Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More music at the Beijing Olympics: The Fou Drums

It was with considerable anticipation that I sat down to watch the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Having recently visited Beijing in October 2007, and having felt at that time the palpable energy in the air as the city geared up for the event, I was reasonably certain that television viewers around the world were in for a spectacle. And I was not disappointed.

An array of 2008 drummers, performing upon a modified percussion instrument based on the ancient Chinese drum known as the fou, opened the ceremony. Etymologically speaking, the fou was originally used as a vessel for storage, often of liquids. As to how it came to be used musically, one Chinese site,
blog.chinesesession.com, whimsically notes ( after giving an account of practical functions of the venerable fou), "Then how did the Fou become a music instrument? Very simple. When you are drinking high and you want to sing, what will you do? Grab anything you can reach and make beat."

According to the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the fou is an "ancient Percussion
idiophone . . . [which] appears to have been a large earthenware bowl, struck (on the rim) to make a sound." The article notes that "there is some suggestion that fou could be tuned and used in sets, and during the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) sets were made from bronze and contained water." Ironically, the entry concludes that the fou "appear to be in disuse in China." In terms of the pre-Olympic rarity of the fou, it is interesting to note that, as of today, the only reference to--but not appearance of--the fou in the Google Images search engine is in connection with the Beijing opening ceremony.

The 2008 fou drummers at the Olympics would seem to belie that observation from the 1984 Grove edition. Obviously the instruments used in the ceremony were very much Twenty-First Century, made of membranes which would withstand the fierce striking of the drumsticks, and including illuminating devices under the membranes that would provide a literally electrifying visual component to what must have been on site the deafening thunder of the drums themselves. I'll attempt in a future entry to trace the process of the introduction of the nouveau fou (I can't resist noting that "fou" in French means "crazy") drums into the contemporary setting of the Olympics. Suffice it for the moment to remember the Dionysian origins of the drums noted above.

As for the stunning effect of the 2008 drummers playing in tandem, past empires have used drums, sometimes gargantuan in size, at the forefront of their armies to herald the oncoming force, and it would be difficult to imagine a demonstration with more impact--both auditory and visual--than that of the massed fou drummers, moving together with extraordinary precision typical, in its imaginative choreography and stunning discipline, of the entire opening extravaganza, truly Olympian in scope and scale, while still Chinese in color and spirit.

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