Drum roll in Taiwan

Kiran Mehta | Updated on January 09, 2020 Published on January 08, 2020

Music has a home: The Ten Drum Ciaotou Creative Park came up on the site of an abandoned sugar mill   -  IMAGES: KIRAN MEHTA

A music park combines the history of the Taiwan with its love for percussion

Sound — among other vital aspects — helps a space become a place. Would Yellowstone National Park be as much a natural wonder without the gurgling and sputtering of the mud pots, or the hissing that gives way to an ominous rumble as the Old Faithful geyser erupts? Would a New York minute feel just as hectic without blaring horns and sirens? As a place changes, so does the music. But what happens to repurposed spaces? Like a palimpsest, they bear traces of the old. “You just have to learn how to listen,” says a local friend in Taiwan as I quiz her on the Ten Drum Ciaotou Creative Park.

The park in Kaohsiung, a port city in southern Taiwan, sits on the site of a former sugar mill. The erstwhile Ciaotou Sugar Mill is today a hub for the popular Taiwanese bandTen Drum Art Percussion Group. This park helps you peel back layers for a glimpse of the country’s complicated past.

The island of Taiwan was once home to Austronesian tribes, and many of Ten Drum’s live performances re-enact their ethnic legends to the beat of drums. Taiwan eventually fell to European colonisers. From the Dutch to the Spanish, many conquered and lost the island. Japan annexed Taiwan from China’s Qing Dynasty in 1895 and ceded to the Republic of China (ROC) at the close of World War II (WWII).

It was during the Japanese era that the Ciaotou was born. Cane sugar, though non-native, took to Taiwan’s soil and the industry — taking root under the late Ming Dynasty — saw a boom during the Japanese invasion. WWII saw the destruction of many sugar mills and the railways that transported the goods. Over the years Ciaotou, too, was shut down.

When Ten Drum started out in 2000, their practice sessions were met with derision from neighbours. The group then decided to look for a space that would be removed from crowds who complained about the “noise”. A forgotten sugar mill offered the perfect solution. In 2007, the band initially set up a creative park in a former mill in Rende District in Tainan in southern Taiwan. The successful reception in Rende led to the creation of the Ciaotou park in 2010.

In both cases, the space was repurposed while holding on to the past and remnants of the Japanese era. The large mill consists of many independent structures. As I walk around the lengthy corridors of one such unit, I am greeted by the sounds of chirping birds as they flit in and out of the passageway. I walk out to be greeted by the burbling of water in a koi pond.

But the sounds of nature are drowned out as I, together with a bunch of other tourists, begin a practice session with drums in the Experiment Room. A teacher starts with the basics: How to hold the sticks, how to play the single stroke roll, then the double stroke roll. Eventually the group plays a simple beat — a combination of the two different types of stroke rolls.

The mill has an installation where visual art meets music. Curiously named Silent Music, it is the work of Canadian artist Robin Minard. The artwork is made of tiny loudspeakers that are shaped like creepers. The speakers emit music that is a mixture of nature’s sounds and simulated tones. Take a step back and view the art in its entirety, and it seems a metaphor for growth — one where innovation doesn’t destroy nature.

Just beat it: An exhibit at the Drum Museum


My favourite corner of the mill is the Drum Museum, with its emphasis on feng shui. While I know little of feng shui, I learn that each drum comes in a different size and produces a sound that’s slightly, yet noticeably distinct from the other. There are drums for wealth, peace and prosperity, as well as one for those who want a baby.

My visit to the park ends with a live performance from the Ten Drum group. A brief yet impressive introduction informs audiences that Ten Drum has performed around the globe. Their album Drum Music Land was nominated for the Best Traditional World Music Album at the 2010 Grammy. If you’re wondering about the peculiar name, then the answer lies in the official language; 10 in Mandarin looks like two drumsticks forming a cross. Through the show, we are introduced to the legend that is Koxinga, a 17th-century pirate who fought the Dutch colonisers.

The show ends with coordinated drumming that is slow to start with, and then reaches a frenzied pitch. In some parts, the drumming resembles the drone of machines that were once a part of the mill. As the drummers beat down with increasing force, the music reminds me of the sound of soldiers marching, inching closer to the theatre. To truly understand the music hub, all you have to do is listen.

Kiran Mehta is a journalist based in Mumbai

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Published on January 08, 2020
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