Monday, March 30, 2009

The Heartbeat of Japan

(Sunpreet gives us this cool post on taiko. Thanks Sunpreet!)

Pulsating through the villages of Japan, this thunderous beat resonates a sound so deep that it renders a spiritual experience to all those who listen. You may be reading this and thinking, okay, so the heartbeat of Japan is a drum? What’s special about that? Let me tell you, this drum is no ordinary musical instrument. It’s the instrument of life.

More formally known as the taiko, this Japanese drum is played during religious ceremonies and festivals. Traditionally, these drums were used to drive away evil spirits and awaken the vigor of warriors during war. In modern times, the taiko is not only used as a musical instrument; but also as means of physical activity. The rhythmic beat of this drum has inspired people to connect as a ‘global community’.

Taiko literally translates into “fat drum”. The taiko is a percussion instrument and is usually played with a drumstick called a bachi. The drum itself varies in different shapes and sizes. The largest drum is called the adaiko which is made from a single piece of wood. Other types of taiko drums include the o-daiko (big drum), uchiwa-daiko (fan drum) and the hira-daiko (flat drum). The trees that are used to make the taiko drums are over a hundred years old. Each drum is designed and tailored around a particular festival or purpose. For example, during a religious Shinto rite, the dou-daiko is usually played. The dou-daiko is known for being used during religious ceremonies since its large exterior was central in displaying its importance during the ceremony. It is also important to note that only priests were allowed to play the drum for the duration of the ceremony. It was thought that they were the ones able to channel the energies associated with the taiko and the gods.

The importance of the taiko drum can be revealed through Japanese History. Although the exact time of when it was introduced is not clear, it’s influences seem to stem from China and Korea. It is thought that this instrument was introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794). In religion, the taiko found a place within both Shinto and Buddhism. It was believed that these drums were inhabited by a god and that it would bring prosperity to the villages. This central idea led to the framework of Japanese religions to be built around the drums. Hence, special ceremonies in both Shinto and Buddhism were celebrated with the beat of the taiko. In Buddhism, the taiko influenced “Bon dancing”; where the drum was its feature performance. Shinto was also heavily influenced by the ways of the taiko since shrines were accustomed to play the drum while praying to deities. Even chanting was rhythmically adapted to flow with the beat of the drum to enhance its strength. In terms of village festivals, the taiko drum was used as a tool to rouse the villagers and get them to participate in the festivities. The taiko was able to stimulate the crowd through its vibrating sound. Since these festivals were based on seasonal changes, the drum was designed to either play a sound to ensure a bountiful crop or to thank the deities of a good harvest.

The influence of the taiko in terms of the 21st century is reflective of the Japanese community. In terms of participating in a festival, the community helps to make it a success. These festivals are supposed to bring people together and provide a form of escapism from the daily routines of ordinary life. The taiko drum is an essential component in bringing the community together. A new concept of taiko drumming, called the “Taiko Ensemble” allowed for large numbers of people to participate. This new concept is flourishing in modern times since it creates a synergistic energy amongst the participants. Ensemble drumming was originated by Daihachi Oguchi, who formed the first taiko ensemble. This was introduced in Japan in 1951. Several other ensemble groups have emerged since then and have influenced the world of music. Since the ensemble recreates the sound of the drum through different motions and by interacting with one another; it is also a form of great physical endurance. The power necessary in order to play the drum while still producing an invigorating sound requires stamina. Thus, the physical activity involved in playing the drum has made it become not only a form of relaxation but also a type of recreation activity as well.

The sound of the taiko drum will always be penetrating through the hearts of the Japanese people. More importantly, however, is that its sound has the power to enrapture all of our souls since it’s the basis for human rhythm.

A short video showing the magnificence of a taiko drumming performance:

~guest blogger, Sunpreet Dhaliwal