The powerful beating of drums has long been linked to Buddhist and Shinto prayer.

“Since ancient times, it has been the role of the taiko player to offer prayers and drive away evil,” says taiko (Japanese drum) artist Eitetsu Hayashi, who is taking this responsibility to heart.

This month, the drummer will perform a pair of concerts as tributes to those who were and continue to be affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake a decade ago, as well as a world that continues to be plagued by COVID-19. While his March 14 concert in Shichigahama, Miyagi Prefecture, will focus on offering solace and hope, his solo concert at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on March 17 will also mark his 50th year as a taiko musician.

Although many musical events have been forced to cancel or move online due to the pandemic, Hayashi is determined to hold the upcoming concerts, which will feature original pieces composed by Hayashi.

“Taiko produces sounds that resonate in the innermost depths of my mind,” he says, adding that the beat of a drum is akin to the heartbeat of a mother heard by her unborn child. “The sounds inspire me to focus my thoughts on the beginning of life in the universe.”

Such sounds also inspired Hayashi to take his taiko from rural festivals to some of the world’s most renowned stages, such as New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1984, the Waldbuhne summer concert in Berlin in 2000 and La Folle Journee festival in Nantes, France, in 2016.

Before Hayashi, solo taiko performers were unheard of. Early in his drumming career, Hayashi was the leading member of the Ondekoza taiko troupe, which was the first group to hold stage performances rather than sets at local festivals. When he left the group in 1982 to pursue a career as a soloist, he had no role models whose footsteps he could follow in. And so, he paved his own way by modernizing the artform, collaborating with various musicians and bringing his love of taiko to audiences outside of Japan.

The image of a lone drummer rhythmically pounding on a taiko with his back to the audience may be familiar to many, but it is an untraditional style that Hayashi is responsible for originating. He created this style to produce deeper and more powerful sounds from the taiko despite his small build. His powerful performances have struck at the heart of people all over the world, and taiko music has grown in popularity abroad, with events such as the biennial North America Taiko Conference since 1997 and the annual European Taiko Conference since 2016.

“I feel responsible for spreading today’s taiko music around the world,” Hayashi says.

Here in Japan, the World Taiko Conference was inaugurated in November 2020. Due to the pandemic, however, the event was held online. The program, made up of several talk sessions, also featured a new piece composed by Hayashi, titled “Eternal Song: It Is ‘Hayashi.’”

After decades of performing, Hayashi continues to take on challenges, one stage after another. While he has broken the mold, his love and respect for traditional Japanese folk culture hasn’t changed.

“Even though I have been inspired by the deep sound of taiko, I’m still not sure about how others will feel,” Hayashi says. “When I get a standing ovation or see someone is moved to tears, I realize that my performance thrilled the audience. That gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

Eitetsu Hayashi will perform at Shichigahama Kokusaimura in Shichigahama, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 14, and at Suntory Hall in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on March 17. For more information, visit www.eitetsu.net (Japanese only).

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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