Finding the Rhythm of Taiko
For those who have lived in Japan, the beating of the taiko drum has a special place in their hearts. For me it brings back memories of yukata-clad summer festivals and taiko performances I enjoyed in various prefectures during my travels throughout the country. Therefore I was excited to have the opportunity to visit the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center in Brooklyn to try my hand at this Japanese music.
Owner and instructor Watanabe is a professional flute and taiko player. He directed and performed with the renowned taiko group Kodo for 10 years in Japan. He began by giving me some background on taiko and its role in Japanese culture for over 1000 years. Although we now think of taiko as being performed in groups, this idea didn’t emerge until post-war. Traditionally it was an accompaniment to forms of Japanese theater such as Noh, Kabuki and Kagura, as well as at festivals. Each prefecture and town would have its own taiko style, dependent on aspects like local folk art and other regional customs.
According to Watanabe taiko goes way beyond just using your arms, comparing it to the idea of playing soccer and violin at the same time. Using your whole body is important to generate the power necessary to produce a sound that is loud and sustainable, as it was in the past when taiko accompanied dancing and parades. This former role is comparable to that of the modern DJ, and for this purpose taiko requires strength and stamina in addition to rhythm.
After such a comprehensive overview, I felt well prepared for my first taiko lesson. I stood behind the taiko, squatting with my feet on either side of the drum. The drumsticks are held about an inch from the bottom, and prior positioning of your arms is necessary to strike properly. They should be raised up straight, and then brought down in the same way so you finish as you started. Although this sounds like a fairly basic motion, it was harder than I thought to produce the deep reverberations taiko is known for, perhaps because I was conscious of my positioning. However after a while I was able to get into a groove, and I was joined by Watanabe for a bit of jamming at the end of our session. My brief taiko experience was an amazing workout for my arms and legs, as well as a fun taste of what it’s like to create such inspiring sounds.
—– Reported by Stacy Smith
Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center
Taiko begins with something as fundamental as how you hold the sticks. Your pinkies should be the fulcrum and your palms should be facing inward.
Your arm positioning is important. No bent elbows and arms straight up so that when you receive your cue, they are ready to come down.
I was eventually able to get into the taiko rhythm and even jam with Watanabe for a little bit!
Japanese has a really rich drum culture. (Clockwise from upper left) uchiwa daiko, miya daiko, shime daiko and okedo daiko.