Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ju Percussion Group turns 25, looks forward to more years of upbeat drumming in Taiwan

By Nancy T. Lu
A quarter of a century of successful drumming in Taiwan and even overseas from time to time is without doubt quite a feat. Such track record, in fact, is inspiring the Ju Percussion Group led by founder and artistic director Ju Tzong-ching to look forward to another 25 years of percussive music-making.

The announcement of a plan to build and develop not just a permanent home but rather a cultural and educational center at the old Danshui Customs Wharf near the historic Fort San Domingo and Hobe Fort early this year marked the dawning of a new era for the group known for remarkable leadership in writing the history of contemporary percussion music in Taiwan. The Ju Percussion Group appears determined to continue to aim high in goal and accomplishment.

The Danshui site of historic importance dating back to the Qing Dynasty and the years of Japanese colonial rule will be transformed to fulfill functions like music creation and rehearsal, international exchange, musician training, promotion of percussion music education, as well as enhancement of the quality of life through tourism-oriented leisure programs. Existing structures with historical meaning at the location in New Taipei City will be preserved. But new facilities will be built, too.

For 25 years, the Ju Percussion Group has been performing, teaching, doing research on and promoting percussion music. The Danshui project has the objective of bringing it even closer to the life of the people. Percussion talents will be nurtured there. So will be the teachers. Percussion music education will be made more accessible. Music enjoyment will be encouraged as leisure activity of the general public. Such is the vision of Ju, also the incumbent president of the Taipei National University of the Arts and former artistic director of the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center.

Two memorable concerts presented at the National Concert Hall in Taipei in January this year kicked off the Ju Percussion Group’s celebration of a 25-year milestone, even featuring First Lady Chou Mei-ching as surprise guest performer during the rendition of two encore pieces, “Love Story” and “Body Language.”

President Ma Ying-jeou’s wife seriously played the marimba number with the other professional musicians first before venturing to playfully work out rhythmic beats by striking and slapping herself with her bare hands as well as by stomping her feet from time to time. She prepared for the program for two months. The choreographed performance inevitably ended each time with thundering applause from the entertained audience.

Chou first caught the public eye as an amateur percussionist shaking a pair of maracas during the state visit of President Ma to Central American countries in June 2009. The Ju Percussion Group joined President Ma’s entourage on this trip.

Not long after Ju Tzong-ching’s return from music studies in Vienna in the 1980s, he founded his pioneering group of percussionists in Taiwan in January 1986. Over the years, they have successfully fanned percussion fever in different parts of the country. Concerts carefully planned and organized around the island every year have helped spread the fun, excitement and joy of percussion music. Repertoires have featured works by international composers. However, even selections by Taiwanese composers have been played, too. Hung Chien-hui has even been hired to work full-time, composing for Ju’s percussionists. The Ju Percussion Group has likewise done recordings of percussion music over the years. The first album was released in 1988.

The Ju Percussion Group first developed a curriculum in percussion education especially for children in 1992. Classes for kids, which have been started and continued in different places around Taiwan, have shown that music education, which is best begun at an early age, has received ever-growing parental approval. From time to time, performances by Ju Percussion 2, a younger group of percussionists, have been organized to appeal to children.

Ju’s ambitious BOT project at this point, however, is to promote and develop percussion culture in an almost one-hectare area of the Danshui Customs Wharf on the right bank of the Danshui River. When orchestrating the successful bidding for the right to build and operate this meaningful educational project with the support of his team, he bears in mind that there is room only for world-class standard in nurturing Taiwan’s future generations of percussionists.

Raising the almost NT$200 million financial outlay needed to realize the project will be a challenge. The influential and persuasive Ju, who has extensive art management experience, remains undaunted though. He proved himself to be both a dreamer and an achiever in the past. For now, the Ju Percussion Group through a foundation first formed in 1989 and now functioning with Liu Shu-kang at the helm is officially looking forward to the operation and the running of the project in New Taipei City over a 50-year period.

Ju Tzong-ching rounded up friends from the art and education circles to establish the Ju Percussion Group Foundation in the past. His professional connections will ensure his capability to surmount all obstacles and difficulties in this venture in New Taipei City governed by Chu Li-lun.

Meanwhile the talents who identify with the leading group of percussionists founded by Ju stay driven and motivated in organizing concert programs with creativity to stimulate public interest in percussion music and at the same time to promote cultural awareness in the community. The Vietnamese presence because of intermarriage and the Filipino existence due to Taiwanese dependence on foreign labor invited a closer look through their music-making on indigenous percussion instruments as well as through poetry-reading at concerts in May 2006. The legend of “Mulan” got retold in original percussion theater complete with colorful costumes and stage design in May 2010.

Taking percussion music to the world stage has slowly come about gradually for the Ju Percussion Group of Taiwan. The musicians have brought their exciting beats and rhythms to countries on different continents. Invitations to grace music festivals and even events like the Asian Games have put them in high profile.

The Ju Percussion Group Foundation’s hosting once every three years since 1993 of the Taiwan International Percussion Convention with world-class ensembles of percussionists in attendance has put in the limelight the level of professionalism of Taiwan’s musicians. The next such event will unfold on May 20 to 28 this year.

After a quarter of a century the Ju Percussion Group continues to go places. A first-time trip to the subcontinent of India is scheduled for April 2011.

The upbeat drumming activities show no sign of tapering off. In fact, new exciting chapters in the history of the Ju Percussion Group are being written.

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