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Live Review - Taiko Drumming at Rhythmsticks - Scarlet Letters

Jul. 30th, 2006 07:34 pm Live Review - Taiko Drumming at Rhythmsticks

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.

Current Mood: taiko!

10 comments - Leave a commentPrevious Entry Share Next Entry

Comments:

From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 1st, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC)

tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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dear miss scarlet,

i sometimes think i should have taken up percussing myself instead of twanging stringed things. i have noticed that my fingers have an autonomous tendency to try out the resonant qualities of nearby surfaces while i am supposed to be doing something else.

as for the shakuhachi, perhaps your mistake was not wearing a basket on your head while playing. i have seen photos of it done this way, but as there may be readers (or indeed writers) of this blog who know their shaku from their hachi better than me i had better avoid that particular stream of consciousness.

instead of that, i am reminded of a story about the master of the iranian classical flute Ostad Kasa'i, who, on hearing someone assert that the secret to the sound of the flute was in the wood, promptly rolled up a sheet of newspaper, burnt a row of holes in it with the end of a cigarette and played beautifully.

i was actually introduced to him once, amid a gathering of aged iranian intellectuals which i attended for an utterly intimidating few moments. i sat awestruck and petrified as they sipped tea and exchanged learned remarks about verses of medieval poetry or remiscences of other extremely learned and venerable professors who had passed away.

i hope that i have not overstepped the norms of blog etiquette by digressing excessively in my comments, when such rubbish should probably kept for one's own blogue pages.

most apologetically,

your correspondent in the Hashemite Kingdom.
From:miss_scarlet007
Date:August 1st, 2006 09:10 pm (UTC)

Re: tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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Until you have your own blog, which I would read avidly dear boy, I welcome your digressions.

Your advice on correct positioning of the shakuhachi reminds me of a curious acquaintance of mine, who was rumoured to enjoy placing a box on his head and dancing around the room drumming on it. You wouldn't happen to still be in touch with him, would you?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 4th, 2006 12:13 pm (UTC)

Re: tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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hm. who is this fellow with the box on his head? i don't believe i know whom you are referring to. although i have tended to attract totally unjustified reputations for certain eccentric habits, despite having carried out the practice in question once at most. someone i know recently alleged that i am known by some for dancing on fridges. i am certain that i have never danced on a fridge. not even once...



From:miss_scarlet007
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)

Re: tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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The obvious conclusion is that you have a mysterious fridge-dancing, box-on-head-drumming doppelganger. I would suspect that this creature only appears at night, most likely in a theatrical puff of smoke.
From:ltdead
Date:August 2nd, 2006 12:52 pm (UTC)

Re: tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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*Knows her shaku from her hachi.* Which reminds me that I haven`t practiced since the 29th. Blarg. I`m a bad girl.

But I`m on vacation! I have an excuse!
From:miss_scarlet007
Date:August 2nd, 2006 05:42 pm (UTC)

Re: tootle tootle tap tappity thump!

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You play the shakuhachi?? Wow, otsukare-sama desu.

I took a quick look at your journal, and it looks like you'll be leaving JET soon. I wish you best of luck with the transition, it can be as weird/ interesting as starting the job. If not more!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 2nd, 2006 12:42 pm (UTC)

Taiko

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The poker face, is it an expression of intensity or to demonstrate mastery over the emotions? I wonder...
From:miss_scarlet007
Date:August 2nd, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Taiko

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Personally, I always thought the poker face was a way of not letting on that you'd just screwed up - with fifteen-odd drums in the group it was possible that people wouldn't notice. But fairly obvious if the tall white girl pulled a panicky face and started mouthing "sorry..."

But perhaps I'm failing to appreciate the subtleties here ;)
From:riven_nz
Date:August 4th, 2006 03:34 pm (UTC)
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arg how on earth did you hear about it?? I’m in London and would love go next time there is more on.
From:miss_scarlet007
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Hi there, I heard about this via http://www.taikomeantime.com/. There's a box at the top where you can add your email address to the mailing list.

Taiko Meantime is London's largest taiko drumming group, and well worth seeing! They were the support act on the evening.