Lafaz Gema is an unusual performance that will combine literature and drumming.

THE steady rhythm and beat of drums is physical poetry, so it only makes sense that Hands Percussion is merging it with the written word in its upcoming Lafaz Gema.

Hands artistic director Bernard Goh explains that Lafaz Gema will feature six pieces based on a mix of local and foreign poems and be performed by the percussion group’s second team, Hands 2.

Goh says this is the first time he’s experimenting with more concept-driven choreographies for the second team, which consists mostly of trainee and volunteer members.

“Last time, training was just about hitting drums, using strength till they break a sweat, now their brains too will sweat from all this thinking up of concepts,” says Goh gleefully.

“I want to challenge them and myself to deliver this message with a minimalistic approach, where my drummers don’t move about much. They can jump around drumming for an hour, but standing still? Ah, then die,” he jokes.

The director admits that having the poems read in full during the performance would be too predictable, instead he plans to have it read in parts combined with projecting some lines onto stage. For this, Hands 2 will be collaborating with Penangite videographer Okui (she goes by just the one name), who had recently worked with Lee Swee Keong on the dance performance Green Snake And The Monk.

“Like Okui, I know very quickly what I want, when I see the image I want to create. But if I don’t understand the poem, it’s more challenging,” says Goh.

To help the ensemble better grasp the poems that inspired their performances, Goh had them do poetry reading classes with a Chinese literature teacher.

“I don’t want them to just follow my direction, I want them to read, feel and hafal (memorise) the poem,” says Goh.

Of the six poems, four are in Mandarin, one in Spanish and one in Malay. While Goh had the first five translated, he decided to keep Bangkit in its original the Malay-language version.

He shares that Bangkit was the result of a three-way collaboration between him, Taiwan-based choreographer Kathyn Tan and Malaysian poet Uji Amat.

“Unlike the others, which are existing poems, I started Bangkit with Kathyn’s choreography, then asked Uji to write her piece when Kathyn was halfway done,” reveals Goh. He added that the piece, which is performed by the female members of Hands 2 would be their most challenging as the girls were not trained in dance, yet had to do the movement piece while having their drum tied to them!

The second piece is based on Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s Body Of A Woman.

“Just the title already is erotic. Neruda wrote it when he was in love with his first girlfriend, it captures the lust and the emptiness one feels at the same time,” explains Goh.

With that in mind, he avoided using drums, as it would be too cliched being so associated with pounding hearts and love affairs. Instead, the boys of Hands 2 would be performing with clay urns as their partners.

While most are new pieces, the performance from Hand’s recent Rhapsodrum has been reworked with the poem Sama Ada Kami Cinta Kepada Malaysia by Fu Chengde. The poem touches on the sentiment of how minority races are constantly questioned about their nationalistic spirit despite being citizens of the country for generations.

“It’s a bit of an angrier piece,” admits Goh, adding “but it’s the boys’ favourite because they get to drum like mad.”

Another loud arrangement is Where The River Duo Meets, which uses kompang, gamelan, and Chinese drums.

“The poem is written about the Gombak and Klang rivers, how one is murky and the other pristine. Both complain about each other when they merge,” says Goh, adding that it was written in 1975 by Yeu Chuan and inspired by the view at Masjid Jamek where the two rivers meet.

“As much as we complain about each other, we all end up at sea. It doesn’t matter who is keruh (turbid) and who is jernih (clear), we all end up in a bigger space together,” says Goh, tying the concept neatly to the mixed instruments used.

Not all the poems are so socially charged, though; one of the softer pieces is based on Taiwan poet Yu Guangzhong’s Throughout My Life. It pays tribute to Hands 2 full time member, Jack Wan’s father, who recently passed away.

“The challenge was that there are so many poems for mothers but not for fathers,” muses Goh. Roughly translated from the original name, it reads “I cried only twice in my life, when I was born and first met you, and the last time I saw you, when you died”.

Lafaz Gema by Hands 2 will be performed at Pentas 1, KL Performing Arts Centre (off Jalan poh, Kuala Lumpur), from Sept 20-22; showtimes are 8.30pm with additional matinees at 3pm on Sept 21 and 22. Tickets are priced at RM48, RM68, RM88 and RM108. Check www.ilassotickets.com or call 03-4047 9000 to book.