JIGU! Thunder Drums of China: The Ensemble
JIGU! Thunder Drums of China is the Western touring name for the Shanxi Jiangzhou Drum Art Ensemble. Since 1988, when the troupe was founded, JIGU! has been performing an intricate blend of traditional and modern musical elements. JIGU! has won the Chinese Folk Dancing Competition for Percussion and Drums Performers. The troupe has received the gold medal 4 separate years at the National Star Awards in China for excellence in drumming and percussive performance. JIGU! made its North American debut in 2007.
A History of Music Performance in China
The Chinese composition Youlan, or “Solitary Orchid,” dates back to 908 A.D., which makes it the oldest known piece of written music in the world. The philosopher Confucius’ Book of Songs contains folk songs from as early as 800 B.C. The Qin Dynasty (221–07 B.C.) established the Imperial Music Bureau. Under Emperor Han Wu Di (140–87 B.C.) the bureau expanded, and it supervised court and military music as well as determined what folk music would be officially recognized by the court.
Percussion instruments have the oldest history of any traditional instruments in China. The character of the word “drum” is found inscribed on bones and tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (1562 - 1066 B.C.). Percussion instruments at this time were made from gold, rock, wood or bamboo.
Music grew along with the popularity and development of Chinese Opera. The Liyuan, or Pear Academy, was the first royal acting and music academy in China; Emperor Xuanzong founded the academy during the Tang Dynasty (712–755 A.D.), and it may have been the first institutional music academy in the world. Pear Academy was the start of the Chinese opera. Chinese opera has many regional styles, but the Beijing Opera—the Jingju—is the most popular.
Jingju uses traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments to provide rhythmic accompaniment to acting. Chinese theatre values representations of all facets of life. The best kind of performance shows the struggle to survive and succeed as well as displays the joys of living. However, the acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express actions like riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. The movements are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic.
Costuming is a key part of the Chinese theatre tradition. Performers would rather wear a worn and torn costume than wear one that was inaccurate for their character. Modern Chinese opera costumes are called xingtou (pronounced “shing TOO”) or xiyi (pronounced “shee YEE”). JIGU! uses costumes based on dress from about 400 years ago in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.). The costumes include exaggerated flowing sleeves, headwear with pheasant feathers, and pennants originally worn on the backs of military officers.
Shanxi: The Land of the Thunder Drums
In contemporary China, aspiring musicians begin training early. Students can audition for musical and percussion schools at age 6. At these musical academies, students take general education and music classes six days a week. Musicians audition for professional troupes between the ages of 16 and 18; JIGU! drummers are usually between 18 and 30 years old.
The drummers, percussionists and musicians of JIGU! hail from 28 villages in the Shanxi Province. The Shanxi Province is located in the very heart of China, boasting a population of more than 33 million in an area of over 60,000 square miles. In English, Shanxi means “west of the mountain,” a reference to province’s location west of the Taihang Mountains.
Drumming in Shanxi Province can be traced back centuries, especially in Xinjiang County, the home of JIGU! Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of Chinese percussion music has been discovered in Shanxi, especially since it was the home of Emperor Li Shimin of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and his celebrated percussion orchestra.
There are two categories of Chinese drumming music. The Yuchui—pronounced “yu-shwee”—drum and wind style is performed at weddings and funerals to bring good fortune and peace to those being honored. Villagers perform the Saishe—pronounced “sigh-sheh”—festival style to pray for prosperous weather and rich harvests. Percussion is integral to the Chinese opera orchestra. The player of the bangu, or Chinese frame drum, is equivalent to the conductor of a Western orchestra in JIGU! and other Chinese orchestral ensembles.
Chinese percussion instruments
- Jigu means “to beat or touch the drum.” Names of percussion instruments usually end with gu, the Chinese word for drum.
- Bangu (ban = flat board) - A single-headed frame drum played with bamboo sticks. The frame is made of thick wedges of hard wood glued together in a circle and wrapped with a metal band. The percussionist who plays this lead instrument also doubles as the conductor.
- Bianzhong (bian = collected, zhong = bells) – These bronze bells hang in a wooden frame and are played with a mallet. Bianzhong dates back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.), where they were important parts of ritual and court music.
- Bo – A pair of bronze cymbals that are played by striking them together.
- Guxin – Literally translates as “drum heart,” the guxin is the middle of the drum.
- Lion drum – This single-headed drum accompanies the lion dance. The dance can be purely for entertainment or a ceremonial dance to vanquish evil spirits and summon luck. The head of the lion drum is made of thick, durable goatskin and its wooden body is decorated with intricate hand-painted drawings.
- Luo – A general term for the single gong. Specific gongs are classified by adding a prefix to luo. For example, the smallest gong, only 8 cm, is the goujiaoluo, which literally translates as “dog gong."
- Muyu - (mu = wooden; yu: fish) A hollowed woodblock or slit drum shaped similarly to a jingle bell with a tail, giving it its name. The instrument began as accompaniment for Buddhist chants and since the Qing dynasty (1645-1911 A.D.) the instrument has appeared in folk instrumental ensembles.
- Tanggu (tang = ceremonial hall) - A medium-sized barrel drum with a drumhead made from animal hide. It’s played with wooden sticks.
- Yunluo (yun = cloud, luo = gong) - A set of 10 differently pitched, small bronze gongs hung in a wooden frame and played with mallets. Ancient engravings from as early as 1271 A.D. show yunluo that were small enough to be handheld. The modern gong is much larger and stands on the floor.