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A celebration of rhythm: the Hong Kong International Drummer Festival

02 Aug 2017

What links drumming and Hong Kong? Lots, it turns out.

From reggae to lion dance, classical to pop, the humble drum crops up across western and eastern histories, a universally understood instrument that transcends culture. So where better to hold a drumming festival than Hong Kong, a city known for its cross-cultural identity? “The festival is very like Hong Kong, we have very strong, different styles,” says Dr Tang Lok-yin, internationally acclaimed composer, director of the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild and director of the Hong Kong International Drummer Festival. “Both Chinese and western percussionists are brought together.”

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that no one thought of holding a drumming festival in Hong Kong until 2016, when Lok-yin and Francis had a brainwave. “Lok-yin visited lots of different festivals, especially in mainland China,” says Francis Tang, the festival’s producer. “She came back with an idea – why not make a festival in Hong Kong? Percussion can make many different sounds. It mixes Chinese and western instruments, so I thought it was time to do something like this, a percussion festival.”

The Hong Kong International Drummer Festival returns for a second instalment this August, opening with a special composition concert at ArtisTree. The festival brings together local and overseas drummers, and involves concerts, competitions and masterclasses. 

For drum novices, the drum may seem just like another part of the band. However, as both Francis and Lok-yin are keen to stress, the drummer plays a crucial role in live music. “Percussion controls the rhythm and the timing. It gives much more spirit to the music,” says Lok-yin. “If the percussionist plays something time shaping, they can bring in other genres of music, so the style can be controlled by the percussion.”

“There’s universality to drumming but at the same time, a very strong personality,” adds Francis. 

“There’s universality to drumming but at the same time, a very strong personality,” adds Francis. “The drum is the guard of the time. Overseas, many of the bandleaders are drummers – many have master’s degrees or PhDs. I want to bring the drummers in Hong Kong to the front of the stage, to make them [visually] one of the most important players.”

The 2016 festival was a huge success and proved that Hong Kong is a hub for drumming professionals and aficionados alike. “We had drum masters like Peter Erskine (La La Land and Memoirs of a Geisha) and Russ Miller (Moulin Rouge)” Francis says. “This year is an evolution from last year. We also wanted to focus on education, which is why we included masterclasses and a competition.” 

The classes span a wide range of genres – including marching, timpani and Chinese – and are led by ‘drum masters’ from around the world. German electronic, indie and jazz fusion expert Benny Greb and American snare and reggae duo BYOS (snare and reggae) head up the international lineup, while Hong Kong’s own classical Chinese percussionist Dr Lung Heung-wing and jazz drummer Nate Wong also share their expertise and knowledge. 

For Francis, one of the goals of the festival is to encourage a “conversation” between different styles, and to help drummers develop professionally. “How can we help a timpani guy learn the tricks of the marching drum guy? The thing that makes a professional a professional is that they learn from different genres,” he says. 

Then there’s the festival’s Asia-Pacific Drummer Competition. “We want to create another type of platform,” says Francis. “It gives novice drummers chances to express themselves. It’s a good way to convert the talent of the city into young stars. Also, the more venues like ArtisTree we have, the more possibility we’ll have to do different things,” he says.

For Lok-yin, the festival is ultimately about combining her love of music with her duty as a creative resident of the city. “I think as a Hongkonger I have a responsibility to do something like this here,” she says. “Last year we reached local people, which was great. Now, maybe we can turn our sights to an international audience, too.”

Hong Kong International Drummer Festival’s Asia Pacific Competition and masterclasses run from 6-15 August 2017. For all the behind the scenes action and performance sneak peeks, check out ArtisTree’s Instagram account. You can find us at @artistreehk!

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