The middle period of the Qing Dynasty was a time when Yuepu’s local street peddlers could be heard loud and clear. Shouldering their wares they wound through the alleys, hawking their goods as they beat “Huolang” drums to draw in customers. Rumor has it that the drums carried by these peddlers are similar to the “flower drums” of South Jiangsu. The face of the drum had a diameter of around 25 centimeters and a thickness of about 3.5 centimeters, and was one-sided. The drum wasn’t especially loud, but had a distinctive tone which could be heard sharp and clear.
Later on, local performing artists added Huolang drums into Jiangnan’s traditional musical ensemble, but they were only used for show. In order to participate in celebrations such as temple fairs and the Lantern Festival, the local Huolang drummers modified the size of the drum in the final years of the Qing era. They expanded its diameter to 33 centimeters and thickness to 7.7 centimeters, made it double-sided, and created a frame. These changes increased the drum’s volume and deepened its tone, making it more suitable for outdoor performances. After many years of evolution and changes brought about by several generations of folk performers, a style of performance was finalized. Usually, eight drums were placed symmetrically on two sides and played as a “paired performance”. To add character performers pinned colorful, embroidered images of Zhang Guolao, Han Zhongli, Lan Caihe and Tie Guaili of the Eight Immortals to the trim of the drums. This style was popularized in Yuepu, Luodian, Luonan and Jiangnan, and became known as the “Eight Immortals Drum Pairing”. In order to enrich the expressive power of the drumming style, other percussive instruments were added such as small bowls, gongs and “wooden fish”. On especially grand occasions, performers would also add Chinese oboes, bamboo flutes and other traditional Chinese instruments into the mix, creating a folk music ensemble. Every year for the temple fair, the Lantern Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and other celebrations, performers from all over would get together and square off for a drum battle, making it the most popular event for tourists. Whenever nearby families celebrated a marriage, performers from the countryside would come and liven things up with their music. When the “Eight Immortals Drum Pairing” style was in vogue, there were 15 drumming groups in the area of Yuepu alone.
Since the Cultural Revolution, the construction of Baosteel brought smelting work units from all over China to converge in Baoshan, bringing also the drums of Shanxi, Sichuan and Zhejiang to the region of Yuepu. With this, the traditional “Eight Immortals Drum Pairing” style underwent a change in character, and over the course of constant innovation and exploration, finally became what is known today as “Yuepu Drumming”. The major differences between the old and the new are: 1) The group is bigger, with more drums, gongs and other percussive instruments added in, increasing the performer’s expressive power. 2) Original musical compositions have been added to the group’s repertoire, including “The Spirit of the Old Fortress” and “The Meeting of the Decade”, both of which have won awards in local competitions. 3) The group has moved onstage. Giving a performance at the Shanghai Concert Hall, the ensemble received high honors at the 89 Shanghai Arts Festival. Vice-chair of the Shanghai Musicians Association and vice-president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Zhang Dunzhi called it “a contemporary performance, lofty and brilliant.” PRC politicians Zhu Rongji, Wu Bangguo, Huang Ju and former PRC president Yang Shangkun, the group’s 1991 performance at the Shanghai Spring Festival Gala, and posed for a photo together to commemorate.
At present, there are 18 different drumming groups in the Yuepu area, with over 1,000 musicians, among them workers, farmers, soldiers and students. The most famous of these groups is the Shanghai Baosteel worker’s drum band, which has one several awards at both provincial and municipal art competitions. In 1996, the group joined the Baoshan Folk Art Troupe in its trip to France and Brazil, and received an enthusiastic welcome abroad. With the support of the municipal government, the town of Yuepu established China’s first village drum expo. For the steel town of Yuepu, drumming culture has become a bright and beautiful horizon.