Oroshi Daiko/Shiraume Daiko/Matsuri Daiko

When Shin On Taiko debuted in 1967 at the Tokyo club Crown, they presented to audiences a unique style of taiko performance. In pieces like “Midare Uchi,” members showcased the bon daiko skills they had honed in competitions across Tokyo. The soloistic, theatrical flairs they had developed were popular in clubs and cabarets across the Japanese capital, and even after Shin On Taiko folded and reemerged as Sukeroku Taiko, they managed to garner great responses from audiences.

Yet, audiences were not seeing simply bon daiko in Sukeroku Taiko performances. Rather, from the beginning of the activities the members drew from a variety of sources when honing their craft. While early performance direction for Shin On Daiko came from Sanada Minoru, he was a dancer, and “could not offer guidance for real taiko performance” (Mogi 2010, 36). Instead, the true musical instruction of Ishizuka Yutaka, Kobayashi Seido, Onozato Motoe, and Ishikura Yoshihisa was provided by Kineya Sasazou, the musician in charge of hōgaku (邦楽) performance at the National Theater in Chiyoda-ku; For three months, Kineya taught members the fundamentals of hōgaku-hayashi (邦楽囃子), the music of theatrical genres like noh and kabuki. Through this training, Sukeroku Taiko members gained a level of technical and musical sophistication that would push their skills to a new level.


Hōgaku ensembles – also called hōgaku-hayashi – consist of wind instruments (flutes, primarily) and drums. The ensemble used in noh, for example, typically consists of a nohkan, a high-pitched bamboo flute, and three types of drums – a ko-tsuzumi, an ō-tsuzumi, and a shime-daiko (sometimes simply called the taiko). Kabuki ensembles, meanwhile, also use a shamisen – a plucked string instrument – and a bamboo flute called a takebue.

Also contributing to kabuki performances is a group of musicians that play in a small room just offstage called the kuromisu (黒御簾 “black curtain”). Called the geza ongaku (下座音楽 “offstage music”), this ensemble is charged with creating sound effects and other musical cues not performed by the musicians on stage. Musicians in the kuromisu utilize a wide variety of instruments, including – most prominently – the ō-daiko, used for both musical and atmospheric purposes; for example, to indicate that snow is falling or it is thundering.

Mogi lists several elements of hōgaku-hayashi learned from Kineya Sasazou that were influential on the development of the future members of Sukeroku Taiko: “the basic performance practices of hōgaku-hayashi, along with phrasing, the way of producing the voice, the organization of the right and left hands (dividing when to alternately hit the right and left bachi and when to hit at the same time), and the attachment of dynamics” (Mogi 2010, 36). The vocal gestures particular to hōgaku would especially help separate the Sukeroku style from other contemporary taiko styles that later developed. Called kakegoe (掛け声 “connecting voice”), they are stylized shouts used partially to keep time. More than just abstract vocal gestures, kakegoe are integral parts of the music; indeed, Malm notes that “a pattern is not correctly played unless both the drum sounds and calls are performed in the proper order” (Malm 2000, 143). Furthermore, these rhythmic patterns are a composite of the ko-tsuzumi and ō-tsuzumi parts together with the kakegoe.[1]

Just as the hōgaku usage of the voice became important to the development of the Sukeroku Taiko performance style, so did specific techniques for drums like the shime-daiko. In hōgaku, musicians make conscious efforts to produce distinct types of sounds; Malm lists four basic sounds: “small, medium, large, and muffled (shō, chū, dai, and osameru)” (Malm 2000, 141). Stylized movements are used both to play and to visually accentuate these sounds: for example, there is a sequence in which the left stick is drawn back towards the right shoulder before it comes down at an angle to hit the drum.

Sukeroku Taiko members took these performance techniques and combined them with those utilized in bon daiko, and then composed new pieces that reflected this new musical direction. This process resulted in the emergence of three works: “Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko,” and “Matsuri Daiko.” While the pieces can be performed separately, they are typically played as a suite. They serve as a demonstration of the manner in which even in the early stages of the group’s development, Sukeroku Taiko members were developing a style that was a step removed from the bon daiko-influenced music that had filled the majority of their early repertoire, becoming more complex both technically and compositionally. However, they did not merely draw from hōgaku-hayashi and bon daiko, but also looked to other festival musics performed in Tokyo to enhance their emerging style, including an old style of festival music called Edo-bayashi.


A common sight at matsuri (festivals) across Japan is an ensemble called a matsuri-bayashi (祭囃子 “festival ensemble”). With a standard orchestration in Tokyo of a shinobue, one smaller byō-uchi-daiko, two or three shime-daiko, and an atarigane, matsuri-bayashi provide much of the background music for matsuri. The ensemble provides the accompanying music that announces a mikoshi (神輿) – portable shrines believed to serve as palanquins for the gods – as community members carry it around during matsuri. As bearers carry the mikoshi to the various neighborhoods surrounding a Shinto shrine, the members of the matsuri-bayashi either walk behind a small cart upon which their instruments are mounted or ride upon floats called dashi.

A matsuri-bayashi cart during the route of a mikoshi procession. Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa, Tokyo. May 19, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

A matsuri-bayashi cart during the route of a mikoshi procession. Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa, Tokyo. May 19, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

A matsuri-bayashi cart during the Sanno Matsuri. Tokyo, June 10., 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

A matsuri-bayashi cart during the Sanno Matsuri. Tokyo, June 10, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

Matsuri-bayashi sometimes also perform on the grounds of a shrine as the mikoshi is brought into the grounds, or at special stands placed along the route of the mikoshi. In the latter instance, they play the music when the mikoshi has stopped, allowing the musicians on the accompanying float to rest (as seen below).

A matsuri-bayashi in a booth along the route of a mikoshi procession. Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa, Tokyo. May 20, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

A matsuri-bayashi in a booth along the route of a mikoshi procession. Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa, Tokyo. May 20, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

The music played by matsuri-bayashi ensembles – also called matsuri-bayashi, as a general musical genre name – is often named according to the region in which it is played or where the music came from. For example, in his book on Japanese music William Malm writes: “there is a kandabayashi from the Kanda district of Tokyo, and the popular ensemble from the Asakusa area of Tokyo is called the edobayashi, for it is the repository for much of the festival music of old Tokyo (Edo), as is the district in which it is played” (Malm 2000, 58).

The edobayashi mentioned by Malm – or Edo-bayashi (江戸囃子), as I choose to transliterate it, to put emphasis on the location – is the festival music of Edo, the old name for Tokyo. Today it is performed primarily in the Asakusa area of Tokyo during festivals such as Sanja Matsuri. It consists of several pieces: “Yatai” (屋台, a name for the float upon which the matsuri-bayashi rides), “Kamakura” (鎌倉, a town south of Tokyo, an old capital of Japan) “Shōten” (昇殿, also transliterated by some “Shoden;” the entry into the sanctum of a shrine or temple), and “Shichōme” (四丁目, “Fourth Avenue,” referring to a street). Each piece is performed at different points during the procession; “Yatai” is played when the procession begins and ends, for example, while “Shichōme” is played when a mikoshi is entering/leaving the shrine or nearing a neighborhood representative booth.

Edo-bayashi music consists of quasi-interlocking rhythmic patterns divided amongst the shime-daiko, ō-daiko, and atarigane, played underneath a fue melody.[2] It is semi-improvisational in nature – that is, there are set parts, but depending on the circumstance it could be left to the performer to decide when to play a certain rhythm; as such, it has a feeling of spontaneity.[3]

One example of this music is below in an excerpt from the first performance of “Yatai” at the beginning of an Edo-bayashi cycle. Beneath a melody played on the fue, the shime-daiko players and atarigane player perform a series of interlocking patterns that combines loud and soft, accented and unaccented notes. Meanwhile, the ō-daiko player interjects several different rhythms that combine with the shime-daiko and atarigane parts, followed by periods of rest. The result is a complex combination of rhythms that has a semi-improvisation feel to it, with the different patterns of the instruments weaving in between each other.[4]

Edo-bayashi Yatai

“Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko,” and “Matsuri Daiko,”

Sukeroku Taiko members combined the musical complexity of Edo-bayashi and the technical elements of hōgaku-hayashi, resulting in the three-piece suite featuring “Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko,” and “Matsuri Daiko.” The instrumentation for these pieces takes its cue from matsuri-bayashi, featuring shime-daiko, nagadō-daiko, and ō-daiko).[5] The number of shime-daiko and nagadō-daiko can vary depending on the situation, but there are always multiple nagadō-daiko, as the works utilize rhythmic parts divided among the players.

Curiously, Sukeroku-influenced groups rarely play the suite today as it was first composed. “Oroshi Daiko” has largely gone unperformed, replaced by a work entitled “Shunrai” (“Thunder”). “Shunrai” has many similarities to “Oroshi Daiko” in terms of construction and development, enough that it can be considered a variant of the original. However, some groups do still play “Oroshi Daiko” – most prominently, the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble (KETE) in Honolulu, HI, as Endo learned the piece as a member of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko in the 1980s. The following discussion is based largely on KETE’s performances of the piece, augmented by discussions in the writings of Mogi and others. A performance of it can be seen in the video below, from 10:22 – 17:24.

“Oroshi Daiko”

“Oroshi Daiko” (おろし太鼓) is an introductory piece filled with dramatic drum rolls that rise and fall in volume and echo the work’s title (one meaning of oroshi is “wind blowing down the mountains”). According to founding Sukeroku Taiko member Mochizuki Saburo (the hōgaku performance name of Ishizuka Yutaka), “Oroshi Daiko” “was created by bringing together compositions [from kabuki-hayashi] like “Ichi-ban Daiko,” “Chakutō,” and “Uchi-dashi” that are even today performed as a ritual” (personal communication, December 2012).

The impact of “Ichi-ban Daiko” (一番太鼓) in particular is apparent in “Oroshi Daiko.” “Ichi-ban Daiko” – played to announce the beginning of a kabuki performance and the rising of the curtain – opens with a pair of hits on the rim of the ō-daiko. The drummer then starts a series of yama-oroshi, rolls that start slowly and get faster with each hit. The player then proceeds into a short 4-bar phrase that is repeated several times, gradually getting faster with each repeat:

Ichi-ban Daiko middle

Finally, “Ichi-ban Daiko” concludes with a short series of rhythms that gradually slow down, before finished with two fast hits on the drum.

The influence of “Ichi-ban Daiko” on the development of “Oroshi Daiko” is apparent from the beginning. Following an initial roll by each player, each instrument enters, joining a repeated chain of notes that gets faster with each entrance:


The layering of parts is a common theme throughout “Oroshi Daiko”; following this opening, each musician then plays a drumroll in the same sequence in which they entered at the beginning of the piece. After the cycle of rolled entrances is repeated several times, the ensemble proceeds into a segment similar to the opening where each nagadō-daiko player entering in sequence. The music gets progressively faster and louder with each entrance, before the piece ends with one last roll:


“Shiraume Daiko”

After “Oroshi Daiko” concludes, the ensemble moves immediately into “Shiraume Daiko” (白梅太鼓), meant to evoke images of the Yushima Tenjin shrine. To be more specific, the plum blossoms that bloom at the shrine – shiraume means white plum blossoms” – inspired Sukeroku Taiko members as they were creating the piece. According to Mochizuki Saburo, the piece “expresses through taiko these white plum blossoms, bearing the cold and blooming just a little, undaunted by snow” (personal communication, December 2012).

Like “Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko” draws from the kabuki hōgaku tradition, albeit in a different manner; it is notable for use of the kakegoe and osameru shime-daiko techniques mentioned above. After an ensemble member announces the title – a common practice in Sukeroku Taiko works, as we saw in “Midare Uchi” – they begin a long kakegoe, with the tone of the voice moving from low to high. The use of kakegoe is a signature of “Shiraume Daiko”; performers are required to not only hit the drum but also make vocal gestures as they play (much in the fashion of hōgaku-hayashi). The composition then proceeds with a series of phrases combining interplay between the different instruments (an example of which can been seen below – in this transcription, stems without a notehead indicate the rhythmic placement of kakegoe):[6]

Shiraume Daiko excerpt

While the kakegoe in “Shiraume Daiko” stands out, it is not the only hōgaku-hayashi technique used during the piece. The shime-daiko ostinato in the excerpt above is of interest, for it utilizes a particular hōgaku-hayashi technique called osameru.[7] Performers are required to use an osameru technique (indicated in the transcription with diamond-shaped noteheads), in which the bachi stays on the drumhead after hitting in order to muffle the sound. Meanwhile, the simultaneously production of kakegoe by the shime-daiko player as they continue with the osameru patterns also reflect common hōgaku practices.[8]

“Matsuri Daiko”

Whereas the first two pieces of the suite utilize hōgaku-hayashi techniques Sukeroku Taiko members learned from Kineya, the last piece – “Matsuri Daiko” (祭り太鼓) – puts on display elements from the matsuri-bayashi played in the Shitamachi area of Tokyo, particularly the complex rhythmic patterns on the shime-daiko and the interlocking nature of the music. Continuing a theme from “Shiraume Daiko,” “Matsuri Daiko” describes the moment when “the white flowers [of Yushima Tenjin] bloom, withstanding the cold” (Mochizuki Saburo, personal communication, December 2012). Much like Edo-bayashi, it is characterized features patterns on the shime-daiko combining loud and soft hits in quick succession, as well as rhythmic interplay between the various instruments.

“Matsuri Daiko” performances typically begin – much in the fashion of other Sukeroku Taiko pieces – with a player announcing the title. A four-bar introduction on the ō-daiko is followed by an extended phrase in which the ō-daiko and nagadō-daiko players trade four-bar rhythms while the shime-daiko player(s) move between a series of different patterns. This section is the core of “Matsuri Daiko,” appearing often during a performance:

Matsuri Daiko excerpt 1

The influence of Shitamachi festival music is revealed in the intricate rhythms on the shime-daiko combining accented and unaccented notes, as well as in the way in which the shime-daiko part alternates between different rhythmic patterns yet returns to one pattern in particular. Many times in Edo-bayashi., the fundamental pattern – or ji – alternates with another pattern before returning (as seen in the transcription above). In the beginning of “Matsuri Daiko” seen above, the shime-daiko performers return to the rhythm in measures 5 through 9 even after new ideas are introduced.

Another influence of Shitamachi festival music is found in the middle section of the piece, when a shime-daiko rhythm is accompanied by sporadic interjections by the nagadō-daiko that fit into the shime-daiko rhythm. This echoes elements seen in the above Edo-bayashi excerpt, when the ō-daiko in Edo-bayashi interjects into pauses in the shime-daiko part.

Matsuri Daiko excerpt 2

After this cross-play section and additional repeats of the first series of patterns discussed above, the ensemble then proceeds into a passage in which running sixteenth-note-based rhythms are spread amongst the nagadō-daiko players. Finally, “Matsuri Daiko” concludes with a combination of the opening rhythms with patterns on the heads and rims of the nagadō-daiko.

The Sukeroku Style Moves Forward

Both as individual compositions and when seen as a suite, “Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko,” and “Matsuri Daiko,” represent a dramatic shift from earlier Sukeroku Taiko works like “Midare Uchi.” There are no improvisations; rather, each work is a fully composed piece. Some of the visual elements taken from bon daiko are present – particularly in “Shiraume Daiko,” which features arm circles and points – but more prevalent are performance practices and musical material taken from other musical genres such as hōgaku and festival music of the Tokyo Shitamachi area.

As much as the improvisational nature of “Midare Uchi,” Sukeroku Taiko’s use of specific compositional techniques and performance practices from festival music – such as the intricate rhythms and interlocking patterns of Edo-bayashi – in original compositions like “Matsuri Daiko” was a step forward for not just Sukeroku Taiko but indeed the emerging genre of ensemble taiko performance. The “Oroshi Daiko”/“Shiraume Daiko”/“Matsuri Daiko” demonstrated the complexities within the grasp of Sukeroku Taiko. This affected not only the group’s musical direction, however, but also its future in terms of membership. Indeed, the act of taking lessons with Kineya Sasazou caused both Ishizuka Yutaka and Onozato Ganei to decide to enter into the world of hōgaku performance. Ishizuka entered into the Mochizuki school of hōgaku performance through Kineya’s introduction, eventually receiving the stage name (natori) Mochizuki Saburo in 1972. Onozato, meanwhile, became a student of Tosha Yuho, a hōgaku performer that he had met on a concert tour; in 1977, he received the natori Tosha Kiyonari (Mogi 2010).

The combination of hōgaku-hayashi and matsuri-bayashi resulted in a unique style of performance now known as the Sukeroku-ryū. Upon a soloistic foundation developed in bon daiko competitions, members added various compositional and technical influences that would push them in new directions. This influence can still be felt today, for many pieces written by Sukeroku-influences groups and individuals bring together elements of both festival and theatrical music. The Sukeroku-ryū has evolved – partially as the original members of the group have gone their separate ways and developed unique styles – but the fundamentals learned and honed in the early years of the group remain.

Works Cited

Malm, William P. 1960. “An Introduction to Taiko Drum Music in the Japanese No Drama.” Ethnomusicology 4 (2):75-78.

Malm, William P. 1975. “Shoden: A Study in Tokyo Festival Music. When Is Variation an Improvisation?” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 7:44-66.

Malm, William P. 2000. Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments: The New Edition. New York: Kodansha America, Inc.

Mogi, Hitoshi. 2010. “Oedo Sukeroku Taiko 大江戸助六太鼓.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 36:34-41.

Schnapper, Laurie. 2013. Ostinato. In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.: Oxford University Press.


[1] A detailed discussion of hōgaku drumming patterns is found in Williams Malm’s 1960 article “An Introduction to Taiko Drum Music in the Japanese No Drama.” (Malm 1960)

[2] This ō-daiko is a byō-uchi-daiko that is not the same size as the ō-daiko used in hōgaku-hayashi and modern taiko ensembles, but is named so merely because it is larger than the shime-daiko.

[3] For a discussion of this topic, see Malm’s 1975 article “Shoden: A Study in Tokyo Festival Music. When Is Variation an Improvisation?” (Malm 1975)

[4] The x-shaped noteheads in the atarigane part represent a hit on the inside of the handheld gong, and the filled noteheads are hits in the center. The open diamond-shaped noteheads in the shime-daiko part, meanwhile, represent soft hits.

The notes above the systems – “yatai-gashira,” “ji-gashira,” “ji,” and “musubi” – represent the names for these parts of the music, given at the top of the original score.

[5] Some groups add bamboo flute as well, but does this not appear to be part of normal performance practice, and as such will not be considered in the following discussion

[6] While each individual nagadō-daiko drummer has their own part in “Oroshi Daiko,” they play as a group in “Shiraume Daiko.”

[7] The term “ostinato” refers to “the repetition of a musical pattern many times in succession while other musical elements are general changing.” (Schnapper 2013)

[8] Interestingly, according to Mochizuki Saburo the piece did not originally feature kakegoe; rather, he added the gestures after he began learning kabuki-hayashi (personal communication, December 2012). However, given the inclusion of kakegoe in early Sukeroku Taiko pieces – as well as works composed by descendant groups – it is worth including a discussion of it in this article.

Tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.