Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ringo or Taiko?

(This is Philippe's take on taiko. Thank you Philippe!)

I must start this post with a confession. After reading the article concerning the practice of okoshi daiko, I thought: “So what!? They’re playing ONE drum! I can play FOUR or FIVE at the same time!!!” What is so special about this particular drum that makes it able to single handedly satisfy one’s appetite for rhythm?

The Japanese word taiko translates to ‘big drum’. Its presence can be traced back all the way back to the Kojiki: “Amë‐nö‐ uzume‐nö‐mikötö bound up her sleeves… …and overturning a bucket before the heavenly rock‐cave door, stamped resoundingly upon it” (Kojiki I xvii) Historically though, it is unclear whether the drum’s origins stem from Japan or from the influence of neighboring cultures. “
Taiko can be found in archaeological sites from as early as the Joumon Period (10,000 B.C.E. – 300 B.C.E). Excavated earthenware drums and clay figures that depict drummers suggest that drums were used on ceremonial and religious occasions in ancient Japan” (Izumi). In fact, the most ancient representation of taiko, a clay statue of a person with drum hung from his shoulder, was found in Gunma Prefecture. And, there are those who claim that the drum came from India via China and Korea along with the influence of Buddhism. Indeed, some Buddhist sutras and murals feature depictions of instruments resembling taiko. What is known is that there are many reasons the taiko was played throughout Japan’s history. We have seen how it was used as a means of protest through the practice of okoshi daiko, but it has also featured in ceremonies like the Buddhist summer festival Obon where “people danced, circling around a yagura (wooden platform) where a singer, a drummer, and a fue (bamboo flute) player provided background music for dancers” (Izumi). The drum was also used in warfare to intimidate enemies and rally soldiers and, in other instances, to delineate villages whose borders were established by the audability of the sound produced by the taiko. “In some Buddhist traditions, its rumbling sound represented the voice of Buddha and in Shinto shrines it accompanied prayers to heaven” (www.shumeitaiko.org/history). During the ceremony of Mikotonori, for example, “the sound of drumming bridges the divide between the human and the divine” (www.shumeitaiko.org/shumei-taiko).

There are two principal categories of taiko based on their construction method: (please note that daiko is the suffix form of taiko) The byou-uchi daiko or, simply, byou-daiko is built by attaching the drumhead along the edge of the drum shell with nails while the tsukushime daiko or shime-daiko features heads that are stretched over metal hoops which are then tensioned with the help of rope. The taiko also come in various shapes and sizes. The most common byou-daiko is the nagado-daiko (long-bodied daiko). It is long and wine-barrel shaped and produces a very deep sound. Odaiko or ‘big fat drum’ refers to larger drums that are typically played by two drummers on either sides of it. Furi tsuzumi, is a type of very small taiko which some of you may recognize. It is attached to a stick, which is rolled between your hands to make two beads, attached by strings to the drum’s sides, strike the heads and produce the sound.

The idea of taiko ensembles is relatively modern. The first kumi-daiko, as they are called, was formed shortly after WWII by (yes!!!) a Japanese jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi. Since then, the trend has grown significantly to international appeal with groups having sprouted in Europe and North America and professional troupes like Kodo enjoying a busy touring schedule around the world.

It is interesting to note that the symbol tomoe is commonly depicted on taiko. This symbol signifies the meeting of heaven and earth. The shapes resembling commas or magatama beads are understood to be the same as the shape of the soul and, within the tomoe design, designate heaven, earth and humanity. I end with a quote from the group Shumei Taiko’s website “the Shumei Taiko Ensemble continues to unite people of all beliefs, nations, and languages in a grand vision of love and harmony. The Ensemble began in a moment of kanno doko, in which the sound of drums accompanied prayers to heaven. Its music can be understood as a form of prayer, a prayer for world peace and friendship among all people of the earth.” (www.shumeitaiko.org/shumei-taiko)

~guest blogger, Philippe Melanson