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Taiko - the Way of the Drum

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A baby in the womb which transforms into a taiko drum player

Imagine music capable of reflecting an approaching tsunami, the power of a thunderstorm, or the gentle rhythm of a beating heart. Taiko is the Japanese word for 'big drum' but it connotes far more. In the hands of a master, the taiko is capable of expressing a wide spectrum of emotions. Historically, taiko embodies the spirit and culture of Japan. In a more modern sense, however, taiko is becoming a voice for a burgeoning world community.

What is Taiko?

In its simplest form, the taiko is a two-headed drum, which is struck with sticks called bacchi. Broadly speaking, taiko come in two varieties: byou-daiko in which the stretched leather heads are fastened to the body of the drum with tacks; and shime-daiko which are tuned by tightening ropes attached to the heads of the drum.

The shime-daiko come in all sizes, from small drums that are used to keep the rhythm during performances, to enormous okedo drums. The two largest okedo in North America measure 5 feet in diameter and 7 feet in length, and produce a truly thunderous sound when played.

Byou-daiko are what people most often think of when they think of taiko: barrel-shaped drums traditionally constructed from a single piece of wood. The medium-size byoo-daiko are up to three feet in diameter, weigh around 100 pounds and are called nagado-daiko. Typically trees must be 200 years old to meet the size requirements of the drums. The O-daiko, which literally translates as 'big, fat drum', are any nagado-style taiko that have a diameter larger than three feet. The largest o-daiko in the world measures 8 feet across, weighs close to 2 tons, and has been carved from a tree that was 1200 years old. Because of recent efforts in forest conservation, taiko construction methods are being modified to allow for stave construction which will preserve old growth forests. Hira-daiko are byou-daiko of various sizes which are short length-wise and are frequently suspended from elaborate wooden frames.

History of the Taiko

The earliest instruments in almost every culture are percussive. Taiko have been present in Japan, in one form or another, for almost 2000 years. Originally, taiko were brought to Japan from China and Korea, and later, from India. Along with taiko, came various cultural influences, including Buddhism. Drums in these countries still bear some resemblance to the Japanese taiko, but after about 900 AD the taiko in Japan is considered to have developed exclusively under Japanese influence.

Its first uses were, not surprisingly, militaristic. The thunderous boom of the taiko was not only useful at giving orders and directing troop movements over the din of battle, it was highly effective at scaring the life out of the opposition.

The taiko also took on other roles in village life. It was used to celebrate harvests and festivals as well as to scare away evil demons that might threaten the village's well being. The sound carried for approximately two miles depending upon the size of the drum and the skill of the player, and so was used to demarcate village boundaries. Obviously, individual taiko became extremely important to the life of the village, and soon respect evolved into reverence. The people began to feel that the taiko were inhabited by the divine. Thus, they became temple instruments which could only be played by priests or individuals of the highest rank at particular times. In a beautiful festival ceremony, the people would gather in the temple, with the taiko at the front where it was used to literally carry the people's prayers to the deity.

With the passage of time, and the wrenching changes of the 20th Century, the taiko was rediscovered in a revolutionary way. In 1951, a young jazz musician, Daihachi Oguchi, found an old piece of taiko music meant to be played as a solo. In a stroke of what can only be called genius, Oguchi Sensei (Sensei is Japanese for 'teacher' or 'master') envisioned taiko played by an ensemble. He built taiko of various lengths and diameters thus bestowing the taiko with pitch. Once the taiko had several voices which could interact and blend, they could be played by a group of musicians in completely novel ways. Oguchi Sensei founded a new musical art form which we know as kumi-daiko.

Taiko has never been the same, either in Japan or the rest of the world. Za Ondekoza, which later split to form the internationally acclaimed Kodo, brought taiko to the attention of the world. In North America, taiko is almost solely the result of the efforts of one man, Seiichi Tanaka. Tanaka Sensei studied with Oguchi Sensei and founded San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1969. Through his tireless efforts, taiko has spread throughout the United States. There are now over 800 groups in the United States alone, with more forming every month.

To address the need for training and support, the North American Taiko Foundation was founded at the historic North American Taiko Summit, held in October, 2000 in conjunction with the annual International Taiko Festival in San Francisco. The goal of the Foundation, working in tandem with the Nippon Taiko Foundation, is to foster taiko in North America as a way of life.

The Way of Taiko

When one embarks upon learning to play a musical instrument, usually one begins by learning basic skills and techniques, such as reading music, scales, fingering and chords. In Western tradition, the emphasis is upon musicianship. The approach is vastly different when learning and playing taiko. There are four basic elements which are essential to the way of taiko:

  • Karada or 'discipline of body'. Taiko players undergo rigorous physical training to build strength and endurance. Those whose knees will tolerate it typically run several miles a day; others cycle or walk. Performing members of elite groups, such as San Francisco Taiko Dojo, typically do 300 push-ups and sit-ups a day.

  • Kokoro or 'discipline of mind and spirit'. Kokoro is necessary for self control and personal discipline and may be arrived at through various methods, including meditation.

  • Waza or 'musicianship'. Waza includes a sense of rhythm and lyrical expression, as well as mastering the kuchi-showa. Traditionally, Japanese music was not written down but passed on verbally from Sensei to student using a notational system known as the kuchi-showa.

  • Rei is the ability to communicate with respect and courtesy in the group to foster a spirit of unity.

In Taiko, each of these elements must come together in balance and harmony, just as the individual members of the group must strive for unity with each other, the drums and the audience. You might have perfect technique, but if you lack the other elements, you will never truly be a taiko player.

Oguchi Sensei and Tanaka Sensei teach that the taiko is the first sound any of us hears in the form of our mother's heartbeat. Each of us carries this with us throughout our lifetime. This is the reason why taiko music is often so familiar to people even when they hear it for the first time. It serves to remind us that we are all part of one human family. It is a universal language that requires no translation. As the taiko community embarks upon the next century, we see taiko spreading throughout the world, not just as a musical art form, but as a means of bringing diverse groups of people together as one.

Interested in Finding out More about Taiko?

For additional information about taiko, or the various groups, the following links may be of interest to you:

  • The San Francisco Taiko Dojo (SFTD) is the oldest taiko dojo in the United States. Founded by Tanaka Sensei, it is carrying on a very traditional form of taiko. Without doubt, Tanaka Sensei and SFTD have shaped taiko in North America today.

  • The Kaminari Taiko of Houston is one of the youngest taiko groups in North America. Founded in 1996, Kaminari is growing under the guidance of Tanaka Sensei.

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