That beats everything

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am


For many parents, trying to get children to do their music practice requires a tricky combination of encouragement, cajoling and incentive. But point them towards the drums and no second reminder is needed.

Perhaps something about beating away freely and making lots of noise seems to appeal to children of all ages, whether it's pounding on overturned pots or on a wood and animal skin drum.

That appeal comes as no surprise to people like Kumi Masunaga, a long-established drummer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. The Japanese percussionist has run a monthly community drum circle for all ages for the past 12 years, as part of the Tom Lee Music Carnival, as well as working as a solo percussionist and organising drum events for schools and corporate events.

'Babies respond so well to the rhythm,' she says. 'I love inviting children to the centre and asking them to lead the circle, because they can. Many parents have reported to me that it's really working for their children.

One of the beauties of the drumming circle is that there is no learning curve and no need for previous musical experience.

'We teach the people without teaching,' says Masunaga. 'My job as a drum circle facilitator is not to teach them but to guide them.'

The ambience is one where all are welcome and typical cultural barriers such as language become irrelevant. 'Rhythm is an unusual language,' she says. 'That's what helps it succeed, and therefore it's a great tool for bringing people together,' she says.

Masunaga recently held a drum jam at the Sarah Roe School, where all of the students have severe or profound disabilities, including physical and intellectual difficulties.

The students, many of whom cannot communicate verbally and have difficulty using other kinds of instruments, really enjoyed the experience, comments teacher Laura Ferretti.

'Music, as opposed to all other sounds, can be soothing,' she says. 'Kumi and her team come up with such a positive attitude, everyone smiles. We'd love to do it as an annual routine.'

The dozens of tributes she has received attest to the amazing feel-good factor Masunaga creates in her drum jams. Everyone leaves invigorated and smiling. But as well as being enjoyable entertainment, drumming can bring a host of benefits. Beating a drum is a great upper body exercise as well as a potent stress reliever.

The rhythms can inspire calmness, and sitting together in a circle helps invoke a team spirit and a sense of belonging, she says.

That community focus is exemplified by Africa's rich history of drumming.

This was brought to Hong Kong by Senegalese-born Makha Diop, who grew up playing the djembe, a traditional African drum, in a community of drummers.

As a member of the African djembe group, he played for audiences including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. More recently, he performed in a vibrant and colourful open-air gig with his group, the African Drumming and Dance Connection Company, at the coliseum in Stanley to celebrate Tuen Ng festival last month.

Diop arrived in Hong Kong in 2001 at the invitation of a former student and friend, and has been busy teaching and performing since. He performs regularly at corporate and private events and teaches new courses on African drumming and dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

His private lessons are mostly held on Lamma Island, where he lives, and where his students can drum on the beach without disturbing anyone.

'We have no complaints, and that is the only place we could do that in Hong Kong,' he says.

Drumming is about more than just making music, he says. It's invigorating and life-affirming. It also helps hand and mind co-ordination, increases upper body strength and builds confidence.

'You can express yourself without any restraints or guidance,' he says. 'You can go with the flow and [your feelings].'

Any sense of self-consciousness quickly gives way to feelings of liberation in people of all ages. But children particularly enjoy drumming, he says: 'They express themselves the best. It gives them a great sense of freedom.'

Young children who were barely able to walk were swaying happily to the rhythm at the Stanley show.

Another drum tradition with ancient cultural links is Taiko, meaning 'great drum'. This was originally performed by solo male percussionists at rituals and festivals in Japan.

Today, groups playing the large Taiko are more common, says Carrie Carter, an American drummer who studied with masters in Japan for two years.

She is now group instructor with O-Daiko, a group of 10 women from different countries. They used to practice at Mui Wo waterfall on Lantau, but have now found an all weather venue at the Japanese International School in Tai Po.

Although no musical scores are used, Taiko drumming is more structured and requires a firm commitment. The group holds intensive practice sessions twice weekly for up to four hours.

It's a great workout and a fantastic way to release stress, Carter says, especially as some of the drums used are huge and exhausting to beat after a time. It's also very much a group activity based on mutual support. 'A large part of Taiko, for me, is that connection with other people,' she says. 'We use our voices to encourage each other when we feel we can't keep going.'

Carter says the benefits of playing far outweigh any discomforts. She says that during a practice session, the shared feeling in the group is amazing.

'When you hear your group members supporting you, the pain just disappears and you can keep going. Your mind just takes over. When you finish, there's this elation that you did it, that you completed it, that you pushed yourself that far.

'Usually, we're all pretty exhausted at the end of a practice, but we all have smiles on our faces. I think we wouldn't be there if we didn't love it. It's addictive.'


A series of events offer opportunities for those interested in learning more about drumming.

African drums with Makha Diop

African Drum & Dance (children aged 8-12) runs from July 21 to September 22, 11am-12.30pm. West African Drum and Dance for Beginners (16 and above) runs from July 19 to September 20, 7.30-9pm. Each course costs HK$2,300 for 10 sessions at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. To reserve a place, go to Beginners' courses are also held on Sundays from 3pm-4.30pm on Power Station Beach on Lamma Island. HK$175 for each of six lessons, or HK$1,000 in advance. Instruments are provided.

Drum circles with Kumi Masunaga

The next community drum circles will take place on July 22 and August 19, 2pm-3.30pm, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre piazza, Tsim Sha Tsui. Free admission. Drums are provided, and no experience is necessary. For more information on the drum circle, go to


Drum Theatre: theatre performance combining Taiko drumming and movement by artists including O-Daiko; August 3-4, 3pm, Multimedia Theatre, HKICC, Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, 135 Junction Road, Kowloon (five-minute walk from Lok Fu MTR Exit B); tickets HK$100 or HK$180 from Urbtix.