un­like the loud, dry and low-pitched set used by a rock drum­mer. In­stead of a rapid head-bang­ing re­ac­tion in­duced by lis­ten­ing to drum so­los within rock mu­sic, one has the urge to sway one’s head or move one’s hips, as the

com­pel­lend tdo body is flow to the rhythm. As for the gongs, they have a sub­stan­tially flat sur­face that vi­brates in mul­ti­ple modes, pro­duc­ing a “crash” rather than a turned note. When the drum­ming builds, the crash­ing sound of gongs elate the mood and keep the en­ergy alive. Large flat gongs may be ‘primed’ by lightly hit­ting them be­fore the main stroke, greatly enhancing the sound and caus­ing the in­stru­ment to ‘speak’ sooner, with a shorter de­lay for the sound to ‘bloom’. It re­quires a great deal of skill to keep this prim­ing stroke in­audi­ble.

In many tra­di­tional cul­tures, drums have a sym­bolic func­tion and are used in reli­gious cer­e­monies or mu­si­cal ther­apy. For Zhu Liancheng, the act of play­ing the drums is like a spir­i­tual ther­apy, fill­ing him with the in­no­cence and hap­pi­ness of a new­born child. It cleanses and heals his soul. Imbed­ded within the vi­brat­ing over­tones is a man’s pas­sion­ate love for his sea­side roots and the beauty of life, and his solid res­o­lu­tion to carry for­ward the lin­eage of this an­cient folk art.

Once upon a time

The gong has been a Chi­nese in­stru­ment for mil­len­nia. They may have been first used to sig­nal peas­ant work­ers in from the fields, as some gongs are loud enough to be heard from miles away. It is widely be­lieved that the tra­di­tion of drum­ming in Zhoushan dates back to the 15th Cen­tury when the sea­far­ing lo­cals used the hi­lar­i­ous sound for so­lic­it­ing busi­ness from far and wide, merry-mak­ing or to stave off lone­li­ness when they were on the icy, bound­less sea and home was fad­ing away, rather than for its mu­si­cal qual­i­ties.

In the old times of Zhoushan, the deaf­en­ing sound of gongs and drums also came handy as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion over great dis­tances, used

Imbed­ded in the vi­brat­ing over­tones is a man’s pas­sion­ate love of his sea­side roots and the beauty of life, and his solid res­o­lu­tion in car­ry­ing for­ward the lin­eage of this an­cient folk art.

The mo­ment he lifted the torch was also a mem­o­rable re­ward for the man’s love and pride of his home­town – the roots of a mu­si­cal life that not only brought im­mense joy but also made him a bet­ter per­son.

by fish­er­men and mariners as sig­nals in case of an emer­gency.

This folk mu­sic reached its hey­day in Ding­hai in the Ming and Qing times of China. And like all other gong and drum arts across China, the tra­di­tion also plays an in­te­gral part in all fes­tive oc­ca­sions such as wed­dings, birth­day cel­e­bra­tions, busi­ness open­ings and putting a new fish­ing boat out to the sea.

The fam­ily

Mu­sic runs in Zhu’s blood and veins. Born into a mu­si­cal fam­ily that re­lo­cated to Ding­hai from Fu­jian Prov­ince and had long thrived on a folk mu­sic en­sem­ble since the Yongzheng years of the Qing Dy­nasty, Zhu Liangcheng learnt about the im­por­tance of mu­sic from his fa­ther. Born into a world of drum­beats, Zhu Liangcheng and his older sis­ter showed a spe­cial mu­si­cal gift and took the re­lay ba­ton at a very young age from their fa­ther, whose rea­son­ing for his de­ci­sion to train his chil­dren into mu­sic lovers, if not mu­si­cians, was awe­somely sim­ple and straight­for­ward. “One who plays any mu­si­cal in­stru­ment at all will not be tempted by evil or do wrong to other peo­ple,” the fa­ther told his chil­dren.

One of the fea­tures of the ‘Zhoushan gongs and drums’ is its use of tra­di­tional stringed and wood­wind in­stru­ments, col­lec­tively known as ‘sizhu’, in its mu­sic ar­range­ment. The re­sult is an in­trigu­ing com­bi­na­tion of sub­lime grandeur and the mel­low­ness and grace of ‘Jiang­nan’. To mas­ter play­ing the ‘sizhu’ fam­ily, ‘erhu’ is the key and the most dif­fi­cult part of the learn­ing process. “When your be­numbed fin­gers can get the two-stringed in­stru­ment un­der beau­ti­ful con­trol in freez­ing win­ter, you can play it ef­fort­lessly in any ex­treme con­di­tions. It is like build­ing a chan­nel for water to flow freely,” the fa­ther told the boy.

In­her­i­tance

Zhu Liangcheng did not start learn­ing to play the gongs and drums un­til the early 1970s - a dark pe­riod in the fam­ily’s mu­si­cal busi­ness. The en­sem­ble had to make ends meet from teach­ing, as com­mis­sioned per­for­mances earned a mea­ger in­come. Amidst the po­lit­i­cal chaos of the 1970s, many mu­si­cal in­stru­ments were banned as “deca­dent mu­sic”. The folk mu­sic scene of Zhoushan suf­fered an over­all de­cline in qual­ity and pop­u­lar­ity, with many mu­si­cians dis­missed as out­liers. Af­ter strug­gling for two leaner decades, 40-year-old Zhu Liangcheng drew in­spi­ra­tion from Gao Rux­ing, a Zhoushan gongs and drums mas­ter and found­ing fa­ther, and saw a new hope for the withered ‘mu­sic tree’ to come to life again.

Like many other en­dan­gered folk arts in China, Zhoushan ‘gongs and drums’ as an art form has been suf­fer­ing from a se­ri­ous lack of writ­ten records and is strug­gling on the mar­gins of sur­vival. To de­fend the authenticity of this mu­si­cal trea­sure from his home­town and share its beauty with the younger gen­er­a­tions as well as a wider, in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence, Zhu Liangcheng makes the best of every chance he is given to per­form. As well as fre­quently meet­ing with Zhoushan’s older drum­ming masters such as Gao Rux­ing, in­no­vat­ing and prac­tic­ing every melodic de­tail to keep the drum­ming cul­ture vi­brat­ing in the social pulse of Zhoushan.

“What­ever he chooses to un­der­take, he’ll ex­ert all his strength,” his wife told us.

As one of the most ex­cel­lent mem­bers in the folk cul­tural ‘hall of fame’ in Ding­hai, Zhu Liangcheng was cho­sen as one of the ‘Bei­jing Olympics’ torch bear­ers in Zhe­jiang Prov­ince in 2008. It is easy for one to imag­ine the bois­ter­ous tempo of the drum­beats surg­ing in his heart when he was run­ning to the grand ac­com­pa­ni­ment of trum­pets and the cheer of a choir of fol­low­ers.

The mo­ment he lifted the torch was also a mem­o­rable re­ward for the man’s love and pride of his home­town – the roots of a mu­si­cal life that has not only brought im­mense joy but has also made him a bet­ter per­son.

朱良成在盐仓中心小学培训学生。

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