In the short period of time after Shin On Daiko was founded in 1966 – and soon reformed as Sukeroku Taiko – group members developed a core repertoire that they performed at clubs, cabarets, and other locations around Tokyo. According to Kenny Endo, the first piece performed by the group was composed by Sanada Minoru and Kowase Susumu – the organizers and managers of the groups – and included both taiko and shamisen, but soon after they began creating works that featured solely taiko (Endo 1999, 23). “Midare Uchi” was the first, an adaption of Tokyo Shitamachi-style bon daiko solos. This was followed by the “Oroshi Daiko”/”Shiraume Daiko”/”Matsuri Daiko” suite, in which members brought together Edo-bayashi festival music and hōgaku-hayashi, the music of the theater.
The next piece they developed was “Oiuchi Daiko” (追い打ち太鼓), “based on the native drumming found in Hachijo Island” (Endo 1999, 23). “Oiuchi Daiko” is similar to “Midare Uchi” in that it features a series of improvisations on a drum at the center of the stage. Where it differs from the bon daiko-based piece, however, is in the basic rhythmic foundation. It was the first Sukeroku Taiko piece composed in compound time, a meter in which each beat is subdivided into 3 parts. Additionally, group members began to experiment with the theatrical possibilities afforded to them as they played for audiences, and “Oiuchi Daiko” was sometimes performed “with a masked character called Hyotoko, who comes out and does a comical routine,” as seen in the video below (Endo 1999, 30):
“Oiuchi Daiko” introduced new musical and theatrical elements into the Sukeroku Taiko performance style, but it is perhaps more important for its part in the development of what has become perhaps the signature Sukeroku-style piece: “Yodan Uchi” (四段打ち “Hitting Four Sides”) This piece, which originated as a smaller version called “Nidan Uchi” (二段打ち “Hitting Two Sides,” still played today), brought the choreographic experimentation and improvisatory emphases of early Sukeroku work. Striking for its visual elements as much as its musical content, “Yodan Uchi” has been described as “probably the single most popular piece among practitioners of kumi daiko outside of Japan” (Endo 1999, 20)
The Origins of “Nidan Uchi”/”Yodan Uchi”
Even as “Nidan Uchi”/“Yodan Uchi” – which, as shall be discussed, can really be considered as two parts of a largely whole – have been ubiquitous in the contemporary taiko performance world, its origins are not entirely clear. Indeed, in his 1999 ethnomusicology masters’ thesis on “Yodan Uchi,” Kenny Endo presents two different versions of the work’s origins as told to him by the original members of Sukeroku Taiko. The first comes from Kowase Susumu, the manager of the group, corroborated at the time by Mochizuki Saburo, Tosha Kiyonari, and Ishikura Yoshihisa:
“Mr. Susumu Kowase (presently Sasazo Kineya II) claims to have gotten inspiration watching a performance of the Little Angels, a Korean women’s dance group which performed a piece utilizing three drums per performer. …He encouraged the four members to development a piece using similar movement on two drums using the bass beat of “Oiuchi Daiko.” (Endo 1999, 24)
The Korean piece observed by Kowase was probably the samgo-mu (삼고무), a drum dance in which a performer moves between three drums hanging at eye-level on wooden stands. One stand is placed on each side of the performer, and one behind. The drummer utilizes all the drums, sometimes hitting them simultaneously and sometimes moving quickly between them. While it can be performed by a single person, it is typically performed by a group (resulting in a row of drums):
Meanwhile, another version of the “Nidan” origin story comes from Kobayashi Seido, who told Endo that he based the work on Oni Daiko from Sado Island, “a traditional masked drumming tradition which uses short sticks and dance-like movements” (Endo 1999, 25).
Further muddling the issue, Mochizuki Saburo gives a different version of the story in a December 2012 letter:
This work was composed in 1968 when I traveled as a member of Sukeroku Taiko to the United States for an approximately three month performance tour of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. At the San Francisco and Los Angeles performances, since the stages were round, we needed a movement that would fit those stages, and the work was quickly created. It was the work that took the most time amongst all the pieces to that point. At the beginning it was a two-stand style – “Nidan Uchi” – but after I returned to Japan we created the cross movements, and it became “Yodan Uchi.” (Personal communication, December 2012)
The tour mentioned by Mochizuki was an overseas tour by singer Yukimura Izumi, in which some Sukeroku Taiko accompanied her in “one month of performances at San Francisco’s Circle Theater, one month in Los Angeles, and two weeks in Las Vegas” (Mogi 2010, 39).
The true history of “Nidan Uchi”/”Yodan Uchi” is still unclear, but it probably includes elements of all these stories. Certainly, the choreographic movements used by Sukeroku Taiko members certainly have much in common which those used in samgo-mu and Oni Daiko, and Sukeroku Taiko members did accompany Yukimura Izumi on her tour. And yet, it is not the history of the work that has caused it to have such a lasting effect on the contemporary taiko performance, but the work itself. Sukeroku Taiko members blended improvisation and choreographed movement on a completely different scale from what had come before, resulting in something that Shawn Bender calls “a cross between their Bon-daiko history and the back-and-forth improvisation of jazz” (Bender 2003, 82).
Owing perhaps to the settings in which it was performed – whether that is an American tour in which the audience surrounded the players, or in a cabaret where space was limited – the instrumentation of “Nidan Uchi” consists of just two drums: a medium-sized nagadō-daiko (chū-daiko), and a larger nagadō-daiko (ō-daiko). The ō-daiko is placed on a four-legged stand that holds the drum parallel to the ground with the middle of the drumhead at or slightly below eye level. Such a stand is used in many different places and musical situations in Japan, but the Sukeroku Taiko members most likely were influenced by its use in in the kuromisu of kabuki, the offstage room in which the geza ongaku ensemble creates sound effects and other musical cues (thus continuing the influence of hōgaku-hayashi, which can be seen in the musical content of the piece as well).
Meanwhile, the chū-daiko is placed on the slanted naname-dai that is the signature stand of the Sukeroku-style, derived initially from its usage in bon daiko in the Shitamachi area of Tokyo. This drum is placed beside the ō-daiko so that the two heads are facing each other (the titular two heads, or ni-dan, of the piece). The drums are placed just far enough away from each other that a player can hit both at the same time while still having enough room to switch easily from one side of the drum to the other.
It could be said that “Nidan Uchi” – like pieces like “Shiraume Daiko” – demonstrates some of the influences and styles that were being integrated by Sukeroku Taiko members in the early days of the group. Whereas “Shiraume Daiko” used musical influences, though, “Nidan Uchi” took the fundamental instrumental instrumentation and performance practices of bon daiko and hōgaku-hayashi, using them for new musical and choreographic experimentation.
In a standard performance of “Nidan Uchi”, a soloist will stand in between the ō-daiko and chū-daiko, while two more players stand on the other of each of the drums, playing the base beat while the soloist improvises (as seen in the picture below). However, as the accompanying player standing outside of the chū-daiko would damage the drum if they hit the body, Sukeroku Taiko members started attaching a patch of rawhide to the side of the drum.
“Yodan Uchi” expands on this foundation by adding a second chū-daiko on the other side of the ō-daiko (seen below). The titular “four heads,” then, are the two sides of the ō-daiko and the two heads of the chū-daiko that face the ō-daiko. Not only does this allow another soloist to play, but it also sets the stage for a wider range of choreographic possibilities in “Yodan Uchi” than what might be possible in “Nidan Uchi” (as will be discussed later).
Depending on the number of performers in a concert, other players not hitting the two/three drums at the center of the stage may accompany the main performers on whatever other instruments are on the stage, such as shime-daiko or other nagadō-daiko. The number of instruments that can be used is limited only by the number of performers and available space. At its core, however, “Nidan Uchi” is a simple piece requiring just two drums, and “Yodan Uchi” requiring just one more.
The Music of “Nidan Uchi”
Fundamentally, “Nidan Uchi” is a series of improvisations sandwiched by brief composed opening and closing segments. It begins with a quick flurry of notes by the player on the backside of the ō-daiko – that is, the head that is by its own and not facing the chū-daiko. The ensemble then begins a kakegoe vocalization akin to that used in “Shiraume Daiko,” revealing the continued influence hōgaku-hayashi studies were having on the members of Sukeroku Taiko in the late 1960s. Then, the ō-daiko player begins to play the ji – a transcription of which is below – as the first soloist moves through a series of poses.
Once the soloist reaches their final pose, they play a quick rhythmic pattern to signal the beginning of the main section of the piece:
This transcription betrays the limitations of Western notation when discussing “Nidan Uchi,” for the above transcription doesn’t dictate what drum the notes are played on: in the first two measures, the long note and second of the two notes are played on the chū-daiko, while the second of the short notes is played on the chū-daiko. One the ji pattern is reached in the third measure, meanwhile, the rhythm is played solely on the chū-daiko:
After this initial flurry, the soloist begins his improvisation. Much like the improvisations in “Midare Uchi,” “Nidan Uchi” rhythms are composed at the whim of the soloist, albeit within a series of conventions. Indeed, two main patterns are regularly used by soloists. The first – which for the purposes of this article I call Rhythm 1 is played while stationary on one side of the drums:
It can either be played on a single drum or, more commonly, on both the ō-daiko and the chū-daiko. The order in which the drums are played in this second instance often depends on the position of the player: if they are facing the audience, and thus the ō-daiko is on their right (the audience’s left), then the first note is played on the chū-daiko and subsequent notes on the ō-daiko. If it is the opposite, and the player is standing their back to the audience (and thus the ō-daiko is on their left), then the first note is played on the ō-daiko. In other words, the first note is played on the left drum with the right hand, and the subsequent notes on the right drum:
Meanwhile, there are pre-determined movements that go with this rhythm: when hitting a drum with one hand, you point outwards with the other hands. The position of the point is seemingly determined by group conventions; some groups make a difference between the two arms by having the one by the chū-daiko being straight while that by the ō-daiko being at a 45-degree angle, while others just have angled points. Regardless, it is not simply a hit with one hand, but a combination of hitting and choreographed movement.
This combination of rhythm and choreographed movement is even more apparent in the second most prominent rhythm (which I call Rhythm 2):
Rhythm 2 is most commonly played when moving from one side of the drum to the other. The first note is played on the left drum, and all subsequent hits on the right. Similar to the first rhythm, there are certain visual conventions that have been adopted by groups during this rhythm, the most prominent being the movement of the arms/bachi in such a manner than the lines move in an X shape across the drum head. This “X pattern” – along with the two rhythms discussed above – were first used in “Oiuchi Daiko,” and remain the most prominent link between that early Sukeroku Taiko and “Nidan Uchi.”
The main body of the piece consists of a series of improvised solos, with the transition between each player signaled by a repeated rhythm by the soloist (itself a variation of the second rhythm discussed above):
The soloist repeats the rhythm in brackets a number of times as they move between the drums – the number of repeats is left up to the soloist, but is typically four – and then the next soloist enters while playing the same rhythm. The tempo during each solo is increased with each subsequent improvisation, speeding up until the final soloist is moving at a frenzied pace.
Finally, the last soloist signals the end to their solo by playing the transition rhythm, stopping their movement with their back to the audience. They then play the ji for a short while on the ō-daiko before they and the other ō-daiko player play a short interlude, which concludes with an extended ostinato of the ji as the soloist moves from one side of the drum, arching their back to keep playing the ō-daiko as they move (a movement taken from the Korean samgo-mu).
Once in position facing the audience, the soloist plays a short rhythm that signals the transition into the final section of “Nidan Uchi.” Whereas everything prior to the brief transition was improvised, the ending is completely predetermined in terms of both rhythm and movement. Indeed, Endo lists several movements that are used extensively in the ending, each of which has its own related rhythm:
Aiuchi (two drummers facing each other between the odaiko and chudaiko), san nin mawari (three drummers rotating around a chudaiko as they turn between the chudaiko and odaiko), cross section (two drummers rotating at the same time between the odaiko and chudaiko). (Endo 1999, 25)
Three players move to the chū-daiko for the ending section of “Nidan Uchi,” each taking a turn playing the transition rhythm before jumping away from the drum. After each has performed the transition rhythm, they then proceed into the san-nin mawari section, where each person plays Rhythm 2 once and jumps out of the way so the next player can immediately enter. After two rotations of san-nin mawari occur – that is, each of the three players performing Rhythm 2 twice total –the first player makes one more half-turn, moving to the other side of the drum as they play Rhythm 2 and stopping with their back to the audience. The second player moves to the drum as well, and the two then proceed into the aiuchi section, a combination of Rhythms 1 and 2 (following the same conventions as before, in that Rhythm 1 is played on a single side of the drums while Rhythm 2 is played while moving between the drums). This aiuchi signals the end of the piece, concluding with an extended transition rhythm segment as the two drummers move between the drum. Finally, “Nidan Uchi” concludes with a short roll by all players, a quick kakegoe call, and one last hit on the drum.
The musical and visual foundation of “Nidan Uchi” remain within “Yodan Uchi,” with the latter piece having been created when a second chū-daiko was added to the other side of the ō-daiko. The compositional structure is basically the same; rather, there is a different visual flair. Solos are performed on both sides of the ō-daiko, and musicians mirror each other when playing on each side. In essence, “Yodan Uchi” is simply “Nidan Uchi” performed on two different sides of the ō-daiko.
The “Yodan” Legacy
The “Yodan Uchi” that was first developed in the late 1960s is not the same as the “Yodan Uchi” that most groups perform today. One major addition has been the creation of an opening composed section that features the first two soloists, but this opening is not codified. For example, two groups – Matsuriza, founded by Ishikura Takemasa (brother of Sukeroku Taiko founder Ishikura Yoshihisa, and a former member of Kanto Abare Taiko, which was led by Yoshihisa), and the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, founded by Kenny Endo (who studied with several original members of Sukeroku Taiko and played with Sukeroku Taiko and Oedo Sukeroku Taiko in the 1980s) – both play “Yodan Uchi” with similar opening sections. These sections share rhythms – suggesting a common ancestry – but with enough differences that they should be considered different arrangements.
Kenny Endo also brought in a variation of the ending segment in which drummers circle not only around the chū-daiko but the ō-daiko as well, something that is also used back in Japan by Oedo Sukeroku Taiko (this addition can be seen beginning at 07:00 in the video below):
Meanwhile, groups like the San Francisco Taiko Dojo have created their own openings, resulting in a piece that both is “Yodan Uchi” yet has a separate identity from the original version created by Sukeroku Taiko members:
The performance of “Yodan Uchi” by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo is worth special attention, for the San Francisco group was the first group outside of Japan to play not just “Yodan Uchi” but other Sukeroku Taiko pieces as well. Indeed, the creation of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo was due to a large part to Sukeroku Taiko. As mentioned before, in 1968 several members of the Tokyo-based group toured the western United States. After the performances in San Francisco, they were approached by a young man named Tanaka Seiichi. Early that year, Tanaka and some friends had borrowed a taiko from a local temple, built a mikoshi, and paraded around San Francisco’s Japantown during the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival.
After seeing the performances by Yukimura Izumi, Tanaka and two other young men approached Ishizuka Yutaka (Mochizuki Saburo) and asked him to teach them the fundamentals of the Sukeroku style. Ishizuka and two other members remained in San Francisco two weeks to give lessons in the Japan Center in San Francisco’s Japantown (Mogi 2010, 39). When it was time for them to leave, they unable to ship the drums back with them, so they left with Tanaka “an ō-daiko with a naname stand, 2 chū-daiko, and a basic set of shime-daiko” (Mogi 2010, 39). They also gave Tanaka permission to play some of the Sukeroku Taiko pieces, including “Yodan Uchi.” This process not only laid the foundation for contemporary taiko performance in the United States, but for the spread of the Sukeroku style outside of Japan.
Tanaka did not simply perform “Yodan Uchi” with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo; he also arranged it even further. Adding one more ō-daiko into the mix, he created “Rokudan Uchi” (六段打ち “Hitting Six Sides”), a piece that is played by other groups in the United States as well:
This process of expansion has been copied by other groups who have learned “Yodan Uchi” from Tanaka as well as from Sukeroku Taiko members. Soh Daiko in New York, for example, added a third ō-daiko, calling the resulting piece “Hachidan Uchi” (八段打ち “Hitting Eight Sides”):
Meanwhile, perhaps one of the more unique variations is “Many Sides,” performed by TAIKOPROJECT, which kept the single ō-daiko but added two more chū-daiko:
Groups have continued to experiment with the staging of “Nidan Uchi” and “Yodan Uchi,” using the flexibility of the instrumentation and simple nature of the music to create new arrangements that fit different performance venues. An extreme version of this was put on display by Oedo Sukeroku Taiko at The 8th Shibuya Music Festival on November 10, 2013. The group performed at a street crosswalk, and thus was surrounded by the audience. In response, they used 4 pairs of ō-daiko and chū-daiko, resulting in a unique extension of “Nidan Uchi” that demonstrates the flexibility of the composition (seen beginning at 04:15 in the video below):
Even more than forty years after its composition, “Nidan Uchi” and “Yodan Uchi” are one of the most visually striking pieces in the wadaiko repertoire. If you consider both works as two parts of a larger whole, it is perhaps the Sukeroku style’s signature piece, a blending of improvisational endeavors and visual acrobatics. Within the work, the soloistic tendencies that emerged at bon daiko competitions were combined with new visual and rhythmic influences to create a work that excited audiences at the clubs and cabarets that were the group’s primary performance sites. It was a giant step in the direction away from festival drumming and towards a new manner of drumming that was to be enjoyed simply as music.
Its popularity is evident in its regular presentation at large-scale taiko gatherings in the United States. Las Vegas Kaminari Taiko performed “Rokudan Uchi” to open the 2015 North American Taiko Conference’s Opening Session. Soh Daiko, meanwhile, played “Hachidan Uchi” at both the 2011 North American Taiko Conference Taiko Jam concert and the 2013 East Coast Taiko Conference concert. It can also be found at informal jams that open or close Furthermore, there are regularly workshops given on the “Nidan Uchi” style at taiko conferences.
And yet, the actual performance of “Nidan Uchi”/”Yodan Uchi” is limited by the permissions system in place for Sukeroku Taiko pieces. Even as “Yodan Uchi” remains one of the most popular pieces, then, it has gained a sort of mystique, as its blending of taiko music and movement is enjoyed by many but performed by a few.
Bender, Shawn. 2003. “Drumming Between Tradition and Modernity: Taiko and Neo-Folk Performance in Contemporary Japan.” Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology Ph.D Dissertation, University of California, San Diego.
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.
Wong, Deborah. 2005. “Noisy intersection: ethnicity, authenticity and ownership in Asian American taiko.” In Diasporas and Interculturalism in Asian Performing Arts: Translating traditions, edited by Um Hae-kyung, 85-90. New York: Routledge.
 “Oiuchi” is a military term meaning to strike a final blow, or to attack a routed enemy or an enemy that is in retreat.
 Other usages of an ō-daiko and stand in such a way include within martial arts situations. The Asano Taiko manufacturer’s website notes that one type of stand can be found in judo and kendo dojos. http://www.asano.jp/shop/products/detail.php?product_id=463
Meanwhile, due to its use in kagura, Shinto music and dance, this type of ō-daiko stand is sometimes called a kagura-dai (神楽台 “kagura stand”).
 A nagadō-daiko with a rawhide patch would itself become another signature visual of Sukeroku-influenced groups
 “Aiuchi” means “joined hitting.” “San nin mawari,” meanwhile, means “three person rotation”; it can also be transliterated as san-nin mawari, owing to the fact that the word nin in this phrase is a counter, meaning three people (“san” is the Japanese word for three). Counters and their related numbers are often signified by a dash connected the two words; hence, “san-nin.”
 Only a few groups in the United States have permission to play pieces like “Midare Uchi,” the “Oroshi Daiko”/”Shiraume Daiko”/”Matsuri Daiko” suite, and “Nidan Uchi”/”Yodan Uchi.”
There was some controversy about this in the late-1990s and early-2000s; for more, see Deborah Wong’s 2005 book chapter “Noisy Intersection: Ethnicity, Authenticty and Ownership in Asian American Taiko.” (Wong 2005)