Taiko Japanese Drum Music

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culturallyours podcast Taiko drumming music from Japan

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Taiko Japanese Drum Music
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Show Details

In this episode we explore Taiko, which is the ancient Japanese form of percussion music using large drums that are played in an intense, rhythmic format. In Japanese, taiko literally means ‘drum’ though the term is also used to refer to the art of Japanese drumming, known as kumi-daiko. Taiko has been a part of the Japanese culture for centuries. In fact, Taiko has an almost mythological origin in Japanese folklore.

Taiko has enjoyed a huge resurgence of interest not only in Japan, where there are estimated around 4000 taiko ensembles, but also in North America, Europe, Taiwan and Brazil. Taiko is believed to be the heartbeat of Japan that has visualized through its long deep cultural roots. And now thanks to its modern-day revival it is becoming a more universal musical language bridging cultural gaps around the world.

 

Show Notes

Karthika explores Taiko music from Japan which is the ancient Japanese form of percussion music using large drums that are played in an intense, rhythmic format. Taiko is part music part dance where drummers follow choreographed routines and use their entire bodies especially their arms and their core or ab muscles. Taiko is believed to be the heartbeat of Japan that has visualized through its long deep cultural roots. And now thanks to its modern-day revival it is becoming a more universal musical language bridging cultural gaps around the world.

The Transcript

Today we head out to Japan to learn about Taiko, which is the ancient Japanese form of percussion music using large drums that are played in an intense, rhythmic format. Having heard a local Taiko group perform a few years ago, I can tell you, this music is loud, intense and unlike any I have ever heard. It has a mesmerizing quality about it and you almost feel like you are dancing in a fast-paced circle really becoming one with the sound from these drums.

In Japanese, taiko literally means ‘drum’ though the term is also used to refer to the art of Japanese drumming, known as kumi-daiko.

Taiko has been a part of the Japanese culture for centuries. In fact, Taiko has an almost mythological origin in Japanese folklore. One of the oldest books in Japanese classical history, the Nihon Shoki, describes the origins of Taiko. The myth tells the story of Amaterasu, who had sealed herself inside a cave in anger and was beckoned out by an elder goddess Ame-no-Uzume when others had failed. Ame-no-Uzume accomplished this by emptying out a barrel of sake and dancing on top of it. Historians regard her performance as the mythological creation of Taiko music.

There are historical records that suggests that taiko were introduced to Japan through cultural influences from countries such as Korea and China as early as the 6th century CE. Some taiko are even similar to instruments originating from India. As percussion instruments are generally the most primitive instrument in any society, the taiko existed and was used in the ancient Japan over 2000 years ago. According to some archeological and anthropological researches, ancient people in the Jyomon era used drums as a communication tool or an instrument for religious rituals.

Come explore Japanese taiko drumming music on this episode of CulturallyOurs.

Isn’t that music just fantastic.

The Taiko drums have had a varied function throughout history, ranging from communication, military action, in theater, and in religious ceremonies. Centuries ago, taiko was used predominantly in the military arena. As it evolved, Japanese Buddhist and Shinto religions gradually began to take it on as a sacred instrument using it outside shrines and in religious festivals. Even today it is very common to find taikos at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Usually, men who are authorized by the priest played taiko at special occasions. In other instances, the general public enjoyed dancing along with taiko at local festivals. Such local festivals still remain in Japan with some unique taiko performances.

After the samurai class gained power in 1192, a new cultural movement of ethnic Japanese started to appear. Many original art forms were born in feudal Japan influenced by Chinese and Korean cultures. For example, a Noh play was created in the Muromachi era (1336-1573). The famous Kabuki play emerged and quickly became popular in the Edo era (1603-1867). Taiko had an important role in those art forms as an accompaniment and were gradually diversified to various sizes and shapes. Moreover, the development of other instruments such as Shamisen, Koto and Shakuhachi also influenced the shaping of those art forms now categorized as traditional Japanese music.

Like much of art in Japan, the method of taiko has been inherited through generations under the Iemoto system which is the system of the teaching of a traditional Japanese art by a master. This is still followed to some extent in Taiko schools outside of Japan.

The drums in Taiko range in size from roughly a snare drum (“shime”) to drums as large as a car (the “o-daiko”). The most common drum size in taiko is the ‘chu-daiko’ which is the size of a wine barrel. Can you believe that the biggest taiko drum weighs 3.5 tons. It is found at Odaiko Hall in Akita in Japan. It measures 3.8 metres in length and only the most experienced drummers are even allowed to play it. Originally, drums of this scale were created to mimic the sound of thunder in the hope that they would bring rain to reward villagers living off their land.

The art of kumi-daiko performance as an ensemble or a group originated post-war in 1951. As the story goes, it was created by Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer who stumbled across an old piece of taiko music. Wondering why taiko were never played together, he broke with tradition by forming a taiko drum ensemble. Today modern day taiko performances are always done as part of an ensemble where many different kinds of taiko and other instruments are played together. One of taiko’s most defining aspects is its dynamic playing style. As you heard from the clip earlier, taiko playing is loud, hard, and fast, and involves a lot of choreographed movement which many identify with Japanese martial arts.

Taiko performance consists of many components in technical rhythm, form, stick grip and clothing. Ensembles typically use different types of barrel-shaped nagadō-daiko as well as smaller shime-daiko. Many groups accompany the drums with vocals, strings, and woodwind instruments. In the recent years, taiko has enjoyed not only a resurgence of interest in Japan, where there are estimated around 4000 taiko ensembles, but also in North America, Europe, Taiwan and Brazil.

Taiko performances are very different from most other musical performances.

In taiko drumming, the performers are not just using the drum as an instrument. They are aiming to form a connection between the drum and themselves. If you search You Tube for a taiko performance, you can see how intense the drumming sessions are. I have added a couple of links in the show notes so definitely go check those out. The core elements in Taiko are attitude, form, technique and energy. Through these elements the performers hope to achieve ultimate expression of taiko, when the art becomes a part of the player’s personality. It is a way of being and an expression of life itself.

Like many aspects of Japanese culture there is a deeper meaning to this art form. Here at CulturallyOurs we have explored Wabi-Sabi and the culture of Wa or harmony. Both have deeper meaning in life. In Taiko, the performers attitude includes respect for self, other players, and the instruments in order to bring about a discipline of both body and mind. As taiko drumming is a form of ensemble drumming that has strictly choreographed movements, it is crucial that the performers develop an awareness of their body movement in space and their interaction with other players.

Learning Taiko is a lifelong commitment.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that although taiko drumming is a form of music, it is probably unlike any other kind of music in the world. In many taiko styles movement is just as important as rhythm. So taiko can be thought of as 50% dance and 50% music.

Taiko movements tend to be hard and fast, and generally very tiring. This means that to perform taiko well, you have to be in good shape and develop speed and more importantly, endurance – much like martial art training. Taiko drums usually have a shell with heads on both sides, and the cavity is sealed to provide the resonating effect. Some taiko are tunable and some are not.

Much like Vingesh Ishwar who spoke to us about Carnatic music of south India, the art of Taiko is most definitely a lifestyle. Taiko drummers must remain in peak physical condition to maintain the skill and the stamina required to deliver intense and high-energy performances. Taiko is more closely related to dance than you might think, as the drummers follow choreographed routines and use their entire bodies especially their arms and their core or ab muscles.

As you can guess, Taiko drumming is good for your health too. There are many studies linking a daily dose of drumming to positive health benefits and well-being. Evidence suggests that it can reduce blood pressure, improve cognitive function, reduce pain and prevent depression and emotional disorders. Some groups practice therapeutic drumming to achieve mindfulness and use it as a form of meditation.

Taiko is believed to be the heartbeat of Japan that has visualized through its long deep cultural roots. And now thanks to its modern-day revival it is becoming a more universal musical language bridging cultural gaps around the world.

I leave you with a few more sound bites of Japanese taiko drumming and encourage you to check out this art form the next time you are looking for some cultural experiences.

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