What Is Taiko Drumming?

Taiko drumming is a rythmic medley of traditional and modern rhythms and moves, guaranteed to make the fittest person sweat!

While drums of varying sorts have been used in Japan for 1400 years or more, Taiko Drumming - the art form - has only been around since the 1950s. The word "˜Taiko' (big, fat drum) can mean the art of taiko drumming or can mean the drum itself. Modern drumming differs significantly from traditional in more than just the music it plays, giving people a visual spectacle as well as a multiple drum experience. No wonder it has achieved such popularity!

The construction of modern drums

A number of drums are associated with Japanese music. The skin of the drum is usually made from stretched horse or cowhide which is either nailed in place or held by a hoop and adjusted with tension ropes. The nailed drums are called "˜byou-daiko' and the hooped drums, "˜shime-daiko'. These are the two main classifications of drums in taiko drumming.

The byou-daiko drum's body is made from a single log of wood which means that larger drums use trees 200 years old or more for their construction. The rising cost and lack of raw materials of appropriate size means that attempts have been made to find other ways of constructing these drums. However, most are still made in the traditional way. With proper care though, a drum can last many hundreds of years although the byou-daiko cannot be tuned once the skin is in place and a large drum can require a whole cowskin.

While smaller shime-daiko drums are also made from one piece of wood, this is not true of larger ones. Also, the drum skin is two pieces of skin stretched over a metal hoop at the top of the drum and tied around with strings so that the tension on the drum can be adjusted. The small versions of this drum are commonly found in Kabuki orchestras and those of other traditional Japanese performance arts.

The taiko is beaten rhythmically with a wooden stick called a "˜bachi' which is made out of a different material and of a different size depending on which drum it will be used for. The bachi is decorated with bells and tassles so that it will look impressive when used during a performance.

The history of drums in Japan

Large drums were originally used in battle to scare the enemy but were later adapted to pass messages by code, and by the 1500s were in common usage as their sound could reputedly be heard right across the battlefield.

At the same time as drums were being used in battle, variations on these drums served two other purposes. The first was as an instrument for court music where the drums became highly decorated and beautifully made. The second was in the realm of religion where the beat of the drum was equated to the voice of God and adopted by both Buddhist monks and Shinto priests who used it for special ceremonies or as an aid to chanting.

The modern taiko exhibition with which many of us are familiar was not developed until 1951 by Daihachi Oguchi who jazzed up traditional pieces of music and was the first performer to incorporate the use of multiple drums. He chose drums of different sizes for the varying sounds they made and each performer played a number of drums depending on the requirements of the music. The success of this venture was unparalleled being both an auditory and a visual spectacle with acrobatic leaps and dance-like coordination which was increased with the advent of television and spread throughout the world.

The first professional taiko group was begun by Seido Kobayashi in the early 60s and called "Oedo Sukeroku Daiko". This group embodied the best of taiko at that point incorporating flashy solos, choreography, speed and power. Perhaps the best known group though is the Za Ondekoza which was formed in 1969 by Tagayasu Den using a number of troublesome youths who embraced Taiko as a way of life. An offshoot of this group, Koto, is also well known internationally from its touring performances.

From such small beginnings, taiko has become a way of life for some and a hobby for others but always truly something to behold. There are over 8000 groups performing taiko in japan today and an increasing number of them in other countries. Perhaps this will be another successful Japanese export?

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