Yamato Drummers of Japan, one of the most exciting taiko ensembles in the world, are playing at Riverside on August 24.
Never experienced the thrills of taiko before? Here’s what you need to know.
1. More than music
Yamato’s brand of taiko blends athleticism and fierce energy with the colourful and contemporary showmanship of rock concerts and circus. One reviewer described the players as having “the seriousness of samurai and the crazed exhibitionism of heavy-metal rock drummers.” The women of the ensemble hit as hard as the men and audience participation is a given.
2. A modern twist on ancient tradition
Taiko literally means “drum” and has been an integral part of Japanese ritual for centuries. Used in a military context around the 6th century, drums were then incorporated into Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies, festivals and theatre performances, and the instrument itself became regarded as sacred.
But the taiko style we see and hear today is a modern one, dating to the post-war years when a jazz drummer, Daichichi Oguchi, rediscovered sheets of taiko music in an old warehouse and started work on interpreting them. Oguchi formed the first taiko group, Osuwa Daiko, in 1951.
3. Yamato Drummers of Japan
One of Japan’s premiere ensembles, Yamato Drummers of Japan (Wadaiko Yamato) was founded in 1993 in Nara Prefecture, south of Kyoto. They exploded on to the international scene in 1998 with acclaimed performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and have toured the world constantly since. Yamato concerts combine traditional taiko intensity with what founder Masaaki Ogawa describes as “an open friendly face.”
4. Master craftsmen
Traditionally-made Japanese drums are carved from a single log or tree trunk. The drying process, carving, polishing, and the fitting of a bull or horse skin drumhead could take years. A single drum made in that fashion can cost as much as a family car.
5. Taking Japan to the world
Japan’s post-war rehabilitation and growing economic power fostered a worldwide interest in its culture. For many, the first glimpse of taiko was in the newsreel footage and TV specials beamed from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics arts festival. The powerful sounds of taiko caught western ears and ensembles began to spring up on the American west coast in the 1960s.
6. Rhythm sticks
Taiko is played with beaters called bachi, made of white oak or Japanese magnolia. They are typically heavier than conventional Western drumsticks. The way the bachi are held can be meaningful. For some groups, bachi represent a spiritual link between the body and the sky.
7. Big and small
Yamato’s drums range from the size of a dinner plate to the mighty Odaiko, a booming percussive centerpiece carved from one enormous tree and weighing more than 500kg. The world’s largest taiko are installed in the Odaiko Hall in Kita-Akita, Akita, Japan. They weigh 3.5 tonnes, have a diameter of 3.8m, and are played by teams of up to six musicians at a time.
8. Tough as they come
Taiko ensembles are famed for their athleticism. The Ondekoza company of Shizuoka, for example, combine communal living, running and playing. In 1975, Ondekoza made a dramatic international debut by completing the Boston Marathon and then running immediately on to the stage to perform a concert. The company’s US Marathon Tour in 1990 (355 concerts in 1075 days) was completed entirely on foot with members running nearly 15,000km between shows.
9. More than rhythm
It’s not enough to merely keep the beat in taiko. The choreographed movements and posture – the kata – are an equally important part of the performance. When taiko musicians rehearse, they often do so in rooms with mirrors so that they can pay close attention to every aspect of their performance.
10. Taiko – the game!
In 2001, electronics company Namco launched Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Master), the world’s first taiko arcade game. It was an instant hit and already noisy gaming parlours became deafening.
Yamato Drummers of Japan perform Jhonetsu Passion Saturday 24 August at 4pm and 8pm at Riverside.