When Tanaka Seiichi – a Japanese immigrant who had come to Northern California in 1967– attended the 1968 Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco, he expected an environment like the raucous festivals of his youth in Nagano prefecture. However, the festivities consisted of little more than a parade featuring, in Tanaka’s words, pretty girls wearing “beautiful kimono, and walking nicely” (2005). He was disappointed by the quiet atmosphere of the festivities, but at the same time he found himself motivated to create “the beat and rhythm of the festival drum with which he had been familiar in Japan” (Otsuka 1997, 25). The following year (1968), Tanaka and his friends put together a performance for the festival: he played a drum borrowed from a local Buddhist temple while his friends carried around a mikoshi.[1]

That same year, Ishizuka Yutaka (later known as Mochizuki Saburo) and members of Sukeroku Taiko came to San Francisco while accompanying a singer on a tour of the western United States. After a performance, Tanaka and two other young men asked Ishizuka to teach them the Sukeroku performance style. Agreeing after some initial trepidation, Ishizuka and two other members remained in San Francisco for two weeks to give lessons to not only the three young men but also to a number of people who came to watch the open sessions held in the Japan Center in San Francisco’s Japantown (Mogi 2010, 39). When it came time to return to Japan, the Sukeroku Taiko members were unable to ship the drums back with them, so they left the equipment with Tanaka. This gift gave him the foundation for a taiko ensemble: “an ō-daiko with a naname stand, 2 chū-daiko, and a basic set of shime-daiko” (Mogi 2010, 39).[2]

Bolstered by this experience, Tanaka returned to Japan for three months in the following year (1969). He travelled to Nagano Prefecture, where he had grown up, and asked to receive instruction from Osuwa Daiko founder Oguchi Daihachi. In his youth, Tanaka “had been enamored by Osuwa Daiko” (Otsuka 1998, 45). When he envisioned the types of sounds that could be heard at a festival, one of his memories was “a group playing various taiko drums” that was most likely Oguchi Daihachi’s group (2005). However, as a child he had not been allowed to join the group, for in the early days of Osuwa Daiko Oguchi limited it only to family members and a few immediate friends. However, when Tanaka returned in 1969 Oguchi changed his mind and decided to teach him, due in part to Tanaka’s fervor for the art form (Oguchi 1987, 241, Aigner 2002) After studying with Oguchi for a short time, Tanaka returned to the United States and again performed at the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Tanaka Seiichi at the 1969 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival.
Gift of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Japanese American National Museum (2005.97.2). Used With Permission.

Bolstered by these experiences, Tanaka and his friends formed the San Francisco Taiko Doukoukai (doukoukai 同好会means “club” – literally, “an association of like-minded people”), later described as a “recreational group for Japanese youth” (Otsuka 1997, 25). The use of the Japanese term “Doukoukai” is reflective both of practices in San Francisco’s Japantown, where many older businesses and organizations used Japanese terms, and of the fact that the majority of early members were Japanese immigrants with Japanese as their primary language. It was a gathering place for these immigrants, a way to establish a social circle. That is not to say that the group was restricted to Japanese immigrants, however, as from the beginning of the group’s history its membership included Japanese-Americans and even people not of Japanese or Asian descent.

However, Tanaka soon moved beyond viewing taiko performance simply as a social activity, or something that could fill the sonic space of the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, and decided to dedicate his life to the musical genre. He saw playing the taiko as a way to contribute to the community, having observed how the crowds reacted when he played the drum.[3] At the same time, however, he saw in the art form a new path similar to his original goal of teaching martial arts in the United States, believing that “a focus on people and accessibility was something that taiko, more than other traditional Japanese art forms, could offer” (Yoon 2007, 11).

The San Francisco Taiko Doukoukai’s early repertoire included many pieces taken from the catalogues of Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko; works like “Suwa Ikazuchi,” “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi,” and “Yodan Uchi” formed the core of performances. At the same time, however, Tanaka also began to compose new works for his group that combined the various performance styles he had learned. One such work was “Sokobayashi,” written in the early 1970s.


“Sokobayashi” is named after “Sōkō,” the word for San Francisco used by first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States (issei). The name “Soko” came from a transliteration of San Francisco using Chinese characters – Sō-hō-shi-ku-kō (桑方西斯哥) – which was later reduced to Sō-kō; the name can still be found in many Japanese-American businesses and institutions across San Francisco. “Bayashi,” meanwhile, is the Japanese word for festival orchestras. The naming evokes regional festival music traditions in Japan, which often combine place names and “-bayashi” (for example, Edo-bayashi, the music of Edo, the old name for Tokyo).

Dedicated to that first generation of Japanese immigrants that supported the Japanese-American community, “Sokobayashi” was created in response to Tanaka’s own discovery of the history of Japanese immigrants in the United States.[4]  He wanted to give something back to that group that was so overjoyed by his performances at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival and other community events, noting that he would watch them smile with tears streaming down their faces.[5]

“Sokobayashi” reflects Tanaka’s early taiko experiences; in it, he combines elements from both Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko performance practices. The primary ensemble is similar to that used in the Sukeroku Taiko “Oroshi Daiko”/“Shiraume Daiko”/“Matsuri Daiko” suite: four nagadō-daiko, plus a shime-daiko and an ō-daiko (albeit in this case the ō-daiko is placed on the ground and played vertically like a nagadō-daiko rather than on a horizontal stand).[6] The nagadō-daiko are placed on the slanted naname stands used by Sukeroku Taiko, further placing it within that Tokyo Shitamachi festival performance lineage. At the same time, however, Tanaka also added elements taken from Osuwa Daiko – most prominently, the tettō (a metallic, pipe-like instrument created by Oguchi Daihachi) and the fue (rarely used in Sukeroku Taiko repertoire, but found in some Osuwa Daiko pieces). Furthermore, the use of the ō-daiko is closer to Osuwa Daiko practice than to Sukeroku Taiko, playing an ostinato with occasional accent that highlights the rhythmic melody (as compared to within Sukeroku Taiko, when the ō-daiko is used in a more ‘melodic’ role).

The Music of “Sokobayashi”

“Sokobayashi” begins much in the manner of Sukeroku Taiko’s “Oroshi Daiko”: a series of rhythms rolls are passed around the ensemble, often involving rolls that with an accent and then rising in volume before reducing to a quiet roll played underneath the subsequent patterns. Many of the short rhythms that immediately precede each roll in this opening are the same or slight variations of those used in “Oroshi Daiko,” as is the division of the nagadō-daiko players into four different parts.

These rolls are interwoven with kakegoe in the style of Sukeroku Taiko, continuing the connection to “Oroshi Daiko,” but one addition to the model is the inclusion of the tettō within the nagadō-daikoshime-daiko progression.

After several series of rolls, with the space between each player getting smaller with each cycle (much like in “Oroshi Daiko”), the ensemble briefly pauses before the ō-daiko player begins a steady ostinato that is soon joined by the tettō.

In this moment, the piece moves from its Sukeroku Taiko inspiration to becoming more akin to the style of Osuwa Daiko. The o-daiko and tettō provide a rhythmic framework via their ostinato, occasionally providing some accents. At the same time, Tanaka also makes an addition to the performance styles of his teachers. Meanwhile, the fue provides a semi-improvised melody as the rest of the ensemble plays, a practice not found in Sukeroku Taiko’s repertoire and very rarely in the music of Osuwa Daiko. The bamboo flute has a secondary role, however, standing at the back of the ensemble; if not for the use of a microphone, the flute would not be able to be heard over the drums.[7]

On top of this ostinato and fue quasi-improvisation, a rhythmic melody is played on the nagadō-daiko; this follows the practice of using ‘middle’ drums as melody within Oguchi Daihachi’s orchestration scheme.

This melody is repeated twice, accompanied by an ostinato on the ō-daiko, tettō, and shime-daiko. It stands apart from the patterns created by Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko through a greater emphasis on off-beat rhythmic patterns; while there were off-beat rhythms in Sukeroku Taiko and Osuwa Daiko pieces, the frequency of such rhythms in “Sokobayashi” – along with regular movement between the rim and drumhead – causes the piece to stand out from its predecessors. At the same time, there is a great deal of choreography in a performance of the melody; much like in many Osuwa Daiko pieces (such as “Suwa Ikazuchi” and “Hiryū San-dan Gaeshi”), spaces in the rhythm are filled with various movements – most prominently, diagonal points and circular movements with the hands and arms. The movements, meanwhile, hearken back to the choreography of “Shiraume Daiko.”

After a second repeat of the melody, there is another pause, before the tettō reenters at a faster tempo. This begins a series of interplay between the tettō and nagadō-daiko, in a fashion similar to the nagadō-daiko/shime-daiko interplay of Sukeroku Taiko’s “Matsuri Daiko.” The nagadō-daiko plays a fast, quiet ostinato, adding accented rhythms that interchange with the tettō rhythm.[8]

This then leads into a series of improvisations by each player as the rest of the ensemble provides the ostinato. Tanaka is typically the last player to improvise, with the solos starting fast and loud and gradually getting softer and sparser. Eventually, he ends his improvisation, pausing momentarily before reentering once again with the fast ostinato from the beginning of the section. “Sokobayashi” then concludes with a restatement of the melody (accompanied by the fue, who is generally silent during the drum solos), performed at the same tempo as the solos. The increased speed gives this melody a greater degree of intensity, echoed in the ō-daiko ostinato played at this new tempo. After the final note, all players move back into a pose position combining both Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko styles – the tettō and shime-daiko players point their arms in the air, much as Oguchi Daihachi does in many Osuwa Daiko pieces, while the nagadō-daiko players bring their arms back into a pose used often by Sukeroku Taiko.

The final pose of “Sokobayashi.” Screenshot from a 2008 DVD (San Francisco Taiko Dojo 2008)

From Osuwa & Sukeroku to the Tanaka Style

While “Sokobayashi” draws heavily from the performance styles learned by Tanaka in the late 1960s in terms of orchestration, instrumentation, and choreography, there is also a degree of intensity in a performance of the piece that cannot be found in Osuwa Daiko or Sukeroku Taiko repertoire. This can partially be attributed to the number of drummers featured in performances, as Tanaka fully adopted Oguchi Daihachi’s approach of having many drummers playing at the same time, but it is also due to a more forceful and physical performance style developed by Tanaka as he added in elements from his martial arts background. Players yell loudly and often in support of those that are improvising, a far cry from the spare, rhythmic vocalizations utilized by Sukeroku Taiko. Furthermore, players often jump and move around as they play, putting their entire bodies into hitting the drum. While Sukeroku Taiko and Osuwa Daiko both integrated movement into their performance style, this is something different, more an expression of emotion and the physicality of playing the drum than a preconceived choreographic action. This development of new performance practices would be continued by Tanaka throughout the 1970s.

As the San Francisco Taiko Doukoukai became more popular and attracted more members, they began to expand activities beyond San Francisco, performing at cultural festivals across California. In the late 1970s, Tanaka changed the group’s name to San Francisco Taiko Dojo (the name by which it is known today).[9] This change reflected both the changing nature of the group – it was less a group of young Japanese friends and more an environment in which members were taught the basics of the burgeoning musical genre of contemporary taiko performance – and Tanaka’s own approach to the art form. The term “dōjō” (道場) literally means “place of the way,” and is used in Japanese to refer to a physical training facility. Reflective of this approach, Tanaka began to require a more strict approach to practices, adopting a hierarchical relationship system commonly found in Japanese martial and performance arts. At the same time, even as the group membership expanded beyond the Japanese immigrants that made up the first generation of members, Tanaka continued to maintain a connection with Japan. As reported by Otsuka Chie, “students also learn several Japanese songs, Japanese writing, and Japanese terms along with learning songs and etiquette” (Otsuka 1997, 28). Students and group members are required to open and close each practice with aisatsu, formalized greetings and words of parting meant partially as terms of respect for the teacher and for your fellow students (commonly used in not only Japanese arts, but in many elements of Japanese society).

Meanwhile, practices grew more and more intense as Tanaka integrated his martial arts experiences into his taiko playing style. Many former members speak of being kicked or hit with a drumstick if they made a mistake, as well as describe long periods of running or playing rolls on the drum that were more tests of endurance rather than exercises meant to develop musical technique. It caused many to leave the group, but those that remained talk about the experience with a degree of pride, viewing it as a rite of passage of sorts.

Tanaka came to draw more and more from his martial arts background in the development of performance practices for his group, as he came to believe that playing the taiko “demands not only musical skill, but also the acquisition of respect, the training of one’s body, and the preparation of one’s mind,” a concept that echoes tenets found in many martial arts (Otsuka 1998, 47). In time, he would state that his performance style “is not only the skillful playing of percussion instruments, but also the discipline of mind and body in the spirit of complete respect and unity among the drummers,” the result of “rigorous mental, physical, and martial arts training.”[10] In the United States, this came to be known as the “Tanaka style” of taiko playing, a performance style distinct from those developed by Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko.

Works Cited 

2005. Big Drum: Taiko in the United States: Japanese American National Museum. DVD.

Aigner, Hal. 2002. “Full Circle: Seiichi Tanaka.” World Beat Report: Journeying through the World Community of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.

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

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.

Otsuka, Chie. 1997. “Learning Taiko in America.”Master’s Thesis, Master’s Program in Area Studies, University of Tsukuba.

Otsuka, Chie. 1998. “Beikoku ni Okeru Wadaiko no Hatten 米国における和太鼓の発展.”  Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 16:45-52.

San Francisco Taiko Dojo. 2008. Seiichi Tanaka & San Francisco Taiko Dojo: Highlights: San Francisco Taiko Dojo. DVD.

Yoon, Paul J. 2007. Development and Support of Taiko in the United States. New York: Asia Society.


[1] (Accessed October 1, 2017)

[2] The term chū-daiko is one that is occasionally used to refer to nagadō-daiko, owing to the typical size of this type of drum: “chū” means middle, placing it in relation to the ō-daiko (“ō” meaning “large”) and the small shime-daiko.

[3] (Accessed October 1, 2017)

[4] (Accessed October 1, 2017)

[5] (Accessed October 1, 2017)

[6] While some performances of this piece feature a larger ensemble, both with more nagadō-daiko or other drums and percussion instruments, this instrumentation is at the core of the performance and serves as the common link for all variations.

[7] The fue part uses a quasi-pentatonic scale using the notes D, E, G, A, and B flat. I call it semi-improvised due to the fact that in performance, certain intervals are accentuated over others, such as a descent from D to B flat and from G to B.

Owing both to the semi-improvised nature of the fue part and its secondary position in relation to the drums (which are the focus of this piece), I will not be including a transcription.

[8] When playing this part, Tanaka typically uses the various parts of the tettō to create different-pitched sounds – high, medium, and low. However, the choice of pitch appears to be improvised; thus, the transcription features only one pitch.

[9] It is unclear when exactly the name change occurred. Otsuka Chie cites a date of 1980 in her history of the group. (Otsuka 1997, 26)

However, the name “San Francisco Taiko Dojo” is used in a 1977 documentary about the group by David Kimura, included in a 2005 DVD published by the Japanese-American National Museum in connection with its “Big Drum: Taiko in the United States” exhibition. (2005)

Given that Otsuka reports that the group was called the San Francisco Taiko Doukoukai at the beginning of its activities, it can be assumed that the change happened sometime in the mid- or late-1970s.

[10] (Accessed October 1, 2017)

New Taiko Music History Article: Nidan Uchi/Yodan Uchi

We’re pleased to announce the next article in the TaikoSource Music History series, covering one of the most popular pieces in contemporary taiko repertoire: Nidan Uchi, and – of course – its variant Yodan Uchi.

In this article, we explore the history of the piece and shed light on the compositional elements within it. Plus, we highlight some variations that have been developed as the piece has made its way around the world.

Nidan Uchi/Yodan Uchi

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).[1] “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).[2]

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.[3]

Members of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko playing "Nidan Uchi" at the 1985 Tsukuba World Expo. Screenshot from a video from a private collection.

Members of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko playing “Nidan Uchi” at the 1985 Tsukuba World Expo. Screenshot from a video from a private collection.

“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).

Members of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko playing "Yodan Uchi." Screenshot from the 2004 DVD 'Les Tambours de Tokyo LIVE,' published by Sunset France.

Members of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko playing “Yodan Uchi.” Screenshot from the 2004 DVD Les Tambours de Tokyo LIVE, published by Sunset France.

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.

The ji used in "Nidan Uchi"

The ji used in “Nidan Uchi”

Once the soloist reaches their final pose, they play a quick rhythmic pattern to signal the beginning of the main section of the piece:

Yodan opening

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:

Yodan opening w drums

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:

Yodan rhythm 1

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:

Yodan rhythm 1 w drum names

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):

Yodan 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):

transition rhythm

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)[4]

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.

“Yodan Uchi”

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.

NATC 2015 playing "Yodan Uchi" at the post-Taiko Jam reception

NATC 2015 participants playing “Yodan Uchi” at the post-Taiko Jam reception

And yet, the actual performance of “Nidan Uchi”/”Yodan Uchi” is limited by the permissions system in place for Sukeroku Taiko pieces.[5] 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.

Works Cited

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.


[1] “Oiuchi” is a military term meaning to strike a final blow, or to attack a routed enemy or an enemy that is in retreat.

[2] 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.

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”).

[3] A nagadō-daiko with a rawhide patch would itself become another signature visual of Sukeroku-influenced groups

[4]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.”

[5] 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)

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.

Midare Uchi

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

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, with a drummer on a yagura in the background. Tsukiji Hongan-ji Bon Odori, Tsukiji, Tokyo. August 7, 2008. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

Bon odori, with a drummer on a yagura in the background. Tsukiji Hongan-ji Bon Odori, Tsukiji, Tokyo. August 7, 2008. Photo by Benjamin Pachter.

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.[1] 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

the “bon daiko rhythm”

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.[2]

“Midare Uchi”

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”). [3]

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.[4] 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).

One version of "Matsuri"

One version of “Matsuri”

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.

Works Cited

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.


[1] Bender mentions speculation by some that this was because the singing and playing could no longer be done proficiently (Bender 2012, 53).

[2] Perhaps not coincidentally, the name of the Kobayashi family noodle-making business was Sukeroku Noodles (Mogi 2010, 34).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.