Guest writer: Urusai_Uni#0007
Whether it was at a festival, a convention or a professional performance, many of us fans of Japanese culture have gotten the experience of seeing Taiko in action. But what exactly is Taiko and how did it all begin? I myself have been playing taiko drums since I was a child and just recently came back from a trip to Japan that was dedicated to this incredible art form. This trip gave me a deeper understanding and love for taiko drumming and inspired me to share it with all of you! Often called “The Heartbeat of Japan”, Taiko is a fun and interesting way to get involved with Japan’s amazing and unique culture.
The Origin of Taiko
According to myth, taiko was created when Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, barricaded herself in a cave out of anger. Another goddess, Ame-no-Uzume, danced on top of an empty barrel and was able to get Amaterasu to come out. The rhythmic pounding is said to be the origin of taiko. Historically, taiko drums appeared in the 6th century in Japan, most likely having been brought over from China and Korea alongside Buddhism.
Before becoming the entertainment we know today, taiko drumming had three main uses in pre-modern Japan. They’re famously known for being used in warfare, and many modern day songs also reflect this. They were used to communicate orders such as when to advance or retreat, as well as to intimidate enemies or encourage allies. Taiko was also important in the arts and was often used for music and sound effects in plays, especially in Kabuki. Lastly, the drums are a big part of religious practices like festivals, and still are today! They play alongside other instruments and provide the beat for dances. The way taiko are played during festivals depends heavily on the region and what kind of festival its being performed for, so the style is different wherever you go!
The Rise of Kumi-Daiko
Kumi-Daiko, or modern day taiko ensembles, are actually very new, having been created in 1951! Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer, was asked to interpret a traditional piece of music. After receiving help to read the music, he found the beat too simple for his tastes but had an idea to make it more interesting. Based on western drum sets, he put taiko of different pitches and sizes together to form an ensemble, and Kumi-Daiko was born!
Taiko became known globally after the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964. It was brought to the United States by Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka when he formed the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968. Other ways taiko has travelled across the world is by professional performances. Right now, the most famous taiko group is arguably Kodo, who perform all over the world. While I was in Japan, I got the privilege to work with another pro group called Dengakuza, who live together just outside of Ina City.
Taiko Instruments, Equipment and Gear
One of the most important parts of taiko performances is obviously the taiko themselves! In Japan, there are roughly 30 different kinds of taiko. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Nagado Daiko – Large, round drums that are typically the center of the performance and carry the main melody. These are the most common drums you’ll see outside of Japan.
- Shime Daiko – Small drums that are tuned by tightening metal or ropes. They sit on wooden stands and keep a steady beat. Rarely will you see a performance without a shime!
- Oke Daiko – These drums can be carried over your shoulder or set on stands. They are usually tuned by tightening rope along their sides and are popular because of their versatility, portability and typically lower price point than Nagado Daiko.
Taiko are played using Bachi, sticks that come in a wide range of sizes and types of wood. The type of wood changes the weight and softness of the bachi, making them better for different play styles. For example, my main pair of bachi are made of kashi (oak wood) which is a hard type of wood, meaning they’re less likely to dent or break. On the other hand, my hinoki bachi (cypress wood) are very soft and will dent even if they are bumped together too hard.
Taiko are often played alongside fue (bamboo flutes), chappa (hand cymbals), and/or kanne (flat bells). Taiko players are often seen wearing happi (a light cotton coat), hachimaki (an often times white headband), and tabi (rubber soled shoes). Performances sometimes also include dance and songs with taiko as the instrumental.
Thank you for reading my very first Aninspire article! I hope I was able to share just a little bit of my passion for taiko drumming with you! You might be wondering now, how to get involved with taiko. Luckily, there are taiko groups all over the world and many of them offer lessons! Just search your city name and “taiko group” in Google and see if there are any near you! It’s fun and good exercise, as well as a good way to get involved with Japanese culture and your community!