The fat or round Japanese drum, known as taiko, has become synonymous with a rhythmic and thunderous beat. Though they are still common in the shrines of Japan, their growing, international popularity means that these ancient drums are just as likely to be seen today in choreographed, stage performances around the world.
Ancient History of Taiko
A clay, drum-playing figure from about the sixth or seventh century is the oldest evidence of drum playing in Japan. The earliest written record of drumming in Japan comes from the Nara period (712 AD) and tells the story of the goddess, Uzume, who lures the Sun goddess from her hiding place by dancing and using her feet to stomp out a beat on a sounding board. It’s likely that the first large, booming, taiko drums came from mainland Asia and played a part in court music, but they eventually made their way into the chants of the Shinto and Buddhist shrines. The taiko also became a drum of war. In addition to being used for communications on the battlefield, the great Samurai Shingen Takeda ordered a taiko band of 21 musicians to play during battle to raise his troops’ morale.
The modern revival and appearance of taiko is due to the work of the jazz drummer, Daihachi Oguchi. In 1951, Daihachi Oguchi created the modern taiko performance ensemble known as kumi-daiko. He arranged a collection of different sized drums and had drummers play together with a constant back beat and complex rhythms. Western musical notation is also used in kumi-daiko pieces. The trend took off and the popularity of kumi-daiko began to soar. Another group that made a lasting contribution to how we see kumi-daiko today was Sukeroku Daiko. They invented slant stands, which allowed drummers to move around single drums. Their choreographed and flamboyant performances had a lasting influence on performances today. Modern taiko groups can be found all over in the world with home bases in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Taiko in North America
With over 500 taiko groups meeting and performing today, no other country –outside Japan - can boast as many taiko groups as North America. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants brought the first taiko to the United States. The person who truly encouraged the establishment of modern taiko in the US was Seiichi Tanaka. Upon noticing the absence of taiko drums at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, Seiichi Tanaka borrowed some taiko from a local temple and gathered friends to play. He returned to Japan many times to further study the art of taiko, so he could teach it to others. In 1968, he founded the San Francisco Taiko Dojo (school) - the first taiko dojo in North America. The dojo has trained thousands of students, spawned many other dojos, and continues to keep taiko alive.
Jazzy, excited, crowd-pleasing performances may seem a long way from its roots in the shrines and battlefields of ancient Japan, but the sounds of this traditional instrument continue to merge with modern rhythms and choreography. As its popularity spreads to other countries and cultures, innovative styles of taiko continue to evolve in the 21st century.