There are many different performance contexts in which taiko are used, and many different ways in which the family of drums are hit. Within this range, however, there are a select few that have become tied to the development and spread of contemporary taiko performance. Oguchi Daihachi drew upon one tradition – the kagura-daiko performed in central Japan – and combined it with Western influences when developing the performance style for his group Osuwa Daiko. This activity signaled the beginning of the contemporary taiko performance movement in the latter half of the 20th Century, ushering in a new ensemble performance style known eventually as kumidaiko (組太鼓, “group taiko”).
Following the group’s public debut in 1957 at the Suwa Grand Shrine’s Ofune Matsuri, Osuwa Daiko gradually made a name for itself through appearances in a variety of venues. In 1959 alone, for example, the group appeared on the first broadcast of NHK in Nagano Prefecture, performed at the NHK National Song and Dance Festival in Tokyo, and participated in the NHK International Folk Entertainment Contest. In 1964, they made their world debut when they performed as part of the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. All this while, Oguchi Daihachi was continued to experiment with and change the compositional and performance styles he had first developed in “Suwa Ikazuchi,” eventually creating works like “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi” (debuted at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair).
Even as Oguchi was experimenting and codifying techniques in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, however, there emerged in the late 1960s another group that would prove to be just as influential in the growing world of contemporary taiko performance: Sukeroku Taiko. Sukeroku Taiko was formed by a group of young men in Tokyo, friends who had gotten to know each other through a series of bon daiko competitions across the city in the 1960s. Drawing upon this festival drumming, they created a style of contemporary taiko performance both visually and musically different than what Oguchi was developing with Osuwa Daiko, one based on a different style of performance.
Bon daiko (盆太鼓) is the drumming performed during the evening festivities of the Buddhist festival Obon (お盆). One of the largest festivals in Japan, taking place in late summer, Obon is held during a period when it is believed that the spirits of the dead return to their homes. People return to the ancestral homes of their families to clean the graves of their ancestors and leave offerings; at night, there are celebrations, including dancing called bon odori (盆踊り).
Bon odori primarily involve choreographed hand gestures that occur as the dancers move to the beat around the circle. They are typically danced in a circle around a tower called a yagura (やぐら). At some bon odori gatherings, the yagura will be multi-tiered, with a small group of dancers positioned on the first level so that they can serve as models and be seen by all the other dancers in attendance.
Bon odori are typically danced to folk songs called ondō (音頭), with much of the repertoire dating to the Edo period (1603-1868), or else newer songs arranged in a similar style. The standard orchestration for these songs is:
- A vocalist
- Melodic accompaniment (often fue or shamisen)
- Rhythmic accompaniment (taiko, and perhaps a handheld percussion instrument like an atarigane or chappa
The tempo is generally a walking pace, so that the dancers can move around the tower without feeling rushed. In some songs, the rhythms have a slight lilt akin to what is called swing in the West (that is, a triplet-based pattern), although it is rather simplistic to call it a swing rhythm. According to taiko soloist Kageyama Isaku, the rhythmic feel of bon daiko is sometimes conceptualized using the Japanese terms hane (literally, “jumping”), as compared to a heavy feel (omoi), or a ‘sticky’ feel (nebaru; “to stick’) (personal communication, August 13, 2012).
In the past, the singer and instrumentalists would stand on the top level of the yagura while the dancers circle around them; however, the musicians began to disappear in the post-war era, replaced by tape recordings. In some places, however, taiko continue to be played in accompaniment with the recordings, performing a type of drumming known as bon daiko. The rhythms played by drummers are semi-improvised, with a degree of freedom allowed to the choices as long as they fit within the context of the song. As the songs go on all night, drummers often take turns playing bon daiko, with several people sitting or standing on the yagura at the same time.
Despite the semi-improvisation of bon daiko, a trademark of the drumming is the consistent presence of a short, two-beat rhythm played on the 3rd and 4th beats of a measure (as seen in the transcription below). As a drummer improvises, they will routinely return to this rhythm, typically playing it on the rim on the drum (the fuchi 縁); it is rare for one to go more than 2 measures without playing this rhythm. The importance of this rhythm is further accented by the fact that at many bon odori there is a player repeatedly playing this rhythm on an atarigane, a handheld gong that serves as timekeeper as the taiko soloist explores different rhythmic possibilities
Bon daiko performance is not purely rhythmic, however, for it integrates many choreographic elements as well. This is particularly the case in Tokyo, where you can find regular use of a slanted (naname 斜め) stand that places the drum at a 45-degree angle. Drummers at bon odori regularly make use of both arm choreography – such as pointing, arm circles, and the like – and foot movements – such as jumping from side to side and twirling.
In 1960s Tokyo, those playing the taiko during bon odori began to garner more and more attention. Competition began to develop, first informally and later formally, as some shrines and temples played host to bon daiko competitions. The Yushima Tenmangu shrine, in Bunkyo Ward in central Tokyo, held its first competition in 1962, won by Kobayashi Seido, an 18-year-old who had been playing at bon odori since he was 12 (Mogi 2010, 34). Kobayashi was a regularly participant in assorted bon daiko competitions and bon odori gatherings, and in time came to be friends with other drummers his age. Eventually, he and several others – including Ishizuka Yutaka (now known more by his hōgaku natori Mochizuki Saburo), Onozato Motoe (who has the natori Tosha Kiyonari), and Ishikura Yoshihisa – joined a bon odori appreciation society called the “Oedo Sukeroku Kai” (大江戸助六会). founded by Kobayashi’s older brother Seiko (Mogi 2010, 35). The group name combined the old name for Tokyo – Edo (adding an honorific “O” at the beginning) – and the name of a popular kabuki character called Sukeroku, who believed to be the epitome of an Edokko, someone born and raised in Edo/Tokyo.
In December 1966, Ishizuka Yutaka saw an article in the Tokyo Shinbun newspaper calling for young people to join a taiko group being formed by the dancer Sanada Minoru. Sanada was in charge of performances at the club Crown, in the Ginza section of Tokyo, and wanted to create a taiko group to play at the club (inspired by a samba ensemble he had seen while touring in Brazil) (Mogi 2010, 35) Ishizuka answered the call, as did many others, but he was the only one chosen. Soon, he played as a solo drummer at Crown. Sanada was pleased with the reception, and asked Ishizuka if he knew any other performers; Ishizuka, in turn, introduced him to Kobayashi Seido, Onozato Motoe, and Ishikura Yoshihisa. Coming together, they formed the group Shin On Taiko (新音太鼓) and played a song along with a shamisen player as part of Sanada’s show. However, they developed other pieces as well, including a work called “Midare Uchi” (みだれうち “Random Pounding”). 
Later liner notes written about “Midare Uchi” describe it in the following manner: “Each player in succession executes his own solo improvisations on a gradually quicker tempo of a two-beat rhythm peculiar to bon daiko, the music which accompanies Bon odori, the mid-summer ritual dance in memory of ancestors” (Oedo Sukeroku Taiko 2004). A typical performance begins with the first soloist yelling “Midare Uchi,” announcing the work to be performed. He (or she) stands beside a drum on a naname stand that has been set in the center of the stage; another player stands across from them on the other side of the drum, back partially to the audience as they prepare accompany the soloist on the body of the drum. Depending on the amount of players in a group, other drummers may be accompanying the soloist on ō-daiko, nagadō-daiko, or atarigane. The soloist hits twice loudly, with some space in between for dramatic effect, and then the rest of the group joins in with the bon daiko rhythm discussed above as the soloist begins their solo.
Each player’s improvisation starts at a slow, even pace, but about halfway through begin to get faster, increasing to the point that everyone can do nothing but play a roll. After a brief pause, the soloist begins again at a slightly slower tempo than what they had previously started with. This time, however, they slow down until eventually cueing everyone in the ensemble to play a certain rhythm. The soloist takes a quick bow, and then the piece continues with a new soloist; this pattern is repeated until everyone in the ensemble has had a chance at the center of the stage.
“Midare Uchi” improvisations are essentially extensions of the rhythms and choreographic movements developed by the Shin On Taiko members while they bon daiko, featuring many of the rhythms used to accompany bon odori; indeed, the rhythms placed by the soloist are typically not very complicated, staying close to the work’s bon daiko roots, and soloists frequently return to the bon daiko rhythm seen above. Meanwhile, many of the visual flairs demonstrated during bon daiko competitions in the Tokyo Shitamachi area can be seen in “Midare Uchi” improvisations; for example, soloists may point their drumsticks towards the audience, or move one or both arms in circles, or jump in the air. It is also not uncommon for the soloist to switch to the other side of the drum and back again.
From Shin On Taiko to Sukeroku Taiko
Mochizuki Saburo calls “Midare Uchi” “the basis of the Sukeroku style,” a phrase that refers to the direction in which Shin On Taiko eventually headed. It quickly became popular, receiving invitations to perform at other clubs and cabarets in the Ginza area. However, as a result of steady costs, the group soon folded, only to reform when the shamisen player who had performed alongside them at Crown – Kowase Susumu – invited them to make a new group. The son of a well-known hōgaku performer, Kowase had many business contacts, and was able to arrange performances for the “new” group. Under Kowase’s management, the group re-named themselves Sukeroku Taiko (助六太鼓) after the bon daiko appreciation society of which they were members.
This would soon be influential not just in Japan, but around the world as well; indeed, the bon daiko-influenced style would soon spread overseas when members of Sukeroku Taiko accompanied the singer Yukimura Izumi on a 1968 tour of the United States, where they had “one month of performances at San Francisco’s Circle Theater, one month in Los Angeles, and two weeks in Las Vegas” (Mogi 2010, 39). Among those in the audience in San Francisco was Tanaka Seiichi, who that year had played taiko at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival. He convinced Ishizuka and the other members to teach lessons, thus beginning the spread of what has come to be known as the Sukeroku-ryū (Sukeroku-style) of taiko playing around the world.
Tanaka would not only share his knowledge of the Sukeroku style of performance, but he also continued some of the musical activities started by his teachers, including combining assorted bon daiko rhythms in a composition meant for performance by a group. While this resulting composition has many names – and many versions, owing to arrangements over the years by Tanaka as well as other groups that perform it – it is perhaps best known as “Matsuri.” “Matsuri” is, in essence, a version of “Midare Uchi” in which a pre-determined set of rhythms are played at the beginning of the piece (one such combination is seen below – in this transcription, notes above the line represent hits with the right hand, and below the line the left hand; furthermore X’s represent hits on the rim).
After multiple repetitions of these rhythms comes a series of solo improvisations, in which members of the group given the opportunity to step into the spotlight. After a number of solos, the melody returns, giving “Matsuri” an ABA compositional format; this too has spread across the world, becoming a popular structure for contemporary taiko compositions. The legacy of “Midare Uchi” and “Matsuri” can be seen in other pieces as well. The San Francisco Taiko Dojo version of “Matsuri” – which itself has changed over the years – has spread around the world; a search for “matsuri taiko” on YouTube brings up a number of performances by groups playing their own versions of “Matsuri.”
Additionally, others have taken the foundations laid in “Midare Uchi’ and continued to develop them. A prominent example is “Jack Bazaar,” composed by Kris Bergstrom. Within this work, Bergstrom has experimented with the breadth of choreographed movements possible when playing a drum on a naname stand, and combined these with rhythms influenced by both bon daiko and Western musics. While the piece has evolved since its premiere, a standard performance could be divided into two parts: in the first half, two drummers perform a series of bon daiko-inspired rhythms and movements while trading sticks in a variety of manners, while the second half features more contemporary rhythms combined with a wide range of movements and accompanied by a player on a taiko set.
Beyond its many descendant compositions, “Midare Uchi” on a more basic level helped introduce the world to the naname style of taiko performance utilized by bon daiko players in Tokyo. The style of slanted drum stands used by Sukeroku Taiko have spread around the world, with the Sukeroku style of performance becoming a dominant hitting style amongst modern contemporary taiko performers. However, it cannot necessarily be said that there is a single way of hitting a drum on a naname stand. Each of the original members of Sukeroku Taiko had slight differences in their playing, owing in part to their participation in bon daiko competitions and the need to stand out from their peers. These differences have continued to be developed over the years, reaching the point that there are many different variations all falling under the general umbrella of the Sukeroku-ryū, itself a term with deeper meanings. It is a term that is often used in relation to the Japanese iemoto system, an artistic social system in which “teachers and students belong to groups which are modeled after the traditional Japanese family unit and extended family” (Reed and Locke 1983, 20). The term “-ryū,” added after a name, is used to signify different performance families. However, it is problematic to think of the Sukeroku-ryū as an iemoto, for normally the system has at its top has a single person (who is in turn called the iemoto).
Despite the differences in hitting technique, however, the styles currently being taught by Mochizuki Saburo, Tosha Kiyonari, and Kobayashi Seido all have at their foundation a bon daiko origin. Audiences in the 1960s and early 1970s – before Sukeroku Taiko disbanded and again reformed – witnessed bon daiko champions adapting their festival drumming styles for a new performance context. In essence, the activities of the group helped make contemporary taiko performance a genre, and moved it beyond an oddity performed by one group in central Japan. Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko both helped move taiko out of an accompanying role and into the spotlight, paving the way for a new wave of performance and inspiring generations of performers to come.
Bender, Shawn. 2012. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion Berkeley: University of California Press.
Endo, Kenny. 1999. “Yodan Uchi: A Contemporary Composition for Taiko.”MA Thesis, University of Hawaii.
Mogi, Hitoshi. 2010. “Oedo Sukeroku Taiko 大江戸助六太鼓.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 36:34-41.
Oedo Sukeroku Taiko. 2004. Les Tambours de Tokyo LIVE: Sunset France. DVD Liner notes.
Reed, Cathleen B., and David L. Locke. 1983. “An Analysis of the Yamada-ryu Sokyoku Iemoto System.” Hogaku 1 (1):20-52.
 Bender mentions speculation by some that this was because the singing and playing could no longer be done proficiently (Bender 2012, 53).
 Perhaps not coincidentally, the name of the Kobayashi family noodle-making business was Sukeroku Noodles (Mogi 2010, 34).
 Composition dates for many Sukeroku Taiko pieces are unclear, owing to conflicting dates given by original members about activities at this time. For example, in interviews with Kenny Endo Mochizuki gives the formation date of Shin On Taiko as being in 1962 or 1963, Onozato Ganei as 1965 or 1966, and the other original members are unsure. (Endo 1999, 16-17). 33Given Mogi’s inclusion of newspaper articles with confirmed dates in his articles, not strictly relying on personal recollection, I have chosen to follow his dating scheme in establishing a chronology of events.
 In a Sukeroku-influenced group, the drum typically has a patch of skin attached to the body so that the wood will not be damaged.