Taiko in My First Year

What is your image of taiko in Japan? I am not going to write an academic paper today filled with dates, names, credits, etc. I am going to write an account of how the greater world of taiko was introduced to me in my first year or so of taiko in Japan, and how it shaped my greater view of taiko in this country. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the taiko in Japan, only the taiko that I was introduced to in my first year or so in Japan (Sometimes the taiko I saw in Japan during my first year wasn’t actually the first time I saw that taiko, so there will be some jumps in the timeline.) Since that first year, every year I am introduced to more and more groups, styles and philosophies, and my ideas are constantly being challenged and changed with each fellow taiko player I meet. I hope this can be eye opening for some, and encourage someone out there to come to Japan and experience everything that is taiko.

When I was about 14 years old I saw my first Kodo show live at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado and it totally blew my mind. I went Kodo crazy for a little while and I was convinced that all taiko in Japan must be like Kodo. I was sure that everyone lived in small villages farming, running half marathons every morning and eating communally in the middle of a picturesque Japanese countryside. All taiko players must be spiritual, healthy and live simply, right? The reality of things is very far from the myth. I later learned that Kodo was made up of members much like myself. They were people who valued tradition and were trying to create something to preserve and promote Japanese culture and arts to the world, so they studied different styles and arts beyond even taiko to become a living “tradition” of sorts. What they were doing wasn’t actually the root of the tradition, but they served as a bit of a smorgasbord of different taiko traditions drawn from around the country. Their famous arrangements of pieces like “Miyake” or “Yatai” were arrangements of traditional pieces from very different parts of Japan. It was a bit of a revolutionary thought to me at the time that Kodo wasn’t the pinnacle of taiko in Japan and that their ideas and style was not the only, or even the main thing out there.

My first interaction with taiko in Japan was with my current group Amanojaku, naturally. Amanojaku of Tokyo introduced to me a group of professionals making a living at taiko living in the largest metropolis in the world. They were city people by any definition in any book. Fashionable, business professionals, Perfectionist, music connoisseurs. They ate steak, drank beer and smoked cigarettes. They hated running. They were into all sorts of world music, technique, technique, technique and weight lifting. The first time I met them, they were talking about boxing and the strangest foods they ever ate while on tour. They didn’t look like they had been in a rice field in their entire life, and I can tell you with certainty now that they have no desire to. There was something very honest, and very real about the taiko that they played. I would later go on to learn that Amanojaku finds its roots in the bon daiko drumming traditions of shitamachi Tokyo with heavy influences from Edo Bayashi, and Kabuki theatre music. This is in the same line as all of the Sukeroku groups. Watanabe Sensei at one point even played with Sukeroku back in the 80`s (at the same time as Kenny Endo. They often practiced with each other.)

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet many of the old Sukeroku members, and within those members have been so many different personalities and types it would be hard to classify them into one group. However, one thing that was made clear to me was that back in the day, one way to get popular was to be the best at bon daiko. I won`t say that it was entirely for this reason, but most of the older members of Sukeroku played taiko at least in part because they wanted to get the ladies. This is nothing like the image of the spiritual taiko player living communally I envisioned when I was 14.

Early on a series of workshops with Rokuninkai introduced me to Hachijo Daiko. They lived on an island, they looked like they worked outside, and one might think they fit into the Kodo-myth/image of taiko in Japan but you would be wrong to make that assumption. They were loud, boisterous and friendly. They neither ran, nor weight lifted. I don’t even think that they exercised. They loved drinking, and would often play totally wasted. When they played, their love of taiko was almost palpable. They didn’t care so much about technique, and they were very uncritical of each other’s playing, although the politics of Hachijo Daiko seemed to be very divided amongst the people living in Hachijo. They were not the same as the Tokyo Professional. Plain and simply they were taiko loving island people. My eyes opened up even further to an entire different take on what it meant to be a “professional” taiko player.

I have a good friend, Walter, who during a stint with the JET program was introduced to Kiriko Daiko, a taiko group coming from a festival tradition in Wajima on the Noto Hanto. The first time I saw it played, it was actually in Hawaii while he was “auditioning” for the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble (he was a shoe-in). The style was full of energy, power and was raw. The movement and rhythm were un-refined, and they were best that way. They had flavor and soul. I was a fan instantly. The first time I was introduced to Walter’s group, Kiriko Daiko, was when I attended his wedding in Kanazawa about an hour drive from Wajima. The team arrived at 10AM and immediately headed to the drink counter and started drinking. By the time the wedding party got started everyone was in high spirits. During the party Kiriko Daiko was set to do a performance for Walter and his wife and guests. While everyone was getting changed, one of the group leaders announced with a loud laugh and a gigantic smile, “I didn’t bring my bachi!” One of the other members slapped him on the back laughing, “What did you come here to do, stupid!” and he shouted in response, “I came here to drink!!!” I laughed out loud, but was honestly inside wondering if they were going to be okay. I obviously didn’t know anything because when show time started they went off. They went to town on that taiko! It was like we were having a festival right there on the wedding grounds. Very different from the taiko players in Tokyo, or from Hachijo, they were the festival, the taiko was to them inseparable from the festival. And they were awesome.

A short trip up the road, also in Wajima, is the home of the famous Gojinjo Daiko. During the summers they play free shows at the station, and my friend was kind enough to take me to see my first live Gojinjo Daiko show. Gojinjo Daiko is legendary. 500 years ago when the warlord Uesugi Kenshin was set to invade Nafune (a small town in Wajima) weaponless townspeople dressed up as demons, wearing seaweed in their hair, took the taiko to the beach and played so fiercely that Uesugi Kenshin and his men decided not to invade. The style has taken on legendary, and almost religious like status. The masks the players wear are passed down through the generations and said to carry the spirits of their former owners. The style is just that. It is the type of performance that would convince you that it was not men playing taiko. For the ten minutes of the show the stage is overrun with demons playing so intensely I`m not sure that I breathed the whole time. The players themselves are professional lacquerers, fishermen and farmers. But when they wore the masks they ceased being themselves and were possessed by something entirely different. They were definitely not the Tokyo Professional, they were not the Taiko-Loving Islanders, they were not the Festival-Loving Crazies, they were straight up demon-drummers. They played in such a way that I knew that if you didn’t have it in your blood, you would not be able to play like that. It was around this time that I started to realize that very little of good taiko is about perfect technique or sharp beautiful lines, it is something much more primal than that.

I used to live on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line which was a straight shot out to Chichibu, home of a very famous festival called Yo-matsuri. So I went out to see the festival in December. The festival is now well known because groups like Ondekoza and Kodo made Chichibu Yatai Bayashi popular in the taiko world. Since I had only seen Kodo before I thought that Chichibu Yatai Bayashi is a piece where a row of taiko sits diagonally on the floor and the players, in only a fundoshi, use their ridiculously cut abs to support them at an impossible angle for the entire length of the piece in which they beat the taiko in an incredible feat of fitness, strength and endurance. I was surprised to find that the real Chichibu Yatai Bayashi was nothing like this. . . at all. The players were old and young alike. Everyone was fully dressed, and it was cold (remember this is December). There was not a fundoshi in sight. No one was leaning back at ridiculous angles, everyone was just sitting normally in front of the drum. The drum was stuffed inside the portable shrine, and you had to walk up close and peek inside if you actually wanted to see the people playing the drum. They sat on the floor because the ceiling was low. There was no room for them to play with big arm movements or lean back too far, because they would hit the wall. But the music was tight! The music had a really funky groove that I had never heard Kodo play before. It was fantastic! Later on I would have a chance to have a drink with some of the taiko players and would learn that they took the festival very seriously. They talked about the groove of different groups that played in different parts of the city and who was grooving the best at this year’s festival. They talked about feel and placement of notes. And they talked about how difficult it was keeping young people coming back to the city during the festival season. With this performance I started to feel how ingrained and inseparable taiko is from Japanese culture and community. Taiko was is so much more than an instrument to perform on a stage, and the taiko that was being performed on stage had a much deeper background than I could have ever imagined.

This actually takes me up through the major taiko that I saw in my first year in Japan. Since then this list has grown infinitesimally every year. Trips to Gion Matsuri, or Nebuta Matsuri, or Bon Odori in places outside of Tokyo colored the next year of my adventure, and it has never really stopped since then. It works like a web, one person introduces you to the next, and they introduce you to two more, and so on and so forth. After eight years I have come to the conclusion that no matter how long I am in Japan I will never learn everything and I will never be able to see all the taiko in the country. And that point is really the goal of this article. I just wanted to share that message. Don’t deprive yourself of all these amazing traditions, and all the great taiko in Japan by making any preconceptions about what taiko is or isn`t. The taiko world is so much deeper and wider than any one group, style or ideology. So don’t cut yourself short! Take the plunge and explore! If you don’t know where to start, any of the names I mentioned in the article would be great places to begin!

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