The rehearsal space for drum group Tokyo Dageki Dan seems more like a football locker room than a spot to experience one of the country’s most honored musical traditions.
Seven drummers joke around while prepping their wadaiko, Japanese drums that can measure anywhere from 30 cm to a meter in diameter. Once practice starts, though, the joking ends and the “athletes” focus; their soft voices become booming yelps that compete with the thunderous sound of the drumming. You’ve got to be strong to play drums this size, and many of the members play sports to gain the stamina needed.
Tokyo Dageki Dan (whose name loosely translates as “Tokyo Attack Group”) is made up of seven main drummers and a few trainees. This year marks the group’s 20th anniversary and over the past few years the men have managed to bring their take on a Japanese tradition to the attention of new generations of fans.
The drummers have taken part in movies such as “Kyoki no Sakura,” “Dororo” and most recently in the 2012 film “The Floating Castle.” They’ve also joined Exile and J Soul Brothers, two of the country’s top-selling J-pop groups, on national tours.
“Performing in front of more than 10,000 people was an amazing experience,” drummer Takuya Kato says. “It was a great opportunity to spread the word about wadaiko, and I hoped we could change any perceptions of the tradition being uncool.”
Tokyo Dageki Dan doesn’t have to work too hard to convince younger Japanese that wadaiko performances are cool. Unlike their parents’ generation, who mostly embraced American music after World War II and the Bubble Era, children these days tend to embrace their cultural heritage
Jiro Murayama, 47, is the group’s only remaining original member. He jokes that, despite the group’s name, he’s actually from Kanagawa Prefecture, Tokyo’s southern neighbor. He formerly belonged to professional drum group Kodo, an older outfit that has been around since 1981. After some time with Kodo, he met director Jinichi Hiranuma who formed Tokyo Dageki Dan in 1995.
“We started out as punks,” Hiranuma says. “We wore T-shirts instead of traditional costumes, and played drums that were attached to the tops of our heads. After 20 years, though, that kind of style is more common so I think it’s the perfect time to start something new.”
The group’s current main lineup consists of Murayama, Kato, Tomofumi Tagawa, Ryosuke Yokoyama, Kazuhiro Tsuyuki, Akihiro Sato and Toru Hasegawa. Murayama points out the 12-year gap between himself and the other members, and agrees that attitudes toward wadaiko have changed from when he first started out.
“To be honest, I always thought that wadaiko and other traditional instruments were totally out of style,” he says. He nods at his team, “But these guys have had a good impression of this stuff since the beginning.”
Murayama began his music career by playing the saxaphone at age 15. He says he originally dreamed of becoming a jazz musician, but his interests slowly shifted to African roots music. As he looked into the traditions of that continent, he discovered his own and came across matsuri bayashi, typical drum performances held during local festivals. While he still drums, his main role in Tokyo Dageki Dan is playing the bamboo flute.
Wadaiko gradually grew on Murayama, but the other members — now in their late 20s and early 30s — came to the music much earlier. Kato says he naturally just ended up following in his father’s footsteps by playing the drums, Sato says he was impressed by a drumming performance his friends gave in junior high school, and Tagawa joined a local group when he was just 10 years old.
Hiranuma says more people are picking up the instrument since the (national) government started providing funds to municipalities for the purchase of wadaiko to be used in local festivals.
“There are about 10,000 to 15,000 amateur groups in Japan, and there are now studio lessons available for people to get started,” he says. “Wadaiko was usually just performed by communities in the countryside, but its appeal has spread. Even Tokyo mothers who have finished raising their kids have started taking it up as a form of exercise.”
Tokyo Dageki Dan has helped in giving wadaiko a bit of a modern makeover by focusing as much on fashion as drum skills. One notable element about the group is the unique costumes its members wear: bright red, white and black sleeveless outfits designed as much for ease of movement as style.
“Some people still have the image of tradition and formality in wadaiko, and it’s true that there are some who still believe that certain rules should be left unbroken,” Tagawa says. “Our outfits are designed to be appreciated by people who are a bit more traditional, but also eye-catching for those unfamiliar with wadaiko. I think there needs to be at least a little bit of playfulness.”
Like Kodo, which debuted at the Berlin Festival in 1981, Tokyo Dageki Dan has played various events overseas. The group performed at the closing ceremony for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, Expo 2010 in Shanghai and recently toured Mexico, which included an appearance at the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuanto. The group has had its share of challenges overseas that included Murayama having to improvise a drumstick with someone’s broom and Sato coping with digestive problems during a performance, which ended with him being taken to the hospital as soon as the curtain came down.
Having performed under various circumstances over the past two decades, the group has decided to go back to its roots by being Tokyo Dageki Dan and playing its 20th anniversary show on May 9 at Setagaya Public Theatre. Hiranuma notes that wadaiko is traditionally performed outdoors, but playing at the theater will allow the audience to hear the sounds more clearly, and has the added benefit of being able to utilize the lighting and set design.
“Twenty years have gone so fast, it feels like we only decided on our name just yesterday,” Murayama says. “This show will be a new beginning for us, we’ve prepared plenty of new songs.”
Hiranuma gets nostalgic for a moment before adding, “The charm of wadaiko is that the performance goes through a process of aging just like a whiskey, it’s unlike theater where a new script changes everything. I’m interested to know how our new songs will age over the next few years.”
Tokyo Dageki Dan plays Setagaya Public Theatre on May 9 (1 p.m. and 5 p.m. starts; ¥3,500-¥5,000 in advance; 03-5432-1515). For more information, visit www.dagekidan.com.