TAIKO: SPIRIT AND THE DRUM

by Stan Shikuma

One day Ameterasu was so angered by the teasing of her brother that she locked herself in a cave, rolled a huge stone across the entrance and vowed never to come out again. The world lay in darkness as the other gods tried pleas, threats and even force to roll back the stone and open the cave, but to no avail. All knew that if the sun goddess kept her light hidden in the cave too long, the plants and animals of this world would surely die. At last Uzume, a wild and wily goddess, came along and announced that she could force Ameterasu from the cave. The others sneered, as the mightiest of the other gods had tried to move the stone and failed miserably. Uzume simply smiled as she opened a sake barrel, dispensed its contents and turned it upside down. Then she began the most boisterous and frenetic dancing upon the head that any there had ever seen or heard. All around her laughed and sang as she danced and pounded on the barrel. Ameterasu, hearing the commotion outside the cave, wondered as to what could so amuse the gods that they had forgotten the darkness. Curious, she rolled away the stone and emerged from the cave. And that is how sunlight returned to the world and how the first taiko was made.

- adapted from a traditional Japanese folk tale

Taiko is a synthesis of rhythm, movement and spirit whose origins lie deeply embedded in Japanese culture and history. Taiko appears in Japanese myths of origin involving the sun goddess Ameterasu. Paintings from medieval Japan depict taiko encircling the head of the god of thunder. In olden days, it is said that village boundaries were set by the distance you could hear the taiko from the village temple. Taiko were used in peasant festivals to mimic the sounds of animals, wind, ocean, thunder, or fire in attempts to please or appease the gods. In Kabuki and Noh theater, taiko play a central role in the orchestra to create soundscapes that place the actors in the mountains, at a seashore, in a lonely castle garden. Whether dancing at a festival, praying in a temple, watching a theater performance or fighting a battle, the sound of the taiko could be heard as part of everyday Japanese life for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

Taiko, like many traditional arts and customs, experienced a period of decline during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the drive to modernize, industrialize and westernize, many folk arts in particular suffered neglect. After World War II, a movement to return to traditional values and preserve national and regional identities arose, and interest in folk arts reawakened. This led to the birth of a modern taiko movement and development of taiko as a performing art in its own right.

Arising primarily from the peasant festival music played on the larger drums, taiko groups grew from small ensembles assembled only at matsuri time to larger groups performing year-round. New songs and styles of playing developed, generating enough interest that taiko moved from the streets to the performance stage. Established groups such as 400 year-old Osuwa Daiko, led by Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi, and new ones, like Sukeroku Taiko in Tokyo were some of the earliest to develop a "modern" taiko music and style.

Seiichi Tanaka, widely known as the "father of Taiko" in North America, has trained dozens of taiko players, many of whom have gone on to start their own groups. Tanaka started San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968, after attending festivals in San Francisco's Japan Town and feeling that the spirit of the festivities was somehow lacking because there was no taiko. The timing and the location were perfect for taiko to take off in the United States, as Tanaka Sensei started San Francisco Taiko Dojo during the late 1960's, when the movements for civil rights, black power, anti-Vietnam war and ethnic studies were sparking both a desire to explore Japanese cultural roots amongst young Sansei (third generation Japanese Americans) as well as an interest and openness to "World Music" among the general public. At about the same time, Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles was starting the first of the many Buddhist Church taiko groups. San Jose Taiko, one of the most accomplished and influential groups in the United States, started five years later in 1973, and Katari Taiko, the first Canadian taiko group, started in 1979. Both received early training from Tanaka Sensei.

Today, there are over 100 taiko groups performing in North America. Many remain community based arts groups, playing mostly at local festivals and community events. Others have taken taiko in new directions and helped establish it as a new performing art in the United States and Canada. Taiko groups today are collaborating with dancers, poets, actors and musicians to produce new types of works and playing in new settings. Taiko groups like KODO and ONDEKO-ZA have played in Carnegie Hall in New York City. San Jose Taiko performed onstage with the San Jose Rep in a production of Oedipus the King. Individuals like Kenny Endo and Eitetsu Hayashi have formed small jazz ensembles using taiko, koto, shamisen, flute, sax and bass, and have performed with jazz bands and symphony orchestras. Others are exploring use of taiko in theater and dance. Cirque du Soleil even uses taiko in their Las Vegas show. Taiko is something both ancient and modern; old and new at the same time. It is alive and evolving both in Japan and here in North America.

Taiko, like many traditional music traditions, uses an oral nomenclature to teach and preserve songs. Each hit has a particular sound (phonic or syllable) to represent it. Memorizing these sounds and learning to "sing" the song is the first step in learning to play the patterns. A favorite saying among taiko players states, "If you can say it, you can play it." Taiko also involves much movement, and we encourage the use of the whole body as an aid in learning new patterns. Much of the movement and form used in taiko is drawn from the martial arts, festival dances and movements of everyday life, such as planting rice, hauling fishing nets, pushing a cart, bowing in prayer.

Many taiko players, in common with traditional drummers around the world, believe that the spirits of all who contributed to the creation of the drum are embodied within it: the animal who gave the skin, the tree that gave the wood, the person who supplied the labor. When we strike the drum, we give voice to these spirits; we release them from silence, and in a sense, give them new life. It follows therefore, that we treat the drums with the greatest respect. Striking a drum becomes for some a form of worship or prayer, while for others it is more a responsibility not taken lightly. After all, you are not just engaging in self-expression, you are also giving voice to those who have gone before you, whether human, animal or plant. These echoes through time reverberate in your spirit, and it is this spirit that drives and directs your playing as much as your mind or body. When they all come together -- mind, body, spirit -- we say you are one with the drum. That is the epiphany towards which all taiko players strive -- to be one with the drum in time with the rhythm of the earth.