Taiko Yesterday and Today
Drumming has a long tradition in Japan. According to myth, drums were played in the heavens by Amaterasu, a great Shinto deity, which Japanese emperors claim their direct lineage. She personifies sun and light. In several festivals throughout Japan Taiko drums are played especially in her honor. The sound is meant to lure Amaterasu out of the darkness to restore balance between good and evil.
Originally the practice of Taiko was generally frowned upon in higher society, but held an important role in rural life. To both honor and appease the gods, people drummed for a better harvest or more plentiful fishing. These Taiko pieces were handed down from generation to generation over several centuries.
Eventually the Taiko sound was picked up for use in theater and religious ceremonies, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that it took the form popularized in Japan and the West today. The modern style follows traditional techniques and rhythms, but elevates the emphasis of movement and performance aspects in order to evoke yamato damashi, which means the “spirit of ancient Japan”. Nevertheless, it is still the pounding rhythms, which can overtake the beat of your heart and reach deep primal emotions.
Today, in Japan, Taiko is played during the many religious festivals held in summer and autumn – each based on local traditions. Despite the apparent extroverted aspects of the performance, the drummers maintain a stoic attitude. It could be said that they hope to draw the attention of the gods to their city or village to ask for their consideration and benevolence.
But with such deep-seated roots to the Japanese soul and considering the importance placed on traditional sounds such as those produced through Shamisen and Taiko, can gaijin (non-Japanese) hope to access to its profound emotional expression?
The first person to broaden the scope of Taiko was jazz musician and eventual founder of Osuwa Daiko, Daihachi Oguchi. He used a new configuration of drums: the basic rhythms were moved to the Shime-daiko, a small elevated drum, while the base accents were played on the deep and full sounding Nagado-daikos. It was a sound that found its resonance especially amongst young people, prompting an ever increasing number of ensembles.
Daihachi Oguchi wrote some of the most popular pieces, which eventually found international acclaim, thus bringing yamato damachi far beyond the shores of his small island nation. More information about his life and influence on Taiko is given on the website of the Hiryu Project.
Many Japanese Taiko instructors – who are increasingly teaching abroad – consider drumming as a direct expression of this spirit. As such, it is the responsibility of each Taiko group to honor that spirit and never lose sight of this purpose.
See here videos we made for the Hiryu Project in 2017 and 2018: