It’s the image that comes to most people when they think of a traditional taiko (Japanese drum) performance: A man standing in front of a giant drum, back to the crowd and furiously banging away to create a powerful rhythm.
Surprisingly, though, this way of performing isn’t a tradition at all — it’s just the way Eitetsu Hayashi plays.
“This is just the way I’m able to create a rhythm on such a large drum,” says taiko artist Eitetsu Hayashi, the originator of the style. “If I didn’t do it this way, I wouldn’t be able to create as powerful a sound, since I have such a small build.
Hayashi, 63, is one of the main figures responsible for taking taiko from rural festival sideshows to the most renowned stages in the world. Born to the chief priest of a temple in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1952, Hayashi says, thanks to his environment, he became interested in percussion early in life — banging on xylophones as a child and later finding inspiration in the drumming of Beatles member Ringo Starr.
“Growing up, I’d always hear the ritual gongs and drumming at the temple,” he recalls. “But I never thought that I’d end up becoming a professional percussionist.”
As a teenager, Hayashi moved to Tokyo in the hopes of becoming a graphic designer. In an effort to make connections, he signed up to take part in a seminar that was to be held on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. Artist Tadanori Yokoo was scheduled as one of the speakers.
Hayashi’s idol was a no-show. However, he met a “visionary producer” by the name of Tagayasu Den, founder of the Ondekoza taiko troupe. Hayashi was among 10 young people recruited to join the group, relocate to Sado and spend the next four years practicing drumming and training their bodies. Their daily exercise regimen included runs of between 40 to 50 km, which came in handy when Ondekoza’s members took part in the 1975 Boston Marathon as part of a publicity effort. After crossing the finish line, the drummers put on a performance for a delighted crowd.
One person who heard about this victory set was conductor Seiji Ozawa, who was serving as the music director at the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time. The following year, Ozawa invited Ondekoza to collaborate with the orchestra at the Tanglewood Music Festival where they premiered Tokyo composer Maki Ishii’s “Mono-Prism,” the first concerto for taiko and an orchestra. It won favorable reviews, and Onodekoza took off.
“Looking back, our success coincided with a minimalist musical trend that employed limited materials,” Hayashi says. “That movement was inspired by traditional African music, but I think there was a similar quality to our Japanese taiko, something I was not aware of in those days.”
In 1981, Ondekoza collapsed after a conflict between its members and Den. Hayashi renamed the reformed troupe Kodo, but left to go solo the following year. The drummer struggled to get performance opportunities on his own, but that factor also meant he was willing to perform anytime there was an offer, which paved the way for various collaborations. These projects included shows with fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, model and actress Sayoko Yamaguchi, rock musician Ryudo Uzaki, samul nori (Korean percussion) musician Kim Duk Soo and Guinean drummer Mamady Keita. He eventually made his way to New York’s esteemed Carnegie Hall for a solo debut in 1984.
The struggle was seemingly over as Hayashi once again found himself in demand and contemporary composers in Japan sought him out to perform their pieces with orchestras. Soon, however, Hayashi began writing for himself, which resulted in a series of works inspired by the lives of visual artists, including American artist Man Ray in 1998, Edo Period artist Jakuchu in 1999 and 2000, and the toast of 1920s France Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita from 2004 to 2006. As an art lover and would-be graphic designer, Hayashi says he was sympathetic toward artists who were overlooked in their time.
“I wanted to create an original Japanese performing art that we could be proud of,” Hayashi says of taiko. “I wanted to overcome those complexes we get when we travel abroad, which includes ones about our shorter stature and the nation being regarded as copiers. I aimed to pursue an art form that would let us show our own abilities without feeling that inferiority. That’s the reason I only use traditional Japanese taiko instead of bringing in Western percussion instruments.”
Hayashi will mark 45 years as a taiko musician next year, and he has been invited to perform at the music festival La Folle Journee in Nantes, France, in February. He is also scheduled to perform at a special concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo’s Minato Ward in November.
Ahead of these events, however, will be a concert at Tokyo’s Bunkamura Orchard Hall on Dec. 14. The show aims to be a “celebration of life” and will feature jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita and shamisen musician Hiromitsu Agatsuma.
“Eitetsu Hayashi is a pioneer and legend, who spread taiko music around the world,” says Agatsuma, 41, one of the leading shamisen players from the so-called younger generation. “It’s my honor to be able to collaborate on the same stage as him.”
Jazz pianist and composer Yamashita, 68, has worked with Hayashi more than 80 times over the past 30 years.
“Hayashi was the first to discover the artistic potential of Japanese taiko,” Yamashita says. “While he stands firm in his own artistic style, he also allows me to improvise freely.”
The Dec. 14 show will feature “Mio no Hasu” (“A Lotus Along the Water Channel”), a suite from Hayashi’s visual-artist series that focuses on the life of Takumi Asakawa (1891-1931), who played a leading role in publicizing Korean ceramics and crafts from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) during Japan’s colonial period in the early 20th century. The suite will be performed by Hayashi and Eitetsu Fu-un no Kai, a unit that consists of four of his pupils.
Yamashita and Agatsuma are also expected to join Hayashi for a thrilling finale that will put a Japanese spin on one of the world’s most famous symphonies. And, of course, the drummer will be on stage, in front of his giant taiko and with his back to the audience in his trademark stance.
“I’ve discovered that the beating of a large taiko produces overtones that are similar to the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, the kind a baby would hear while in the womb,” Hayashi says. “In other words, by pounding on the taiko we can experience a sound that we heard at the beginning of life, one that every person on Earth would have heard — regardless of ethnicity.”
It is definitely a unifying thought.
Eitetsu Hayashi’s “Tsudoe! Kotohogi-no-Uta” (“Join in the Song of Celebration”) concert will take place at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 14 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥5,000-¥7,000). For more information, call 03-5774-3030 or visit www.eitetsu.net.