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Published on 04.27.2016
Taiko drums as we know them today are an infusion of tradition and modernity, of external and internal influences. When played, the audience cannot but watch in mesmeric awe at the energy manifested by the drums and the players.
Meaning big or fat drum, taiko drums have strong resemblance to Chinese and Korean musical instruments. Due to this they are believed to have been imported from those regions between 300 AD – 900 AD. However, around 900 AD Japan ceased diplomatic relations with China, thereby ending the influence of a powerful neighbour. Thus, from this point onwards the job for the development of the drum was left to the natives of the Japanese archipelago.
Like many percussion instruments, taiko drum’s first beats were heard on the battlefield, which was beaten to intimidate the enemy and for coordinating movement. However, this drum has also been associated with the gods. This is as in the past the drum was beaten to signal various activities, such as the coming of storm. Due to their importance in people’s daily lives, people felt thankful and began to believe that it has gods inside. Later, when Shintoism and Buddhism became established religions, they adopted this tradition and as such taiko drums can be found in temples and shrines today.
The variety of taiko drums is diverse. Some are made of bamboo, while others are made of oak; some are big and other small. Even its bachi (the sticks used to beat the taiko) come in different varieties; some have tassels, some rattles, and some don’t have any. Some may be shiny and others light. This variety of the taiko and bachi allow for a proper selection of tools to get the desired sound and beat from the drums.
Since the beginning, the taiko had been played by as a solo instrument, but in the 1950s a jazz drummer by the name Daihachi Oguchi wondered why taiko had never been played as part of an ensemble. From this thought, was born the idea of kumi-daiko which is the word used to describe a performance in which various musicians play different kinds of taiko, sometimes accompanied by other instruments (in Japanese, when taiko is the second part of a word, its initial letter changes into “d” as in kumi-daiko). Daihachi gathered various taiko and created an ensemble. This became an instant hit and more people began to show interest.
More changes followed, when in 1959, a group under the name Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko, introduced new changes that emphasized fluidity, speed and power; choreography and solos were also added to the performances. These changes have been received well by the public and have been embodied by professional taiko groups, such as Kodo.
Today there are more than 8,000 taiko groups in Japan, and many others in the US, Canada, Australia and Brazil. Becoming a professional taiko player is not easy. It requires rigorous training and a lot of strength. Watching a kumi-daiko will demonstrate the amount of effort and hard work gone into training and it is dynamic, high-energy performance that anyone is bound to enjoy.