Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi

Of all the pieces Oguchi Daihachi wrote for Osuwa Daiko, one stood out in his mind: “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” (飛龍三段返し “The Dragon God Descends Three Times). Composed for a performance by Osuwa Daiko at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair, it was once stated by Oguchi to be the composition with which he was most pleased (Oguchi 1995, 14). It is not simply a piece of note for Oguchi and Osuwa Daiko, however, for it combines many of the compositional practices and discourses that would be utilized by Oguchi over the course of his life has he continued to develop the Osuwa Daiko performance style and philosophy.

The Shinto Origins of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi”

The name “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” refers the dragon god that is the goshintai, or object of worship, at the Suwa Grand Shrine. One of the oldest shrines in existence, it is believed to date back over 1200 years, and was even mentioned in the Kojiki, a 8th Century collection of myths concerning the origin of the Japanese islands and its gods (kami). Located in the city of Suwa in Nagano Prefecture, on the northern banks of Lake Suwa, it is the head shrine for the Suwa network of shrines found across Japan, of which there are more than 10,000.[1] It was at this shrine that Osuwa Daiko made its public premiere in the mid-1950s during the shrine’s Ofune Matsuri (Mogi 2009).

The connection to the goshintai of the Suwa Grand Shrine was just one of many ways that Oguchi make connections between the group’s performances and Shinto rite, just as he had done with the norito-like chanting that opens “Suwa Ikazuchi.” According to Oguchi’s grandson Yamamoto Makoto, “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” is based on a rhythmic pattern used at the shrine.[2] Furthermore, during performances by the group a gohei, or paper offering to the gods, is attached to a taiko at the center of the stage; this drum would either be part of Oguchi’s taiko set or amongst those played by the other members of the group people.

The association with the Suwa Grand Shrine was an important part of Osuwa Daiko’s development. Oguchi routinely used elements from the shrine as inspiration for compositions (as in “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi”); furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the group would give as many as six dedicatory performances a year at the shrine (Oguchi 1995, 14). These shrine performances were in the eyes of Oguchi the most important part of Osuwa Daiko’s activities; in a 1995 interview, he would cite them as an example of how his group differed from those taiko groups that came afterwards (Oguchi 1995). Indeed, unlike groups that performed primarily on concert hall stages, the majority of Osuwa Daiko’s performances were on shrine grounds at festivals, both in the Lake Suwa region and at other shrines to which they had been invited. The performance of Osuwa Daiko’s original compositions was not, in Oguchi’s eyes, simply a mere musical presentation, but an offering to the gods, an extension of the rituals that takes place during Shinto festivals.

“Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi: The Music”

Oguchi was not simply perpetuating a connection with Shinto rite in “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” – one that he had begun in “Suwa Ikazuchi” – for he also continued to refine and further develop various musical practices. Despite the fact that the two pieces were written more than a decade apart, they have share similar instrumentation schemes: nagadō-daiko, ō-daiko, and a taiko set that includes a shime-daiko. The combination of high, middle, and low drums – shime-daiko, nagadō-daiko, and ō-daiko – became the core of the Osuwa Daiko sound: the shime-daiko plays the base rhythm and the nagadō-daiko the rhythmic melody, with the ō-daiko providing accents.

With “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi,” however, Oguchi utilized other instruments that had been introduced into the Osuwa Daiko performance sphere, including the fue (笛, a bamboo transverse flute). More prominent, however, was his use of a new instrument he developed called the tettō (also known as the tetsu-zutsu, zetto, or cannon). Comprised of several pipes of different sizes welded together, with the largest in the middle, smallest on the left, and middle on the right (each with different pitches corresponding to the size of the pipe), the tettō allows the performer to create a metallic sound that pierces through the ensemble. It is often used in a role similar to the shime-daiko, mimicking that instrument as it provides the fundamental rhythm.

“Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” is comprise of two primarily sections of music. It opens with a brief interplay between the fue and the taiko set; in some performances this interplay simply consists of rolls on the taiko while the flute player improvises, while in other cases the two perform a melody with taiko accompaniment. In the latter case, the rhythm played on the shime-daiko is largely the same as the first few measures of the main rhythmic melody as performed by the nagadō-daiko players (seen below). As the fue and taiko player play, the rest of the ensemble kneels behind a number of nagadō-daiko setup at the front of the stage.

Opening shime-daiko pattern in one version of the opening of "Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi"

Opening shime-daiko pattern in one version of the opening of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi”

After the fue/taiko introduction, the nagadō-daiko players begin to play on the fuchi (rim) of the drum, pointing their hands at the end of a multi-bar pattern in the same diagonal pattern that is used in “Suwa Ikazuchi” (00:37 in the YouTube video). After three repeats of this pattern (the first of many ‘threes’ in the piece), everyone stands, raises their arms up into the air, and yells “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi.”[3] Following this announcement of the title of the piece, they move into the playing position while yelling a kiai, or “spirited shout” (Endo 1999, 75). Once behind the drum, the drummers begin to play the main melodic section, comprised of a series of short phrases themselves consisting of one or two measures repeated several times (the first two patterns can be seen below).

Hiryuu Sandan Gaeshi - first two phrases

The rhythmic melody consists of interplay between hits on the drumhead and hit on the rim. Much like “Suwa Ikazuchi,” these rhythms are combined with different visual elements; one such choreographic movement features the circling of the arms down and back in a counter-clockwise motion away from the drum, ending with the arms pointed straight up. In another instance, the group divides into two in the middle of the melody, playing alternating beats followed by the diagonal pose used earlier (as seen at 01:31 in the YouTube video embedded above). The dividing of the ensemble into multiple subgroups playing off of each other while simultaneously integrating visuals to emphasize the split became a common practice in Osuwa Daiko’s repertoire after it was first introduced in “Suwa Ikazuchi.” It adds not only visual interest to a piece but also sonic variety, with sounds coming from different locations within the ensemble.

The group combines once again for the final phrase, which is ended by three hits on the rim while the group simultaneously yells “yo, so re,” preparatory words without meaning. Players then raise their arms into the air, and move their bachi (drumsticks) while chanting a short norito in time (01:54 in the YouTube video). This chant – tenka shōfuku sokusai enmei 転禍招福息災延命 – represents another way that Oguchi maintained connections with Shinto rite. While not a true norito in the manner of that recited at the beginning of “Suwa Ikazuchi,” it is a call to the gods asking for their blessing. Once again, taiko performance is seen as a way to connect with the spiritual world.

Final line of "Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi," first and second repeat. The chant translates as: “Out of disaster, bring us good luck, health, and long life”

Final line of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi,” first and second repeat. The chant translates as: “Out of disaster, bring us good luck, health, and long life”

Following the chant, the melody is repeated twice more, getting faster each time (in the same manner as “Suwa Ikazuchi”). The third time does not end with the chant, however, but rather with a brief pause; the drummers yell as they raise their arms into the air, before ending the piece with two loud hits.

The three descents referenced in the title of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” could be considered as being reflected in the music. The main rhythmic melody is performed three times; meanwhile, within the melody several phrases and rhythms are repeated three times. That being said, it is difficult to draw solid conclusions about these connections, for according to Yamamoto Makoto there was more to the piece that has now been lost:

“When “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” was filmed on NHK TV, the end of the piece was actually cut off from the video. Due to difficulties in editing at the time, shows were shot on very tight schedules. Osuwa Daiko performed their piece, but the program time ran out just at the moment where the piece now ends. When watching the video afterwards, Oguchi Sensei liked the look of it, and decided to change the ending of the piece that way.”[4]

The Legacy of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi”

“Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” has much in common in “Suwa Ikazuchi”: the rhythmic melody consists of several short patterns repeated several times each, and this melody is repeated several times (each faster than the previous one). Choreographic elements are integrated into the performance so that the performance is both musically and visually interesting. “Hiryū” also includes a norito like “Suwa Ikazuchi,” even though the chanting occurs at the end of each melodic repetition rather than at the beginning of the piece. If “Suwa Ikazuchi” was the beginning of the Osuwa Daiko performance and compositional style, then “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” represents a codification of those styles. The compositional practices used by Oguchi in this piece can also be found in other compositions: “Isami Goma,” also composed in the 1960s, follows the same format as “Hiryū”: a rhythmic melody comprised of many lines, each repeated several times each, with that melody also repeated several times.

“Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” is also notable for its proliferation around the world, for it is one of the pieces taught by Oguchi as he conducted workshops both in Japan and overseas.[5] Among the groups Oguchi helped guide in their beginning stages was the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, founded in 1968 by Tanaka Seiichi. Even before the founding of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Tanaka had been influenced by Oguchi. He grew up in Nagano Prefecture, and speaks of being “enamored by Osuwa Daiko” as a youth (Otsuka 1998, 45). The San Francisco Taiko Dojo began when Tanaka and some friends decided to play a taiko for the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, looking to create a sound they felt was missing. When he envisioned the types of sounds that could be heard at a festival, one of his memories was “a group playing various taiko drums” that was most likely Oguchi Daihachi’s group (2005). As a child he had not been allowed to join the group, for in the early days of Osuwa Daiko Oguchi limited it only to family members and a few immediate friends, but when he returned to Japan in 1969 to study taiko performance, Oguchi decided to teach him, due in part to Tanaka’s fervor for the art form (Oguchi 1987, 241, Aigner 2002).

Tanaka brought back to San Francisco Osuwa Daiko pieces like “Suwa Ikazuchi” and “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi.’ However, as time progressed he began arranging “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” into something unique to the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. He changed the rhythmic feel from a straight, duple beat to a triple feel, what Yamamoto Makoto calls an “Ohayashi backbeat style.”[6] More importantly, he added musical content from other “Osuwa Daiko” piece like “Isami Goma” and “Onbashira,” extended the composition by adding musical content from these pieces into the middle of a performance before returning to the original melody of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” at the very ended. This is not the only addition, however, for the San Francisco Taiko Dojo often opens a performance of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” with a norito similar to that used in “Suwa Ikazuchi.” In this way, Tanaka Seiichi’s arrangement of the piece maintains the spirit of and connections to Osuwa Daiko while at the same time creating something that unique to the American group.

The legacy of “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” can also be seen in “The Hiryu Project” (www.hiryu-project.com), a venture started by students of Oguchi in which they invite taiko groups around the world to perform the piece on June 27th, the day of Oguchi’s passing. In this way, groups can honor Oguchi’s legacy by performing the composition with which he was most pleased.

Works Cited

  1. Big Drum: Taiko in the United States: Japanese American National Museum. DVD.

Aigner, Hal. 2002. “Full Circle: Seiichi Tanaka.” World Beat Report: Journeying through the World Community of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. http://www.sonic.net/~haigner/tanaka.htm.

Endo, Kenny. 1999. “Yodan Uchi: A Contemporary Composition for Taiko.”MA Thesis, University of Hawaii.

Mogi, Hitoshi. 2009. “Osuwa Daiko (part 2) 御諏訪太鼓 ②.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 34:64-69.

Oguchi, Daihachi. 1987. Tenko – Oguchi Daihachi no Nihon Taiko-ron 天鼓ー小口大八の日本太鼓論. Nagano, Japan: Ginga Shobo.

Oguchi, Daihachi. 1995. “Oguchi Daihachi ni Kiku Wadaiko Ongaku no Reimeiki 小口大八に聞く 和太鼓音楽の黎明期.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 11:6-15.

Otsuka, Chie. 1998. “Beikoku ni Okeru Wadaiko no Hatten 米国における和太鼓の発展.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 16:45-52.


[1] http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/shritemp/suwataisha.html (accessed May 4, 2015)

[2] http://www.hiryu-project.com/hiryu.html (Accessed April 30, 2015)

[3] The announcement of composition title seems to be a common practice for Osuwa Daiko. If the title is not said outright before a performance, it is included with the chanting that is included in a piece.

[4] http://www.hiryu-project.com/hiryu.html, accessed April 30, 2015

[5] In his 1987 book “Tenko,” Oguchi lists 197 groups in Japan and abroad that he helped found or had held workshops for, as well as eight in the United States (Oguchi 1987, 307-314).

[6] http://www.hiryu-project.com/info.html (accessed April 30, 2015)

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.