Suwa Ikazuchi

The history of contemporary taiko music – indeed, of all contemporary taiko performance – began with an accidental discovery in the early 1950s in the town of Okaya, Nagano Prefecture. Oguchi Kiyohito, the owner of a local miso business, found in one of his miso warehouses a journal written during the Meiji era by his ancestor Oguchi Tōtaro. It referenced the daily activities of andtopics of interest to the people of the period, as well as mentioned an attempt by Totaro and his friends to revive a type of kagura-daiko native to the region yet having not been played for several years.

Kagura-daiko (神楽太鼓 “kagura drumming”) is the drumming that is part of the accompanying music for kagura, a type of Shinto theatrical dance (Petersen 2006).[1] The music that accompanies these dances – kagura-bayashi (神楽囃子 “kagura ensemble”) – varies depending on the region, just as there is not a single dance performed across Japan; instrumentation is typically the same regardless of location, however: “transverse bamboo flute, drum of medium size, and often a big barrel drum” (Kishibe 1982, 82). In this ensemble, flute provides the melody, while the drums serve as accompaniment. The transverse bamboo flute mentioned by Kishibe is a type of transverse flute called a fue (笛), while the medium-sized drum most commonly used is a type of tsukeshime-daiko (締め太鼓 “fastened, tightened drum”) – a short cylindrical-shaped drum with the heads tightened by ropes – called a daibyōshi-daiko (大拍子太鼓 “large rhythm drum”), positioned perpendicular to the performer also and played with long, narrow sticks. Additionally, what Kishibe calls a “big barrel drum” is typically a small byō-uchi-daiko (鋲打ち太鼓 “tack-hit drum”) with a diameter of 10 to 12 inches.

Instruments from L to R: daibyōshi-daiko, fue, byō-uchi-daiko.  Sanno Matsuri, Hie Shrine, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan. June 15, 2012.  Photo by Benjamin Pachter

Instruments from L to R: daibyōshi-daiko, fue, byō-uchi-daiko.
Sanno Matsuri, Hie Shrine, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan. June 15, 2012. Photo by Benjamin Pachter

Accompanying Oguchi Tōtaro’s journal was a small musical score, believed to the “the kagura-daiko that had been handed down in this region until the time of the Bakumatsu” (Oguchi 1987, 18). Oguchi Kiyohito approached his cousin Daihachi – a jazz drummer and leader of a local band – and asked if he could interpret the fragment, with the goal of presenting the music at a local festival. However, Daihachi had no experience playing festival music and did not know how to read the score; as he later described it, it was as if “a Western-style cook took in an order for sushi” (Oguchi 1987, 19-20). And yet, he found the idea of a revival to be interesting, and thus agreed to take on the project.

A fragment of the discovered kagura-daiko fragment. Unfortunately, this small segment is believed to be the only remaining element of the discovered score. At the very least, it is the only section that has ever been published, and is the only part in the records of the Nippon Taiko Foundation. Osuwa Daiko Gakuen, Nihon No Taiko 日本の太鼓 [Japanese Taiko] (Okaya, Japan: Daihachi Oguchi & Osuwa Daiko Gakuen, 1994), 50.

A fragment of the discovered kagura-daiko fragment. Unfortunately, this small segment is believed to be the only remaining element of the discovered score. At the very least, it is the only section that has ever been published, and is the only part in the records of the Nippon Taiko Foundation. Taken from the out-of-print book “Nihon no Taiko” (Osuwa Daiko Gakuen, Nihon No Taiko 日本の太鼓 [Japanese Taiko] (Okaya, Japan: Daihachi Oguchi & Osuwa Daiko Gakuen, 1994), 50.)

Daihachi visited local shrines and consulted with priests, “learning how to read the music score from the heads of the shrines and learning the basics of how to play kagura-daiko” (Oguchi 1987, 21). Meanwhile, he was fortuitous to discover that a former student of Oguchi Totaro, Narusawa Sagazaharu, was still living in Okaya. Bringing together the knowledge he gained through lessons with Narusawa as well as local priests, he eventually learned not only how the score was to be read, but also how it was to be performed.

The music was to be played by two drummers, signified by markings written to the right of each column of notation. It consisted of two rhythmic phrases alternating between the two drummers, followed by two unison lines (Osuwa Daiko Gakuen 1994, 50). The different types of circles found within the notation signified different ways to hit the drum:

donA large open circle represents a single loud note, called “don” within the kuchi-shōga syllabary.[2]

tonMiddle-sized open circles stand for a slightly softer hit, called “ton.”

koThe smallest open circles are soft hits, “to” if played by the right hand and “ko” if by the left.[3]

kaSmall filled-in circles meant that the drummer is to hit the rim of the drum (called fuchi-uchi; “hitting the rim”).

Very little is provided in the fragment in regards to note length; the only indication is a curved line connecting two loud notes at the beginning of each segment. According to later materials provided by Osuwa Daiko, this line means that the two notes are to be played in succession; it can then be inferred that they are faster than the other notes (as indicated in the transcription below) (Osuwa Daiko Gakuen 1994, 50). Beyond this information, Oguchi Daihachi also determined via lessons with Narusawa Sagazaharu that the music was to be played with one hand (the right hand), and that it was to be played rather slowly.

Transcription of the kagura-daiko fragment, using Western rhythmic notation

Transcription of the kagura-daiko fragment, using Western rhythmic notation

Oguchi Daihachi started teaching the music to others, with the intention of giving a performance at the Ofune Matsuri at the Suwa Grand Shrine, where in the Meiji era his ancestor Totaro had planned to give his own revival of the kagura-daiko music. However, as he and his friends practiced, playing on drums scrounged together from various shops in the area, he found himself dissatisfied. It was supposed to be played by just two people, yet Oguchi thought: “all of us playing together is definitely more enjoyable” (Oguchi 1987, 25). Meanwhile, the music was slower and not as rhythmically complex as the jazz music he was listening to and performing with his group.

In a moment of resolve, Oguchi decided to arrange the kagura-daiko fragment into something new. He began by speeding up the tempo of the work, later writing about the process: “Certainly, our rhythms are fast in comparison to the past. However, it isn’t necessarily a good thing to match up with the past no matter what” (Oguchi 1987, 28). Next, he realized that the drums they had gathered could generally be divided into three groups: high-, middle-, and low-pitched taiko. The high-pitched drums – small tsukeshime-daiko (generally called shime-daiko in this context) – could provide a fundamental rhythm that everyone would follow. Larger drums – byō-uchi-daiko known as nagadō-daiko (literally, “long-bodied drum”), the middle part of the ensemble – could play a rhythmic ‘melody.’ Finally, the largest drums in the group – ō-daiko (“big drum”), a larger byō-uchi-daiko than a nagadō-daiko – could provide a low sound to push everything forward. By utilizing this orchestration method, fashioned “when thinking completely about a band,” Oguchi created a new compositional and instrumentation style that would serve as a model for future taiko groups (Oguchi 1995, 13).

With this instrumentation in place, Oguchi then began to arrange the music, adding ostinatos, interlocking patterns, and other elements. The result was “Suwa Ikazuchi” (諏訪雷 “Suwa Thunder), a work fashioned by “incorporating methods from Western music onto a base of tradition” (Oguchi 1987, 30). According to Oguchi’s book Tenko and period newspapers quote by Mogi Hitoshi in an article written for the journal Taikology, it was premiered in 1957 at a performance at a banquet held by the Okaya Textile Store Association, a performance that also served as the debut of what was at that time called the Suwa Daiko Hozonkai (Mogi 2009, 66).

There is not a single instrumentation used in every performance of “Suwa Ikazuchi”; rather, it varies on the number of drums and performers that are available. That being said, a typical arrangement features pairs of medium-sized nagadō-daiko (set up on the two sides of a stage), a large nagadō-daiko (長胴太鼓 “long-bodied drum”) called an ō-daiko (大太鼓 “large drum”), and another of Oguchi’s innovations, the taiko set.

Just as Oguchi applied Western-influenced orchestration concepts to the arrangement of the drums, bringing together multiple taiko into a single ensemble, he also integrated the idea into the grouping of several drums so that one person could play them. It would not be used in every piece, but it was certainly the centerpiece of “Suwa Ikazuchi.” From behind his taiko set, Oguchi would drive the performance, signaling changes in tempo and transitions between passages while also occasionally improvising.


Oguchi Daihachi behind his taiko set at the Kitakami/Michinoku Arts Festival, Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, August 8, 1991 Screenshot from a video shared on YouTube.

Oguchi Daihachi behind his taiko set at the Kitakami/Michinoku Arts Festival, Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, August 8, 1991
Screenshot from a video shared on YouTube.

Similarly, the musical content of “Suwa Ikazuchi” has changed over the years; the following discussion is based on a video uploaded to YouTube by user Jenny Lim, yet falls into a pattern often followed in performances of the piece.

The performance begins with a series of hits on the ō-daiko, starting slow and getting faster, akin to a ball bouncing on the floor (sometimes called a yama-oroshi in Japanese – literally “coming down the mountain,” as it sounds as if something is gaining speed as it rolls down a mountain – or a roll in Western percussion terms).[4] As a melody is performed on the fue and the ō-daiko provides an underlying rhythm, a chant is performed akin to Shinto prayer chanting called norito; this norito is often performed with arms held up in the air, giving a performance an air of religious ritual. The contents of the chant suggest that it was taken to some extent from rituals from the Suwa Grand Shrine, with references to the gods of rain and thunder looking down upon the performance, but it also announces the name of the group performing and the title of the piece itself.[5]

Eventually, as the chant approaches its conclusion, one performer hits a gong, and the fue player switches to a horagai (a conch shell trumpet sometimes used in Shinto ritual). Finally, once the chant is finished, the drummers begin a series of rolls. The rolls develop freely, with each performer entering and speeding up as they see fit, creating a cacophony of sounds as the many different-sized drums overlap each other. Eventually, Oguchi (or whoever is behind the taiko set) begins to play on the shime-daiko a repeated long-short-long rhythmic pattern in a triple feel that serves as the foundation rhythm for the piece:


The main body of “Suwa Ikazuchi” is a series of variations on this long-short-long pattern. In most performances, the main body of the piece opens with the drummers switching between this pattern and marking the beat by clicking their bachi together, but there are also recorded performances of a group alternating between hitting the drumhead and hitting the rim with a slight elongation of one segment of the phrase:

Variant 1

This rhythmic pattern could be said to be the descendant of the discovered rhythmic fragment from Oguchi Kiyohito’s miso warehouse. The grouping of three notes on the drumhead and three on the rim is similar what was found in that score, if the original fragment was transposed into triple time. However, there are some differences between the two. There is a dynamic contrast in the original kagura drumming that is not found in “Suwa Ikazuchi,” as in Oguchi’s composition everything is loud. At the same time, the rhythmic organization varies to some degree. It is unclear whether the triple feel was the invention of Oguchi or the manner in which it was originally performed, but it does lends an air of swing to the music (fitting given Oguchi’s musical background and the swing band inspiration from which he drew when creating “Suwa Ikazuchi”). In essence, “Suwa Ikazuchi” retains echoes of the original kagura drumming rhythms, rearranged to fit a different musical palate.

The musical elements of “Suwa Ikazuchi” are enhanced by a series of choreographic movements. For example, as the first rhythmic variant is played on the taiko set, the nagadō-daiko players alternate playing and waving their hands in the air. One side of the stage plays while the other does the choreography, and then they switch roles. Later, during another variation, Oguchi emphasizes rhythmic breaks in the pattern by pointing his left hand up and right hand down in a manner so that the arms seem to form a single diagonal line. These rhythmic breaks are echoed by the nagadō-daiko players, who also circle around the drums as they play; further, they alternate their parts, so that one side of the stage play while the other moves. In the first main variant, it results in the rhythms seem above (long-short-long, with two beats of rest in between), while in the second variant of “Suwa Ikazuchi” they create a new composite rhythmic pattern:[6]

Variant 2 composite

Even as this a new rhythm, the alternating nature of such variations – in which performers switch between playing the rhythm and performing a choreography while playing off of each other so that the rhythm is always performed – could be seen as being spiritually connected to the manner in which the kagura drumming alternated between two players.

After several variations of the rhythm, the drummers start rolling again, and the cycle begins anew: rolls, fundamental rhythm, variations. Each cycle is faster than the previous one, until after several cycles the piece ends. Much like the manner in which it begins can vary depends on the performance, the ending may vary as well. Some performances finish with a single hit at the end of the phrase, followed by a pose in which all drummers point their bachi into the air. Other performances, meanwhile, end with a serious of rolls on the heads and rims of the drums before a final unison hit.

“Suwa Ikazuchi” takes the basic musical ideas of the kagura-daiko fragment – rhythms that alternate between hitting the drumhead and the rim, rhythmic groups of three, alternating parts between two different players – and expands upon them. The use of gong and conch shell adds sonic elements that would be familiar to those accustomed to traditional festival music, even as the taiko ensemble is a new development. At the same time, Oguchi integrated a rhythmic feel more common to Western swing music in an effort to appeal to developing musical tastes based on Western music rather than traditional Japanese performance arts. Further, the inclusion of choreographic elements added new visual interest to the performance, an element that was unnecessary when the music was simply accompaniment for a dance but was brought by Oguchi as part of a greater whole.

It was the beginning of a new style of performance eventually as kumidaiko (組太鼓, “group drumming”). Simply put, this involves a group performance by many people playing many drums. This was unusual not only due to the placement of drums at the forefront of a performance (something rarely seen in festival, theatrical, or ceremonial music), but also for the sheer numbers of drums that were used, for there are typically only three or four drums at most found in a festival or theatrical ensemble. Beyond introducing this new instrumentation style, Oguchi also developed within “Suwa Ikazuchi” a compositional style he would use in many other pieces: a cyclical style in which several lines or phrases are repeated several times, each repeat faster than the last.

This new drumming style was warmly accepted by audiences, first at its banquet debut and then at a dedicatory performance at the Suwa Grand Shrine for the shrine’s Ofune Matsuri, where it was reported that “the thousands of local residents and spectators forgot about the drawing out of the ship [that was the main event of the festival] and listened with rapt attention to the group” (Mogi 2009, 67). The group – which would soon change its name to Osuwa Daiko, drawing upon its connection to the Suwa Grand Shrine – quickly increased its fame as it performed at other local events, but it was in 1959 when it gained repute on a larger level. That year, the group performed in the NHK National Song and Dance Festival at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Sendagaya, Tokyo. This performance was broadcast across the nation, causing interest in the group to grow. Osuwa Daiko would be invited to perform at many other venues, culminating in an appearance in the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in the “‘traditional performance arts’ section of the opening ceremonies” (Bender 2012, 209). With these appearances, the new style of performance fostered by Oguchi Daihachi and Osuwa Daiko gained not only national but worldwide attention.

“Suwa Ikazuchi” Video Playlist

For more videos, check out our curated YouTube playlist featuring performances of “Suwa Ikazuchi” by Osuwa Daiko!

Works Cited

Bender, Shawn. 2012. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kishibe, Shigeo. 1982. The Traditional Music of Japan. 2nd ed. Tokyo: The Japan Foundation.

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.

Osuwa Daiko Gakuen. 1994. Nihon no Taiko 日本の太鼓. Okaya, Japan: Daihachi Oguchi & Osuwa Daiko Gakuen.

Petersen, David. 2006. An Invitation to Kagura: Hidden Gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press.


[1] Many scholars further divide kagura into two types: mi-kagura, performed in the Imperial court, and sato-kagura, performed outside the court.

[2] Kuchi-shōga is a syllabary in which specific words represent specific sounds. There is a syllabary for each drum in Japan. Variations between regions do exist, but there are also many commonalities. The kuchi-shōga to be used in this dissertation is of the sort most commonly used in Japan and the United States, unless otherwise noted.

[3] “Ton” and “to” are kuchi-shōga syllables that appear to be exclusive to Osuwa Daiko. I have included them because they are used in Nihon no Taiko to describe the music in the discovered fragment.

[4] Other performances have featured a crash of a gong before the roll begins.

[5] Given these references to rain, it could be said that the crash of the gong and rolls at the beginning of the piece are meant to evoke images of lightning and thunder. And, of course, there is the name of the piece itself: “Suwa Thunder.”

[6] In this transcription, different stem directions indicate parts played by different performers (also indicated by the A & B part markings).

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