The drummer stands, legs rigid and splayed, mimicking the wide lines of the prone wooden drum. His left arm points to the heavens as his right arm traces an ever increasingly insistent tattoo across the taut drum’s head with the straight wooden drum stick, or bachi. This technique, called oroshi, utilizes silences, or ma, to counterpoint the increasing tempo, building itself into a flurry of sharp attacks until the whole ensemble of drummers joins into the fray. The group moves as one, weaving a story through percussive punctuations and bold, rolling rhythmic cadences. Welcome to taiko drumming.
Taiko was introduced to Japan from China during the Yayoi period (500 B.C. to 300 A.D.) and was used for several purposes. The military incorporated it for communication purposes, particularly to convey troop movements and strike fear into the opposition. Taiko was also a core form of music played at court and became a staple of royal ceremonies. It was also adopted by the Shint Buddhists to be utilized only during religious ceremonies. Some temples used the largest drum in Taiko’s arsenal, the great drum, or daiko. Eventually it became common for everyone to take up taiko drumming for religious holidays, festivals and other communal events. In fact, in some villages, it was used to accompany the oral folklore of the region and draw people together.
The creation of the modern ensemble form of taiko (called Kumi-daiko) is credited to Daihachi Oguchi who, in 1951, mused as to why taiko drums had never been used in an ensemble group before. Oguchi was a jazz-influenced drummer and infused the traditional styles of taiko drumming with a more modern jazz structure, bringing together the many drums and other instruments that were previously used separately. In some villages where taiko drumming and singing was once a focal point of a community’s interactions and history, such activity has been supplanted for evenings spent at the local karaoke bar. The younger generations seem to gravitate to the larger cities, such as Tokyo, the moment they are old enough to move away. Traditional values and important folklore are in danger of being forgotten due to the progression of technology and a preference for more Westernized diversions.
San Jose Taiko, who are set to appear Saturday, April 24 at the Victoria Theatre, takes in the art of the performance, the somber duty of tradition and the ability and energy to bring an ancient form of music into a new age. Much more than a percussive ensemble, the group utilizes cymbals, flutes and chanting to convey their unified message. The members move as one, invoking a sense of interpretive dance while chanting and sporadic shouts pepper the performance, creating a high harmonic counterpoint to the low rumble of the larger drums. The members’ brightly colored costumes, style of dance and expressive facial movements also impart a more intimate meaning to the music, connecting with the audience on a more universal level. All of this is tied together by the ever-present thunder of the drums.
In addition, San Jose Taiko is much more than just a traveling troupe akin to Stomp or Riverdance. They embody a sense of community, tradition and opportunity. The group began as a way to encourage youth to be involved in the local temple and has blossomed from there. Members take on a regular exercise regime, such as running, to build up their endurance for the grueling stage performances. They are also expected to compose, create costumes, choreograph numbers and handcraft the drums they will play, giving the members a more well rounded understanding about their abilities to express themselves. San Jose Taiko even differentiates itself from other taiko groups in that they mostly create and compose their own original concepts and pieces and that they perform them in the Kumi-daiko or ensemble form.
San Jose Taiko has more long-term goals in mind, such as creating a conservatory as a repository of the art form and a resource center to provide assistance, training and professional development. The troupe has already established a very successful touring residency program that has created a binding relationship with many communities. They have also implemented a Junior Taiko program, established as a means to perpetuate an interest in the culture and the art form of taiko.
San Jose Taiko will perform Saturday, April 24 at 8 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Tickets are $26-$43. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at email@example.com