No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.
One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the classical music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.
How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.
Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.
What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.
After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my miniscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.
Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.
These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…
Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.
This post is part of the October 2011 J-Festa: Entertainment in Japan.