Orang Orang Drum Theatre fuses the rhythms of two worlds in 'Kaka-Lala'


Away at the foothills of the Titiwangsa mountain range, the ambiance of naturescapes intertwines with the beatings of drums. The soundscapes are found amid an orchard, in a place called “Shan-Ka-La”.

Both a space and a project, members of the Orang Orang Drum Theatre have created a home to explore the duality of existence – one in nature, and the other in the city.

The embodiment of this journey premieres this week with Kaka-Lala, a new show that delves into the rhythms and sensations of the two different, often opposing worlds.

It will run at Pentas 2, KLPac in Kuala Lumpur from May 16-19.

In Kaka-Lala, Orang Orang Drum Theatre (OODT) combines traditional and contemporary drumming with elements of theatre, movement, multimedia and lighting to take us on a multi-faceted journey that (re)visits the connections between living, surviving, and belonging.

It presents a personal and collective narrative, with individual members and collaborators feeding questions, reflections and examinations into the overarching theme of our relationship with our physical environments.

Shan-Ka-La was founded in 2021 by husband-and-wife duo Zyee Leow and Boyz Chew, also the founding members of OODT, who desired a practice space away from the city. Having performed internationally, and often at folk festivals, OODT was inspired by the spirit of community and nature-driven festivals and performances abroad, and wanted to see how that would translate within their practice and art in Malaysia.

Orang Orang Drum Theatre members (from left) Leow, Zyee Leow, Boyz Chew, Jian Ru, Wai Kei, and Tai Chun Wai. Photo: OODT Orang Orang Drum Theatre members (from left) Leow, Zyee Leow, Boyz Chew, Jian Ru, Wai Kei, and Tai Chun Wai. Photo: OODT

The dream, conceived many years ago, became a reality when the pandemic steered them to a place that not only fulfilled their needs, but enabled them to experience the culture of community-living and life in natural environments.

“As a team, we always reflect on how things are being created (or crafted) in the village, or in rural areas as compared to the city. We also think about the relationship between people and nature, and how it impacts each other,” said Damien Leow Hui Min, OODT member and co-director of Kaka-Lala.

“During the pandemic, the city suddenly became a dangerous place, and there was a kind of heavy desire to escape, from the virus, from everything. So we decided to start this project, and to explore what, and how we can learn from nature,” he added.

The team found an empty land surrounded by an orchard in Karak, Pahang, and began to work on the land, subsequently building what is now known as the Shan-Ka-La project.

“When we first went there, we didn’t do our usual routine or daily practice. While we had a space for ourselves, we did not have a place to practice, so the first thing we did was build a storeroom together. And because we all grew up in the city, we found that the knowledge and experiences of city living had very little use in our new environment.

“In this wild space, we learned how to plant and how to farm. We cooked together, and we stayed together; we learned a lot of things we did not know,” said Leow.

A recent rehearsal session for the 'Kaka-Lala' show in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: OODT A recent rehearsal session for the 'Kaka-Lala' show in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: OODT

Eventually, the Shan-Ka-La project began to take form, and the space became a place of refuge, community, and belonging. At the end of 2022, the OODT team decided to explore what it felt like living in two places, seeing as its main source of income came from coaching and gigs or commercial shows – many of which take place in the city or urban settings.

Members would spend three days at Shan-Ka-La and four days in the city, gradually navigating the oscillations between nature and cityscapes, and the contrasts and confusions they felt – emotions and experiences they are still examining today.

Threads of these questions and reflections are translated into the music and movement in Kaka-Lala.

OODT is known for its innovative approach to drum theatre, and with Kaka-Lala, it expands its technique by incorporating visuals to enhance the storytelling.

In this show, OODT partners with Faris Nasir, an interdisciplinary artist and the multimedia designer.

“I spoke to Boyz Chew and Damien (Leow) and asked questions like “What’s the meaning behind this movement? What’s the meaning of this scene?” From there, I translated their responses into visuals,” said Faris.

“In the show, every colour has a different emotion attached to it. Every shade of darkness or light has a different meaning. That provides character and speaks to the dialogue taking place between music, movement, and even lighting,” he added.

Founded in 2013, OODT is a mainstay in the local performing arts and festival scene, while it has performed in several folk-based festivals and participated in art exchange programmes abroad. Photo: OODT Founded in 2013, OODT is a mainstay in the local performing arts and festival scene, while it has performed in several folk-based festivals and participated in art exchange programmes abroad. Photo: OODT

The collaboration between OODT and Faris is characterised by an exploration of rhythms and interpretation, highlighting their mutual commitment to artistic innovation.

“The visual experience is more than a background; it is not supplementary to the performance. Instead, I would consider that even the music and rhythm are part of the visuals and they guide us on how we look and understand the scene. The visual gives shape and symbolism of the rhythms, and the pace of what we are hearing and watching, bringing audiences into the world of the performance,” said Leow.

The production also showcases collaborative efforts with JJ Tan (sound designer), Eagle Lee (lighting designer), Ziying Chua (stage designer), and Ix Wong (costume designer), all of whom have made significant contributions to the narrative.

On stage, Kaka-Lala is neither a question nor an answer, and it does not aim to romanticise or criticise either setting. Rather it is an invitation for audiences to reflect on the different rhythms and symphonies each environment has to offer.

“By weaving together the varied experiences and cultures of living, Kaka-Lala presents a compelling and immersive dialogue of the human experience caught between two worlds,” concluded Leow.

Orang Orang Drum Theatre's Kaka-Lala will be playing at Pentas 2 in KLPac from May 16-19.

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