BACK during Raya, we attended the International Finger-Style Guitar Festival in PJ Live Arts.
The 450-seater venue had a healthy turn out and was greeted warmly by audiences. It wasn’t exactly a full-house — the show had five different headliners from various parts of the world so we expected a much stronger reception — but local listeners enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
So imagine our surprise when we showed up on a Saturday afternoon at Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre for Ju Percussion Group (JPG)‘s one-day only performance.
A bit of background information: the swanky venue boasts tiered-seating for 3,000 people over two levels. During JPG’s matinee performance last Saturday, only the bottom tier was open which meant the musicians still had 2,000 seats to fill.
They managed to get at least 80% of these seats inhabited for their first performance in Malaysia after 20-odd years, which blew us away. Who are these guys, where did they come from and how did they do it?
Ju Percussion Group as it turns out is a critically-acclaimed bunch of super-musicians who have been traveling the world garnering positive reviews from various publications including the New York Times.
Boasting some very fascinating instruments — on top of their already-exotic instruments (e.g. marimba, timpani and even some intimidating-looking tubular bells) they played around with Chinese fans, vases, kazoos, and something that resembled multi-coloured plastic pipes — JPG enthralled over a set of seven compositions split into two sections.
Energetic, meticulous and painstakingly choreographed, JPG’s performance kept attendees hostage during their mostly-instrumental repertoire. Right off the bat, we were surprised by their post-modern jazz leanings which defy our assumption that these Taiwanese musicians would perform traditionally-inspired material.
Of note was JPG Associate Director Ho Hong-Chi‘s solo performance of Nebosja J. Zivkociv‘s “To the God of Rhythm”. Standing alone in the spotlight with a djembe, Hong-Chi was bold, almost valiant in spirit in his unremitting drumming while he called, shouted, chanted and sang in the piece, a tribute to the music tradition of the Balkans and the Africans.
Also stunning was the ensemble’s take on Liu Yu-Yun‘s epic “Zhong Kui Marrying His Sister Off”, a frantic piece which progresses into some beautiful Oriental melodies, telling an epic, detailed musical story which left a strong impact. Shining on stage and appearing especially for the piece was guest performer Liu Ting-Yu — decked in a flowing azure gown, a stark contrast from the rest of the ensemble who wore black and glitter — and her magical pipa.
Audiences went wild when the group launched into their “Malaysian Folk Song Suite”, performing a medley composed of “Rasa Sayang”, “Lenggang Kangkung”, “Burung Kakak Tua” and Indonesian classic “Bengawan Solo”. They sang the songs better than any of the renditions we’ve heard locally and gave the entire thing an innocent, festive spin.
JPG ended their set to a standing ovation, but weren’t quite allowed to leave.
As soon as the musicians stepped offstage, audiences loudly chanted “Encore! Encore!”, which drew them back on to perform a comical body-percussion piece. They walked off again, but the strong crowd refused to budge, calling out for another encore, to which JPG gladly obliged.
Finally done with the performance, we had a look at the time: the ensemble had more or less three whole hours to prepare for their next showing at 8:00pm, before they have to leave for Penang.
Presented by Malaysia’s own HANDS Percussion, JPG’s Asia Concert Tour 2015 got here on HANDS founder and artistic director Bernard Goh‘s initiative. Warm friends with JPG honcho Ju Tzong-Ching (whom he refers to as ‘Master Ju’) Bernard deems JPG to be HANDS’s role model and hopes his own percussion group will one day be as fine as JPG.
Featured image sourced from Ju Percussion Group.