Performing arts

Thumping out the drumbeat in Shanxi

Updated: May 5, 2022 By Sun Ruisheng in Taiyuan and Zhou Huiying (China Daily Global) Print
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Clockwise from top: Members of Niu Gaixian's percussion team perform a rural folk dance and show off folk customs in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. Niu, 56, a city-level inheritor of Taiyuan Luogu, a traditional performance of drums, has inspired more than 200 women to join in drum performance. [Photo/China Daily]

Traditional percussion performances delight crowds

Every time Niu Gaixian and her team members rehearsed their Taiyuan Luogu show-a traditional performance of drums-in Xiaozhanying village in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, the small village became more bustling and lively.

Niu, 56, a city-level inheritor of Taiyuan Luogu, which was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2008, has gathered more than 200 women to her drum performance team from nearby villages.

Taiyuan Luogu has a history of around 1,000 years and is popular in the regions of Taiyuan and Jinzhong.

The artistic expression of the show has been greatly enriched through years of constant development and innovation of technique. Variety has blossomed in the sounds of drums, cymbals and gongs.

A Taiyuan Luogu performance is presented as a confrontation between two teams. It is widely used in weddings and traditional festivities to bring good fortune.

Niu has been involved with the art since childhood because of its popular appeal.

"My father was a village cadre at that time, and he often organized performances during important festivals," she said. "Sitting on my father's shoulders, I really enjoyed watching the performers in their colorful traditional costumes performing rural folk dances, such as yangko, along with the rhythm of drums and gongs."

In 1982, Niu entered Taiyuan Preschool Teachers' College, where she had taken courses on musicology. After graduation, she was assigned to a local papermaking factory.

"Because of my specialty in art, I was often assigned to create and prepare performances for celebration ceremonies and important festivals," she said. "I received great support and recognition from my colleagues."

After marrying, she quit her job in 1989.

"Despite staying at home to care for my family, I never gave up my interest in art, especially music," she said. "Under my influence, my daughter became interested in music as a child and studied percussion in college."

However, a sudden disease in 1996 made it difficult for Niu to move. She spent nearly two years in bed to recover.

"To help relieve my bad mood, my husband took me to some public places where drum performances were presented," she said. "To our surprise, I forgot all the pain the moment I heard the drums."

In 1998, Niu joined a local folk drum team and with some basic skills she had made rapid progress. In 1999, she joined the provincial gong and drum association, where she met Han Qixiang, a national-level inheritor of Taiyuan Luogu.

"Han agreed to accept me as his student when I told him my experience and expressed my wish to learn under his guidance," Niu said. "In the following years, he had a great influence on both my art and morality."

She said the daily practice of drums greatly improved her physical condition, and she wanted to progress further.

"He asked me to learn more about traditional culture, not only of Shanxi, but also across the country," she said. "During the process, I gained lots of new knowledge."

During those years, Niu performed across the city. Then, in 2003, she determined to establish her own drum team in the rural area where she lived.

"At that time, there were some female members of the team from rural areas, and every time we had performances downtown in the city, we had to spend a lot of time together," she said.

"Once I heard my two teammates talking about family conflicts caused by their hobby of playing drums. Their husbands thought they spent more time on drums than on their families. The women insisted they should also have independent spiritual lives.

"At that moment, I had the idea of organizing a drum team in rural areas to provide more convenience to those women who wanted to enjoy the art."

With support from her husband and some friends in her village, she set up the team, initially attracting seven female residents.

"Despite the initially small team, we practiced hard," she said. "I made some innovations in traditional performances, adding modern dance movements."

After several public performances in the region, the team became well-known and attracted more members from nearby.

"Gradually, the members also earned money by performing at wedding ceremonies, which also helped change their husbands' minds," she said. "Although it was not a large amount, they felt satisfied to reflect their values."

In 2006, Niu was invited to organize a 1,000-member drum performance for a local tourism promotion activity.

"I successfully recruited enough performers within one day, but I didn't have any experience with such a large-scale performance," she said. "I divided all the performers into several teams and assigned skillful ones to teach them in their villages, which took two weeks."

Then she began to design formation patterns after inspecting the performance site and organized several rehearsals. The successful final performance created a sensation.

Niu also led her team to perform overseas, including in South Korea and Egypt.

In April 2018, the team was invited to attend an international drum culture festival held in Egypt.

"The moment we appeared on the stage, I heard 'China, China, China' shouted by the audience," she said. "We performed four traditional pieces and won their cheers and warm applause."

She added that the team was surrounded by a crowd after the performance.

In 2019, she founded a culture and media company that is involved with drums and other folk performances and related training.

In 2019, Niu's daughter quit the job in a percussion performance company in Beijing and returned to her hometown to help train others.

"Now my daughter has become my best assistant," Niu said. "Traditional culture needs more creativity and inspiration from the youth, which can greatly enrich it."

Peng Ke'er contributed to this story.

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