At the passionate bellow of the lead drummer, the troupe kicks off its performance with a low rumble, slowly building to a crescendo. Soon, it bursts into a spirited, synchronised choreography. One minute, you hear thunder. Another minute, the sound resembles the pitter-patter of rain. A typical 24 Festive Drums performance instantly captivates the audience with its powerful beats and spontaneity.

Orang-Orang Drum Theatre co-founders Zyee Leow and Boyz Chew

Zyee Leow, co-founder of Orang Orang Drum Theatre, explains that 24 Festive Drums takes inspiration from festivals in the Chinese lunar calendar, traditionally used by farmers to inform their agricultural activities. The name of each festival gleams in bold Chinese calligraphy on the drums. Even the core movements are intrinsically connected to nature, dramatising the farmer’s act of sowing seeds and collecting harvest.

Originating in the southern state of Johor, 24 Festive Drums was created in 1988 by cultural activist Tan Chai Puan and the late musician Tan Hooi Song. It has since attracted a fairly strong base of drummers worldwide, with UNESCO listing it as a Malaysian National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

While drums are commonly used to accompany dance performances, Leow shares that what sets 24 Festive Drums apart is that it places the drummers at centre stage. The drummer plays the role of the performer, storyteller and musician. Together, the troupe must channel their energy and emotion on stage to bring out the story behind their performance.

The versatility and potential for variety were what attracted Leow to the art as a student. “I noticed that there are a lot of movements to it. There are many ways to collaborate. And the performances you put on the stage are attention-grabbing. You feel like you can stand out.”

With her husband and co-founder Boyz Chew, she started Orang Orang Drum Theatre, which aims to reinvent the rhythm by adding theatrical elements to an already energetic art form.

The result is a blend of drama and martial arts that keeps their 24 Festive Drums performances fresh and innovative. “Preserving a traditional art cannot simply be about repetition. There have to be some new elements,” says Leow.

In the past, their shows have touched on current issues or incorporated unconventional elements, such as old Malay folk songs. Once, they included a rendition of Ikan Kekek (a children’s song) into their choreography, which earned them first place in a percussion competition.

More recently, the troupe has been exploring Borneo indigenous music and instruments from different tribal groups. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear the tribal tunes of the sape (a traditional Orang Ulu lute) as part of their ensemble!

Currently, the troupe consists of eight full-timers and 12 part-time drummers. Close-knit and fuelled by passion, they balance their time between performing at music festivals and competitions, giving lessons at schools, as well as offering beginner drumming workshops to those who want to feel the rhythm of 24 Festive Drums.

“We are always finding more ways to incorporate music and storytelling in our performances, and this is how we can introduce and preserve this Chinese culture,” says Leow.

For more information on the traditional 24 Festive Drums workshop, book a session with Leow and her troupe on LokaLocal.