Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiko Drumming: The Whole Body Pulse of Japan's Resounding 'Heartbeat'

Does Kodo have a workout video? Image via.

Learning an instrument is a physical challenge as much as a musical one, from proper finger placement on guitar, to shoulder and back strength for cello, to mastering a variety of breathing techniques needed to sound any wind instrument. After thousands of hours of rigorous practice, the sole motivator for taking on such an arduous task may be the rewarding feeling when a song finally plays to perfection.

But motivators can also be mental health, a means of meditation or a whole body workout. All three are possible with taiko, the word for Japanese drums and traditional Japanese drumming, often considered the resounding 'heartbeat' of Japanese culture.

The popularity of taiko can be seen in its many benefits. Some choose to play taiko because of their love of music or their interest in Japanese culture. The meditative aspect stems from the instruments' roots in religion, specifically Buddhism. In terms of full body workout, the physical stamina required increases depending on the size of the drums and weight of the drumsticks, as well as the degree of strength and control needed to create different sounds. This does not necessarily mean taiko players must be physically fit to learn to play (though they probably will be after a few years of playing regularly). Anyone can learn from small children to the elderly, and benefits abound for people with disabilities (taiko has been used as therapy for people with Downs Syndrome and autism, and deaf people can play by feeling the vibrations made by other players).

Originally, taiko was not the big production that it is today. According to Japanzine, a national magazine about Japan, the clay figure of a man beating a drum dated around the 6th or 7th centuries is the earliest evidence of taiko in Japan. Further evidence supports that it was originally used on the battlefield as a way to intimidate the enemy.

Over the centuries, taiko was incorporated into daily village life as a timekeeper, into imperial court music, into religious activities as the powerful sounds became associated with the gods, and  has become the centerpiece of many matsuri (Japanese festivals). It was not until post-war Jazz musician Daihachi Oguchi created the first ensemble format of taiko with multiple drums and rhythms that taiko developed into the arrangements seen today.

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble performs in 2012. 

Taiko has spread across the globe with world renowned professional groups like Tao and Kodo, purveyors such as Kenny Endo and hundreds of esteemed amateur ensembles. Among several in New York are the New York Suwa Taiko Association, which has performed at several Japan Society events; the New York Taiko Aiko Kai, a resident group of the TC Taiko Society at Columbia University's Teachers College; and Brooklyn's only taiko group Taiko Masala, which will head up the taiko portion of Japan Society's 2014 summer high school workshop, From Taiko Drumming to J-Pop Music & Dance.

Everywhere people are inspired to play taiko with its unforgettable sound and enriching benefits. As much as an opportunity to learn an instrument, taiko is a way to experience and contribute to the heartbeat of Japan.

As the old kakegoe goes, SO-RE!

--Ana Belen Gomez Flor
The New York Suwa Taiko Association launched Japan Society's all day j-CATION festival in 2012. Photo by George Hirose.

1 comment:

Keiko Arita said...

Yeah, I love Taiko☆