Hot rock for Genghis Khan

Yamato drummers take wadaiko in new directions

by Nobuko Tanaka

“I want to create a wadaiko dance collaboration with Michael Jackson.”

This, coming from the founder and artistic director of one of Japan’s most successful wadaiko (Japanese drumming) groups, may seem strange — and whether the icon of cosmetic surgery could rise to the occasion is another matter. But after experiencing a Yamato drummers’ show, you’re prepared to accept that this group could pull off even this fantastic possibility.

From the moment the spotlight falls on the first lone drummer, sheer excitement comes with every beat, every developing rhythm, every tableau the 11 drummers form and every “drum war” the members wage, trading rhythms aggressively between each other in a call-and-response style.

Whereas other leading drum ensembles, Kodo from Niigata Prefecture’s Sado Island being the prime example, bring to their performances a tangible baggage of tradition, Yamato feels of the present; the drummers are visceral, their bodies writhing and leaping along with their music.

But Yamato’s energy connects, too, with the urgent physicality of earlier times. On occasion, their rhythms seem to carry echoes from the Mongolian steppes, when the Golden Horde swept all before them some 800 years ago. Yamato’s wadaiko is surely the kind of rock music Genghis Khan would have loved.

In Japan, wadaiko drums are used to enchant many public occasions, and many Japanese are tempted to a summer festival by their lively rhythms.

However, Yamato’s mission — in the vision of Ogawa, who founded the group in 1993 — is not to preserve, museumlike, some great Yamato damashii (Japanese spirit). Though most of the members come from Nara Prefecture, home of Japan’s ancient capital, from the beginning Yamato has sought to take wadaiko performance into another dimension.

One way they do this is by touring overseas, and this year alone they’ve staged 150 concerts in 10 countries on four continents. To date, more than 1 million people have paid to see Yamato, including those who made their 23-day stint at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival a total sellout.

But from Shanghai to Sao Paulo, audiences expecting to see purveyors of some age-old musical craft must have reeled before these virile young men and women, with muscular bodies disciplined by awesome mental control, many with punk hair and looking as much like models as musicians.

It comes as a surprise to learn that most of Yamato’s members have never received formal education in music. Mostly, they saw taiko performances when they were teenagers and were inspired to commit their lives 100 percent to Yamato. As a result, they’re brimming over with contemporary vitality whether beating 170-cm-diameter o-daiko (gigantic taiko) made from 400-year-old trees, spinning and dancing with their drums or beating them for all they’re worth in stupendous rolls — dancing all the while like Dervishes possessed.

Sometimes comically and sometimes aggressively, they express themselves by using different kinds of drums and other Japanese traditional instruments, such as shamisen, small bronze cymbals and fue (flute).

Though beating a drum is a quite simple operation, once Yamato swing up their sticks and launch into their athletic movements, they seem to possess their instruments and be possessed by them as they deliver what Ogawa terms, “the beat of the soul.”

Despite all this, though, Ogawa and the other members believe that if they just keep rotating with the same show, there will be nothing to draw individuals back next time round. In other words, they fear becoming a tradition themselves. So, the group is constantly questing for new directions; to push the envelope of wadaiko ever further.

‘I would like to give audiences essences of all kinds of performing arts — dance, theater, music, opera and the Japanese traditional arts of noh or kabuki,” explained Ogawa, who is also the group’s composer. “I aim to fulfill a comprehensive stage, where the audience can enjoy the sound and beauty of the human body as well as the story line. I would be so happy if the audience could receive power from our stage and find their lives filled with energy.”

Pointing out that there are more than 10,000 taiko groups at all levels in Japan, Ogawa emphasized how Yamato’s members “continue to search for our own way to express something using taiko.

“Towards our 10th anniversary in 2003, next year I’d like to dare to make a completely new-style production. We have already collaborated with other genres, such as jazz, gamelan (Indonesian percussion music), rock and flamenco. But one of my current dreams is to create a wadaiko dance collaboration with Michael Jackson.”

If the American’s up to it, it sounds like a thriller.