Essential Summer Sounds: Taiko Drums

“There is a God inside,” says Hiro Kurashima, as he gestures towards one of the sizeable Japanese drums – taiko – in his studio in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For 15 years, Master Kurashima has been showcasing the divine resonance of taiko drumming to the public, and is a fixture at annual Japanese events like cherry blossom festivals and this month’s natsu matsuri at Mitsuwa Marketplace. His troupe – Taiko Masala – is your best chance to experience taiko’s thunderous rhythms, as they hit your ears and reverberate through your body.

According to Master Kurashima, the origin of natsu matsuri goes back centuries, and that matsuri (festival) comes from the word “matsuru” (to enshrine). While every town in Japan followed its own unique traditions (Kurashima practices Suwa-style taiko drumming, for example), often natsu matsuri celebrated and thanked the gods for a successful harvest. Taiko are perhaps the most essential part of almost all festivals, as they not only accompany music, dancing, singing, and omikoshi (shrine) processions, but also are featured on their own. When played as an ensemble, the fusion of multiple taiko beats is nothing short of extraordinary.

The basic construction of the taiko is almost always the same. A central barrel / chamber is constructed with wood; animal hide (typically cowhide) is stretched across the circular openings on both sides, and then secured with nails, rope, or wrought metal. Most commonly, you’ll see several sizes, including the handheld ko-daiko (small taiko), the keg-sized chu-daiko (medium taiko), and giant o-daiko (big taiko), each producing a distinct pitch. To provide a rich variety of sound, at least three taiko are used during performances.

As I approached the taiko at Kurashima’s studio, I unexpectedly felt intimidated – as though I was facing a sparring opponent in the ring. And as I eked out a shamefully diminutive beat, despite putting all my might into it, I realized that playing the taiko is not as intuitive as one might expect. The Master immediately corrected my posture – your legs need to be shoulder length apart, knees loose, back straight, and core activated. When striking taiko, just trying to muscle it does not create the deep, booming sound you are looking for. The actual strike comes through the forearm, wrist and hand – a well-timed snap, like in Karate. And once I hit it correctly, it was immediately obvious in the air. The sound is rich, booming, and electric. And the feeling of connecting to the taiko feels meaningful, almost unearthly.

— Reported by Nobi Nakanishi

The moment you hold the taiko sticks in your hands, you start feeling the responsibility of speaking with gods.
This grown man’s natural swing is childlike. And the resulting sound is embarrassingly weak.
The Master shows the proper stance. Start with the arms raised high above the head, and activate your core.
Concentrate all your energy into the last moment, much like a karate punch. You’ll hear – and feel – it.
For those who are interested in Taiko Masala performances, or for classes and workshops, make sure to look at the Taiko Masala website:
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