Just back from what was supposed to be a short holiday in Bali but rather than relaxing on the beach, our trip became hunt the rindik – a bamboo xylophone unique to the island that we fell in love with after hearing it being played in a hotel lobby. We eventually found a fine example for sale at a teeming local market, bargained the price, then squeezed it into our taxi and back to where we were staying. Much of the following day was spent rustling up packing materials for the flight back to Taiwan and improvising a way of protecting this fragile beast from any rough treatment meted out by airport baggage handlers. What we ended up with was the strangest looking package, almost too big to get through the airport x-ray scanner. Reunited some hours later in Taipei the rindik was apparently safe and sound and we were ready for the great unpack. What a relief as it slowly emerged from the layers of packing undamaged. Hooray! We have a beautiful new instrument to play!
I'm more than halfway through my first longish eight-week sojourn in Taiwan – my second trip following a short ten-day visit back in November last year. I put my gonging events back in the UK on hold to spend some time over here developing workshop modules and playing events up and down the country with my partner Monica under our new name Sonic Blessings – www.sonicblessings.com
We've also been gathering material for a spate of new album projects: capturing sounds such as bird song, insects buzzing, waterfalls, wind and rain on our trusty Zoom H5 portable recorder for a sounds of nature project that will also include chimes, bells, singing bowls, flutes, bird whistles and gongs, etc. A violent thunderstorm a couple of weeks back I managed to record direct to my laptop safely ensconced in Monica's Taipei studio! We're also preparing to record a chakra dancing album plus another for a Reiki plus sound healing module we are about to launch here.
Gongs on the train
On recent trips to hold workshops and sound healing sessions in the southern cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung we decided to travel with our gongs and other paraphernalia
by train. Monica doesn't drive and we didn't fancy long multi-hour road trips dodging hoards of pesky motor scooters. So it was the Taiwanese version of the French TGV super-fast trains for us – business class to boot! The only trouble was how to manage the big gongs and their associated stands. We got a lift to the station in Taipei from one of Monica's students and a pickup at the other end. That just left getting them on the train. We had invested in a cool four-wheel trolley that came in handy when we got lost in the station's multi-storey car park. Strict instructions from over-zealous station staff not to use the trolley on the platform were duly ignored and we managed to bundle all our stuff onto the train in double-quick time and settle back for a comfortable wizz through the Taiwan countryside. A repeat performance on our return was equally smooth. But on our second trip back Taipei rail officialdom was waiting for us – absolutely no trolleys permitted on the platform, so we had to carry the whole lot what seemed like miles to the nearest lift!
Into the mountains
We are based on the outskirts of Taipei overlooking an emerald blue river with forest-clad hills and mountains beyond. I do my yoga practice each morning gazing at the peaks and last week we managed to drive to the top of one in a borrowed car, stopping off regularly on our way up the twisty roads to record the flowing rivers and other natural sounds. Much damage from last year's big typhoon was still in evidence – as were the construction trucks we had to dodge as we ascended the 850 metre-peak. Safely back down, we paid a visit to a local gong maker and were invited to take part in a traditional ceremony, sounding massive gamelan-style gongs at his workshop in call and response with a big drum being played in the grounds of a spa hotel across the valley. Amazing experience, although I almost wrenched my wrist using the big heavy gong mallet!
We are currently in the midst of hosting a group gong training programme spread over three weekends - my first serious attempt at teaching apart from some one to one tutoring in London and Brighton. It's going really well, although I'm having to learn not to speak too fast or say too much as Monica has to translate everything into Chinese! Once that's completed it's off to the scenic east coast scouting for retreat locations before returning to England in time for a busy summer programme of gonging related events. More details to come. I'll keep posting UK event details on the Gordon's Gong Soirees Facebook page but also check out the Sonic Blessings website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Why the gong indeed. I suppose 2004/5 was a pivotal time. A drummer/percussionist since my teens, I had also been involved in exploring electronic sound synthesis as far back as the mid-70s when the likes of the Mini Moog and ARP were still quite a novelty. By the turn of the millennium, I was happily ensconced in my studio making music entirely in the digital domain.
Sri Lanka Soundings
Then something quite interesting happened. Life changing, as it turned out. I was invited to spend some time in Sri Lanka, where some friends ran a yoga/meditation retreat deep in the jungle. What musical instrument could I take? With no electricity it was no place for modern electronics so I opted for a little wooden tongue drum, which makes a beautifully mellow sound when struck with small mallets. I wasn’t practising yoga at that point but one of the yoga teachers there invited me to play in her class. The little drum proved a real inspiration for the students as the rhythms reverberated through the wooden floor, helping them to remain centred and to better hold their postures as the practice unfolded.
And then there was the bird song. Awakening early in my jungle hut I was entranced by the dawn chorus – an amazing natural cacophony of harmonic dissonance that I would later record and incorporate into my music compositions, blending electronics with Buddhist chant, shamanic poetry and other sounds of nature – waves breaking on the Brighton sea shore being a particular favourite.
Sri Pada, Veddhas and Tsunami Survivors
I made several trips to Sri Lanka during this period, culminating in an awe inspiring visit early in 2005 when, over the course of a few days, I played my tongue drum at dawn on the summit of the holy mountain of Sri Pada – and in the Japanese peace pagoda at the mountain’s foot for the head monk (who would each day RUN up the 2,240 metre peak to bless the pilgrims who’d trudged to the top). Then in an audience with the chief of the Veddhas – the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. And culminating in a truly humbling encounter with child survivors of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami on the east coast of the island. Playing that little drum in front of more than hundred 3 to 14 year olds – most, if not all, had lost family members in that dreadful disaster – then have them all join in with anything at hand. And on the beach that had brought them so much anguish …
Brighton to the Patagonian Andes...via Dorset
On my return to England I was in culture shock – obese kids sitting outside the Churchill shopping centre in Brighton munching on their hot dogs and hamburgers is my abiding memory of that time. So, in pretty short order, I took up yoga, gave up smoking, changed my diet, and … bought my first gong.
Soon after I found myself at Gaunts House, a retreat centre in Dorset, for Gong Camp, a gathering of sound healers and musicians, where I met my teacher to be Don Conreaux, the world’s foremost authority on the gong, and experienced my first gong bath. I was hooked! Don was due to hold a ten day gong study retreat in England in the summer of 2006. It was cancelled for one reason or another and the next one was in November of that year in .. the Patagonian Andes. So I went. And that’s when my life really changed as I was gradually immersed in the mysteries of the gong. High in the mountains with 20 or so other devotees I began to explore this extraordinary instrument, in transformational use since the dawn of the Bronze Age more than 5,000 years ago.
In my next blog perhaps I’ll discuss the wonders of the all night gong puja, the best gong bath I ever experienced, and my adventures a while back in the Black Mountains in Wales, recording a gong concert CD for Don Conreaux using only battery power.