Taiko, which means “fat drum” in Japanese, has a long-standing tradition in Japanese history. While percussion instruments and music existed in many cultures across the world, from the very beginning, we can trace the taiko drumming style to around 6th century CE. Its influences are said to have come from ancient China and Korea during the great cultural exchange in the middle of the first millennia. The playstyle of the drums is vibrant and lively, and it creates a connection between the soul and the instrument. Through the iemoto system, performance groups have specific styles which are passed down to them (this is no ordinary method of drumming). The traditional teaching of Japanese art can only be obtained through devoted disciple and compassion for the art itself.
Uses of Taiko
Initially, the main use of the big drums was for military purposes during the (Sengoku Jidai) warring states period. Different combinations of rhythms signalled different war signs – there would be a different combination of beats for “retreat”, “advance”, “reinforcements”, etc. Nonetheless, progressively taiko music has effortlessly blended itself into the celebratory Japanese culture. Edo period Japan also emphasized the use of taiko in dramatic performance shows such as Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku. The drumming would intensify the scenery, amplify emotions and accompany dancers, all of these things added a sprinkle of uniqueness to the Japanese theatre.
Religion has also included the use of Taiko drums, mainly Buddhism and Shintoism in mainland Japan. Even today one can routinely see taiko drums used in Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and the majority of cultural festivals.
Although Taiko literally means “fat drum”, they do in fact come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Reason being, each size and variation of drum delivers a different impact and sound. There are four types of Taiko drums, each with their own perks, specialities and uses.
This would be the biggest of the four, and its meaning translates into “a big drum”. Its scale can go from anywhere between 35- 48 inches, however, due too ceremonial and ritual practices BIGGER Odaikos have been crafted. The sound that reverberates from the Odaiko is a loud, explosive beat packed with intensity.
The Hira Daiko is meant to be played similar to that of a gong. Its name translates into Gong taiko for a reason. Both sound, shape and the way it is to be played resembles a gong. It is, however, a much less used type of Taiko in the modern era of Japanese culture. Finding one can cost a pretty penny.
The shime daiko is the equivalent of a snare drum in the Kumidaiko Jazz ensemble. It is the timekeeper behind the entire ensemble, thus it is considered to be the most essential part of the entire “SHIBANG”. They are much smaller than their big brother Odaiko at a mere 13-15 inches with a height of 6-9.5 inches.
This is the lightest drum out of the entire ensemble due to the fact that it is constructed out of wood staves instead of the typical hollowed out trunk. This, in turn, creates a lighter that also gives off a lighter sound. It is extremely portable allowing for users to play it in several positions.
The drums are typically made out of the same wood as your everyday bonsai tree. (Keyaki Wood)
In Japanese mythology, Raijin, God of Lighting wields 4-8 taiko drums as weapons
The Modern Comeback of Taiko
The resurgence of this ancient music style is contributed to one man during the 1950’s. Daihachi Oguchi, the founder of Osuwa Daiko and creator the Kumi-Daiko style was actually a jazz drummer. The story goes, “One day, he was asked to interpret an old sheet of taiko music for the Osuwa Shrine. With a little bit of help, he performed the tune and got an idea of how to modernize the style.” He put several different taiko styles in one setting and created Kumi-Daiko, a group taiko ensemble that consists of various taikos.
With time, several important and famous groups emerged, whom would further develop the style and introduce it to the world. One such group, whose members emphasized rigorous physical training to develop their music, famously performed a piece of Kumi-Daiko after running the Boston marathon and left the audience breathless. The modern take on the style is famous for its very fast, rhythmical drumming and vibrant shows.
Please enjoy this rendition of Kodo, a famous Japanese taiko group playing on 3 O-Daiko!