Japanese Drumming – The Art of Taiko

The recent disaster in Japan has me stricken with all sorts of emotions. The obvious feelings of sadness and anguish stood out the most, but another one was curiosity; not about the hurricane, but about Japanese culture in general. Maybe it takes something major like this to probe a desire to learn something, but aside from a few things we are tuned into through the news and the cross-polination of American and Japanese cultures (food, design, tourism), I really don’t know much about Japan, the culture, and that which differentiates us. My affinity for music led me to research Japanese drumming, which it turns out, is very fascinating.

“Taiko” refers to various Japanese drums and the art-form of ensemble taiko drumming. Taiko drums make up a variety of japanese percussion instruments and for the most part are used with sticks. The first American taiko group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was formed in 1968 by Seiichi Tanaka, a postwar immigrant who had previously studied taiko in Japan. The video above shows the technique used in hitting these drums, which is very different from how we use sticks to hit drums in America. Some of the sticks they use are similar to ours, but others (such as the ones in the video above) are much longer and fatter, which wouldn’t really allow for the same kind of fulcrum/wrist flicking technique we use. Actually, the entire arm is used with these sticks. We rely very much on a fulcrum point to give drumsticks a bounce back effect while using our wrists, not arms. This is said to be an effective way to play faster by doing less and a technique that helps prevent injury. The idea is to remain loose. It actually looks as though the Japanese apply the same theory to a different motion that uses the whole arm. Although their wrists aren’t responsible for the sticks motion, their arms don’t appear to be stiff. It’s almost as though they are displaying a samurai demonstration using drums and sticks.

Furthermore, it’s not always just about drumming. Taiko ensembles fit the part through their antics and wardrobe. Chants, ninja-like movements, and traditional japanese clothing form the make-up of these acts. Other forms of music we are used to follow a similar model. Imagine Motley Crue without the platform shoes, lipstick, big hair, and provocative stage antics. Its all about forming an identity. The Japanese have successfully brought Taiko to the forefront of the Japanese drumming community. While the culture has always embraced western music, they have certainly contributed to innovation in their own right. Check out a few videos on youtube to see it in full effect.

Read more about Taiko

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