The Uniquely Japanese Sound of Taiko
Words by Spike Acosta
Upon hearing the word TAIKO (太鼓) the first thing that comes to mind is a giant upright drum with the tomoe symbol painted on the drumhead. Standing in front of it is a chisel-bodied drummer ready to strike its surface to create music. Even the thought of that in itself gets the heart pumping with anticipation and excitement.
Literally meaning “drum,” taiko has now come to refer to the Japanese art of drumming. Getting to see a taiko performance is one of the most enjoyable musical experiences one can have. As part of the Japan Foundation, Manila’s Nihongo Fiesta Online 2022, the YAMATO drummers of Japan, one of Japan’s most celebrated taiko groups, made a special recorded performance for their Filipino fans that is available to watch on JFM’s official Youtube channel.
“Taiko is a musical instrument deeply familiar to every Japanese,” says Masa Ogawa, artistic director of YAMATO. “Since the dawn of history, Taiko’s rich reverberations have filled people with inspiration and encouragement in a wide range of settings. Its unmistakable sound is still heard throughout Japan today.”
Ogawa san was right in saying that the sound of taiko is “unmistakable” and I would go further and say that it is unmistakably Japanese. What, then, makes taiko, and particularly, what makes YAMATO’s brand of taiko uniquely Japanese? Here are 3 things that I took away from YAMATO’s Nihongo Fiesta 2022 performance that I believe makes it so.
Japan is known for its car making industry, consistently producing quality automobiles in plants around the world. The success of these Japanese manufacturers can mainly be attributed to the systematized synergy developed between all the hands that contribute to the final product. Teamwork is an essential component not just in Japanese industry, but in society as well. One can also see this in taiko performances. Every member should be in sync with one another, following the rhythm of the whole; each individual beat in harmony, coalescing into one powerful sound. It is through this Japanese brand of teamwork that taiko drumming gets its synchronistic energy from. As the old adage goes, “teamwork makes the dream work,” and this applies to taiko as well.
Simplicity and Mastery
Drumming is arguably one of the most intuitive forms of music. Beating a surface with an object could be the simplest way of creating sound apart from one’s voice. But with everything that is simple, there is an underlying complexity that belies its elementary exterior. This is another trait that makes taiko uniquely Japanese: the complete mastery of the complexity of simple things. This quiet mastery can also be seen in other art forms. A famous example is Jiro Ono and his life commitment to mastering sushi. Sushi, similar to drumming, is also uncomplicated on the surface, but a master sees its weaves, folds, and intricacies. Mastering these underpinning complexities is what elevates something very simple to becoming a masterpiece. As seen in Jiro san’s documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and in many other examples of craft, the Japanese have a way of perfecting the unostentatious and making it an art form. Taiko is no different, YAMATO makes the straightforward act of drumming more than music, but a beautiful spectacle of grand proportions.
An important aspect of taiko drumming is the use of the musician’s entire body to strike their instrument. As one watches YAMATO perform, one can see the rippling muscles and flying sweat with every swing of the arm and bracing of their core. The drummers express their power using the entirety of their bodies, and this is similar to another Japanese art, this time the martial art of karate. Karate is, of course, a martial art known throughout the world that requires power, balance, endurance, and timing. Instead of using fists and kicks though, taiko drummers express these qualities in the indefatigable beating of their drums. Even the powerful shouts heard from both arts sound similar, and probably done for the same reason which is to elicit energy for the mind and body.
I know that it was mentioned earlier that there are 3 things that make taiko drumming distinctly Japanese, but this last entry is not what makes taiko Japanese, rather this trait is what makes YAMATO’s brand of drumming unmistakably YAMATO. From all the taiko performances that I have seen, YAMATO is the one that I find the most fun to watch. Besides the fantastic heart-pumping music that they create, the way they move on stage and their expressions while performing is enthralling. Their costumes are great too, complimenting the visuals and their gestures on stage. What I find the most enjoyable, though, is how they interact with the audience. Even if it’s virtual, their light-hearted humor and heart-felt messages to their fans elevate the experience. Even though this particular experience is virtual, the YAMATO members made sure that their audience had as much fun as possible.
“We haven’t been able to go on world tours for more than two years due to COVID-19,” says Naoki Ekihiro, one of YAMATO’s members as the performance wraps up. “But once it is under control, we are going to do our best to travel around the world. We are looking forward to the day when we can meet our fans in the Philippines in person and we will keep performing until then!”