Music News & Reviews

Rhythms of tradition

In ancient Chinese tradition, there’s a story to almost everything.

Whether remembering battlefield triumph or celebrating the arrival of spring, Chinese myths and fables often are told through music that, according to tradition, brings peace and good fortune to the hearer.

Touring for the first time in the United States, Jigu Thunder Drums of China will bring this centuries-old tradition to audiences at the Clark Center on Wednesday, creating with ancient percussion instruments everything from sweeping battle calls to rolling walnuts.

"By listening to the music, you can feel a connection with the country’s past history," says Don Hughes, who produces the show. "You don’t have to understand the culture to enjoy the show, but if you follow the music, you’ll understand more about what’s being performed onstage."

Throughout the two-hour performance, Jigu’s 28 musicians dress in colorful traditional costumes and perform intricately choreographed drum maneuvers. The songs, written by native Chinese composers, range in feel from frenzied and epic to tranquil and comedic.

In "Boatmen of the Yellow River," musicians imitate the sounds of crashing waves and chaos on a ship deck as they act as a crew struggling to make it across the often-treacherous river that runs through eastern China.

In a song that’s played as a blessing to the audience, a Jigu performer makes a variety of sounds by hitting different parts of two overhanging drums in "Double Dragon Pearl Music." Illusion, dance and humorous acts add a lighter feel to the show.

Jigu performers hail from the Shanxi Province of Eastern China, where families have passed on the region’s drumming tradition since the first century. Parents often encourage their children to become professional drummers at a very young age, sending them to afternoon drumming schools six days a week.

Hughes said Jigu musicians’ years of devotion to their craft are evident in their performances.

"In the U.S., we send our kids to ballet school or wherever to give them an education in the arts," says Hughes, who runs his production company, IAI Presentations, from Pismo Beach. "But in China, when children go to drumming school, that is their career for their lifetime. It’s a different take on the arts. That’s why they’re so proficient. They put their heart and soul into it."

Since Hughes first heard about Jigu while they were performing in Denmark in 2004, he was confident the group would have appeal in America. So far he’s been dead on. The troupe’s seven-week U.S. tour sold out in only four weeks, an IAI record.

"We all felt that this was a great show," Hughes says. "I’ve been to my agents with other show ideas and they’ve said, ‘That’s not going to sell,’ and we ended up scratching it. But everyone was on board for this show. It was exciting."

Throughout its history, Jigu has toured primarily throughout Asia and performed at several renowned arts festivals, including the Arhus Cultural Festival in Denmark. The group was also featured during the NBA’s 2004 International Games and has received top honors in China’s nationwide drum competitions several times.

Jigu Thunder Drums of China

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande

$35 to $45

489-9444 or