Tools of the trade
Taiko (太鼓) means ‘big drum’ in Japanese. The drums come in a variety of forms, ranging from small, tuneable shime-daiko to the giant o-daiko, which can be as large as six feet in diameter. Taiko drumming has its origins in shrine ritual and ceremonies connected with the natural world, but has developed over the latter half of the twentieth century into a powerful performance art. Perhaps the best-known Taiko drumming ensemble in the West is Kodo.
I played taiko for two years when I lived in rural Japan, joining a local (but quite accomplished) group called Netaro Daiko. Although I didn’t have any background in percussion, I was fascinated by the thunderous, primal sound of the drums, and by the intensity created by the tempering of fierce aggression with serene, assured control. I begged them in my halting Japanese to let me join, and they kindly accepted.
Over the next two years I trained with the group every Wednesday evening, thwacked the hell out of my sofa at home, and performed at numerous local festivals. I wouldn’t say I was very good, but I did master the ancient Japanese art of ‘poker face’ – mistake, what mistake?
My passion for taiko drumming remains undimmed, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it performed live. Last Saturday (July 22nd) the Rhythmsticks Festival turned its attention to Japan, with the Taiko Master Series. This series features three leading lights in Japanese music: Japanese taiko percussionist Joji Hirota, US taiko master Kenny Endo, and US shakuhachi virtuoso John “Kaizan” Neptune.
Having spent several fruitless weeks trying to get even a sound out of a shakuhachi, I can’t help but marvel at John Neptune’s mastery of, and ease with, the instrument. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, with a sharp notch cut into the top producing the sound when blown over in a certain way – a certain very particular way. It’s not an instrument for playing tunes, but has a remarkable range of pitch, tone colour and dynamics, which makes it extremely expressive. To me it seems a very human instrument; the sound is liable to escape in unpredictable directions, to falter and to gather strength again. In the hands of a player as skillful as Neptune, these qualities can be harnessed to create a very moving and thought-provoking sound.The taiko drum is similarly raw and natural-sounding, and the larger the drum skin the more open it is to manipulation.
Kenny Endo makes full use of this, playing with the drum’s voice by varying the angle and strength of his strikes, controlling the pitch by placing pressure on the skin, utilising every surface, calmly controlling the sound until it’s time to let it thunder out unchecked. Joji Hirota takes a quieter approach in his solo, creating a beautiful and enveloping atmosphere which subtly tugs at the heart-strings.All three are keen explorers of the full spectrum of musical possibilities, fusing thorough mastery of traditional forms to non-traditional influences – “Tradition as a Basis for Innovation”, as Kenny Endo puts it. At no time is this clearer than the trio’s cheeky nod to Dave Brubeck, a jazzy drum groove overlaid with snatches of the famous “Take Five” melody, played by John Neptune on an Indian Jew’s Harp. With some snatches of South Indian singing thrown in for good measure. It shouldn’t work at all, but in these hands it’s clever and undeniably compelling.
This piece in particular has me grinning from ear to ear, but it’s only the highlight of a performance which is both inspired and inspiring from start to finish. Thoroughly recommended for anyone with an interest in Japan, percussion, jazz, fusion, performance art, or just a plain old love of damn good music.
on July 30th 2006.