BERNARD Goh, artistic director and co-founder of internationally acclaimed drum troupe Hands Percussion, was drawn to music and drums even as a boy.
“Drums are very straightforward, maybe it’s like me,” he tells The Nut Graph during his 23 Nov 2009 interview in Kuala Lumpur. “I like you, or I don’t like you, I will say it to your face. Sometimes in a piece or a score, the percussion only comes out for a few bars, but without it, the song is incomplete. It’s the pulse of the whole song.”
Goh’s open and unpretentious nature is certainly apparent during his interview. So is his commitment to the performing arts, no matter the challenges. Apart from playing the drums, Goh discovered his passion for teaching when he started coaching his school drum troupe in Seremban and later, in Kuala Lumpur.
Goh’s talent and passion were instrumental in the formation of Hands Percussion in 1997. The troupe has performed in more than 10 countries, and opened the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation chief executive officers’ summit in Singapore in November 2009.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Bernard Goh: I was born in Seremban in 1971. I grew up there, too; I love Seremban. There are beautiful hills and waterfalls in Seremban and the food is nice.
I had a lot of cousins, so growing up was really fun. We would make our own toys, go to the riverside, play together. There were so many of us cousins in the same school, we were almost like a small gang! If anyone got bullied, the whole big group would go to find out what happened.
Where were your parents and grandparents from?
My paternal great-grandfather and grandfather came to Malaysia when my grandfather was 16. They are Teo Chew. My great-grandfather was rich and bought a row of terrace houses in Seremban that’s still there today. However, our family lost them all due to my grandfather’s addiction to opium.
My grandfather’s history was very dramatic, like a TV series. He was only 12 years old when he became addicted to opium in China, and this continued until he passed away at 89. He was a very tiny, little old man. I recall he was very good at craft. He could do embroidery and he would decorate his cigarette boxes. He would walk everywhere. I still respect him very much. My father has 11 siblings; he is the 12th and the youngest.
My mother has 12 siblings and she was born in Kuala Pilah. Her grandparents were from the Hokkien province in China. Her father was a police inspector, so she spent most of her childhood in the officer’s barracks, where she learnt to speak Malay fluently. She said in those days, if you heard her speak, you would have thought she was Malay.
What are your strongest memories growing up?
My [paternal] grandpa is a very precious memory. He really loved me a lot. Once, I failed a subject, maths or something. It was the first red mark in my record book. My mum was so upset, but he told her: “It’s okay, sometimes if the whole page is blue, not so good also.”
I was a premature child, so I was quite weak when I was young. I remember my grandpa wanted me to take a small amount of opium, because it also has medicinal values. My mother refused, she was very against it. She said opium spoilt his whole life. I think I did have a very small portion in the end, and I did get better eventually.
I still have my grandpa’s [opium] pipe; I keep it to remember him.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your family?
My mum always said, “I trust you and believe in you so much, so no matter what, you must hold on to this strong belief.”
How do you connect to these stories as a Malaysian?
I have a strong belief that all these stories really nurtured me. My experiences with my grandpa who was an opium addict, with my other grandpa who was a police [officer]… they both got along very well even though they were so different.
My Taiwanese friend visited me. She saw me speak Hakka, Hokkien and Malay to different school kids. When we went to the mamak, she heard me interacting with the owner, “Bang, tolong kira, berapa ini?” She was so touched by this. She asked me, “How come you can speak so many languages?” For them [in Taiwan], they have never thought of a life like that.
I want to be based here. I cannot say, just because there are problems, I run away and go somewhere safe. I love my country. It’s not just because of my parents. It’s all my memories in Seremban, with my friends. I love France, Belgium; the beaches in Greece are really to die for — but it’s not mine. I spent my whole Chinese New Year in Singapore. It’s very nice, very clean, but I cannot live a life like that.
Maybe for an artist it is like that. This is still home, sometimes you curse the traffic jam and the problems, but it’s challenging and beautiful. It really nurtures me. All the diversity of the culture.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with?
Sometimes when we go abroad, people ask whether we’re from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. But from the art we create, from the performances we make, I find we have a unique [Malaysian] identity.
I tell people about how we came to Malaysia, how we were brought up here, how we speak Malay; they can all appreciate how very unique and special we are. What we do now with Chinese drums, the way we play, the way we perform — it is a Malaysian creation. In China, they play this drum, but not in this way. Now I’m also creating something new to incorporate gamelan into the performance. This is something really very unique. It will be powerful, I think.
I don’t want to force us to do something to prove we are Malaysian. For example, wearing sarong or songkok to play drums, it’s not about that. [Our identity] is already inside us. We don’t have to specially show we are Malaysian. The convergence of our cultures is there. The beat is already inside my creation.
Actually we are really rojak. And you know, we are proud to be rojak. We are really very different [from other countries]. I’m proud of being Malaysian because we have our own Malaysian culture.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
More equal, more fair to everyone.
I really hope the performing arts can be a kind of soft power to influence things that we cannot change [directly]. Art can slowly change people’s and politicians’ perspectives. It’s not about rioting, protesting or asking for this and that. Slowly, we change the environment to let them realise, “This is something we want.” Not by force or by riots, it doesn’t work that way for me.
See also: Eric Ch’ng: Just leave out skin
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