Yamato – The Drummers of Japan

Yamato – The Drummers of Japan
Haas Center for the Performing Arts
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (USA)
November 7, 2009

According to Yamato’s manager there are 20,000 or more drumming groups in Japan, but only the few best tour internationally. Yamato are deservingly one of those drum companies.

The taiko drum – or wadaiko – comes in various shapes and sizes and goes back thousands of years to Shinto temple ceremonies. It also has a history of military use. Only in the last 60 years has the art been presented on stage and combined with other elements. Daihachi Oguchi, who studied jazz in the US, is credited with doing this first in 1951, and all other modern groups trace their lineage back to him.

As a musician and fan of music all around the world, Yamato was especially interesting because they also offered a free workshop during the afternoon prior to the concert. The workshop included three members of Yamato (two men and one woman) and their manager who gave an introduction before a brief piece was performed. Involving four drums, it was filled with dynamic grunts and calls that helped guide the performers through the piece. Similar to Indian bol , drumming patterns are taught and passed down verbally at first, then the rhythms are transferred to the instruments. Similar to the multitude of strokes that one might see/hear on the tabla, there are hundreds if not thousands of basic rhythms that are applied to a variety of taiko drums of different sizes. The drumming language, kuchi shoga , is regional, with noticeable differences (to experts anyway) between northern and southern Japan.

The workshop participants (mostly percussion students) were taught the rhythm first by reciting the words and with hand movements, slapping our legs. Then, using the large baton-like drum sticks called bachi (think two very large ears of corn), we were allowed to give it a go on the drums themselves. I got to play a tsukushime-daiko . Even this rather simple piece was much more difficult to perform than at first listen. Performing on taiko drums is physically demanding and requires a significant mental and spiritual commitment. Drumming is a way of life and a way to open up the mind and the body’s energies.

When the program director first wanted to bring Yamato to the campus, his grant was turned down because the group was considered “too Broadway”. True, they may not be very “authentic,” and a bit “slick” – using dancing and elaborate stage lighting and projections – but what they may lack in classical academic terms is more than offset by the entertainment and the display of sheer discipline that the performers have.

Later in the evening, before the performance, one of BU’s professors gave a lackluster introduction to the taiko drum, utilizing mostly bits of information from the workshop and adding nothing new or significant (and at times, even misquoting). If such an intro was even necessary, it would have been much more informative to have a representative from the group, or their manager perform this function. The talk was boring – even to this interested listener – and really nothing more than intellectual hand-holding.

Of course the taiko drums were the most visually striking thing, with some drums reaching the size of small cars. It could be said that the success of such troupes in the US is due, at least in part, to our tendency to like things that are big. This was a large-scale production consisting of about a dozen performers, with at least that many drums on stage during the large-scale pieces. Yet, in terms of performance, the highlight for me was the intricately-timed cross drumming on the smaller drums ( shime-daiko ). During these segments, up to six drummers sat in a line on the floor with the drums in front of them. Their movements were not only rhythmically interesting, but so complex that one false move could mean a broken (or lost) arm. Only once did I hear the sound of stick on stick – perhaps once too many for their standards – but amazing nonetheless.

Other instruments included metallic percussion (hand cymbals), bamboo flute, koto and shamisen. The bamboo flute was mediocre by comparison to the other melodic instruments, having a limited range, and the quartet of shamisen players – while interesting and dexterous – perhaps droned on a bit too long. Arguably these were all necessary to change the pace, but the drums were what people came to see (iconically presented on posters and the group’s very slick web site). At several points, a small group of performers gathered in front of the curtain several times as the stage setting was changed. From the workshop we learned that all of the players also take care of the backstage duties, applying the same discipline, making a flawless transition each time.

For the average listener, two hours of drumming may not seem like entertainment, but Yamato have done a great job at making it palatable and interesting enough for the few of us who want to go a bit deeper. A good bit of humor and audience participation were added to lighten things up, including hand claps and call response. The intermission – though a bit long – was appreciated to give your ears a break from what ultimately was a thunderous evening that left my ears saturated. This was my first show in the Haas Center since it was recently reworked. The sound was reasonable where we were seated in the balcony left-center. Yet, there were times when things really were too loud. During pre-show and intermission in particular, there was an annoying low frequency oscillation that went right through me –possibly something feeding back on itself. I think that – and not the drumming itself – is why I had to take some Tylenol when I got home.

All together this was a great experience and it is nice to see Bloomsburg University taking chances on this type of music. All too often music departments cater more to classical and jazz performances. While there is still a bit of that going on in their current program, Bloomsburg University is at least showing some intercultural sensitivity to bringing in more varied programming. If they can accompany that with a more sensitive approach to how they discuss the acts during their wine and cheese lecture segments, they might be on to something here.

Web sites:

Yamato – The Drummers of Japan
Bloomsburg University Celebrity Artists Series
The History of Taiko: The Heartbeat of Japan
For those with less time and dedication… Wii Taiko Drum Controller (Japan Version)


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.

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