National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

Museum offers its visitors hands-on experience for drumming up a storm

by Mick Corliss

On the fourth floor of a small building near the Sumida River in old-town Tokyo, people are making a racket in Megumi Ochi’s museum.

But this is exactly what she wants.

“Most museums don’t want visitors touching things. But that is what we are all about. We want people to beat the drums,” said Ochi, curator of the Drum Museum.

And visitors are happy to oblige.

“People ask what happens when they break, but we have people here who can fix them,” she said, gesturing to the myriad percussion instruments that occupy the simple and aptly named museum.

That is one of the perks of working for a company that makes “taiko” drums as well as other festival instruments and “mikoshi” portable shrines. The company, Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, has been in operation since 1861 and even lists the Imperial Household Agency among its customers.

The museum has a slightly exotic flavor. There are maracas from Mexico, bronze drums from Myanmar and chest-high marriage drums decorated with fertility images from Benin. The oldest drum is a clay kettle instrument from the American Southwest that dates from 600.

Ochi personally demonstrates the captivating ring of a bronze drum that is several hundred years old and was retrieved from a burial site in Myanmar, before bounding over to the taiko and launching into an improvised jam session with her two assistants.

These are just a few of the estimated 600 drums from more than 100 nations that rotate through the exhibit.

“I am interested in the sounds of drums and wanted to see if this was somewhere I might want to bring my (two) elementary school-age sons,” said visiting Chiba Prefecture native Junko Itabashi.

Nearly a quarter of the visitors to the museum are foreign, including famous percussionists who drop in while visiting Tokyo to pound away on the museum’s arsenal of instruments, Ochi said.

The museum also offers information on festivals and hosts occasional workshops with professional percussionists.

Although many small museums are falling victim to cuts in funding during the economic downturn, Ochi insisted the Drum Museum’s future is sound.

“Our company has been around for 141 years. Besides, we are the only museum dedicated to drums of the world,” Ochi said.

A pair of American tourists wandered in and started drumming on the exhibits.

“We just stumbled across it, but this must be one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets,” said Larry Wasserman, 73, from California, as his 35-year-old son whacked at Japanese drums on stilts.

“I gave him accordion lessons, and this is what he gives me back,” Wasserman said, chiding his son.

“But that is a beautiful sound,” he admitted.

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