/

Playing to the beat of the gods

by Stephen Mansfield

TAIKO BOOM: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion, by Shawn Bender. University of California Press, 2012, 259?pp., $29.95 (paperback)

No one can fail to be impressed by a live performance of Japanese drumming, the primal elements of stretched animal skin and wood striking a chord of ancient recognition.

Shawn Bender firmly places the genesis of modern taiko drumming in an awareness of Japanese folkloric practices and the study of the musical genre in the category of native ethnology. One account set in the 1950s has Tagayasu Den, founder of the groundbreaking group Ondekoza, mesmerized while watching a man on the remote Okinawan island of Yonaguni, an old villager who had “brought a taiko drum to the beach in the evening and played it until the sun came up.”

The writer examines the role of percussion in traditional performing arts like kabuki, noh and gagaku, a form of imperial court music. Among the thousands of drum organizations in Japan, he pays special attention to the four dominant ensembles: Sukeroku Daiko, Ondekoza, Osuwa Daiko and Kodo.

Bender explains how not only the sound but also the positioning of drums has advanced to center stage in performances since the advent of the taiko boom. After hearing a live performance of taiko, orchestral drumming can seem flat compared to the former’s muscular engagement between player and instrument and the dynamically choreographed movements that have become integral to many performances. A visual as much as audio experience, groups have incorporated call-and-response vocalization, arm movements and arresting costumes for dramatic effects. The speed of delivery has increased and other instruments, not traditionally associated with taiko, have been introduced.

Such is the popularity of taiko that it has become an almost indispensable component of festivals across Japan and of Japanese cultural events globally. Because of the trans-cultural nature of the instrument, taiko has, arguably, been able to reach a far larger international audience than would be possible with, say, Tsugaru shamisen playing or the vocal wonders of shigin.

Bender practices the type of hands-on approach to research that invariably produces the most interesting results. The book reminded me in this respect of Christopher Nelson’s first-rate “Dancing With The Dead,” an examination of memory and performance in postwar Okinawa, a work that involved the author joining and undergoing the rigors of a local group. In Bender’s case, he enrolls for a one-year stint with Kodo, a taiko group based on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, and one known for its vigorous training schedule. A quite literal hands-on experience, Bender writes that in the early stages of his fieldwork he “measured progress by the presence of blisters on my hands.”

The author emphasizes the inclusiveness of taiko in his writing, its capacity to provide a means of expression for formerly marginalized groups. These include minorities and women. Among the former, the writer has some incisive comments and encounters. He conducts interviews with professionals and amateur musicians, and at one point, the general manager of a prominent drum manufacturer.

This latter visit leads to a telling digression on social castes in Japan, particularly the burakumin, descendants of an underclass once employed as tanners, ditch diggers, slaughterhouse workers and disposers of the dead. Answering the question “Why would someone be ashamed to work at a taiko manufacturer?” we learn that practically all taiko manufacturing families belong to this outcast group. Even today, discrimination against them is common.

Despite the highly profiled masculinity of the art, women have stormed onto the taiko scene, delivering often-scorching performances incorporating acrobatic choreography. I recently witnessed a female drum ensemble putting themselves through a punishing rehearsal in a village hall in southern Okinawa, one that would suggest that, despite physical disparities, there are plenty of women capable of matching the muscular performances of their male counterparts.

Well researched, immensely detailed, this may well be the last word, or sound, on the subject for a long time.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.