Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion (Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes)

Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion (Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes)

by Shawn Bender

ISBN: 9780520272422

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Calendars/Music

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Sample Chapter


Taiko Drums and Taiko Drum Makers

pariah (noun) 1. an outcast. 2. any person or animal that is generally despised or avoided. 3. (initial capital letter) a member of a low caste in southern India and Burma. Origin: 1605–15; < Tamil paraiyar, pl. of paraiyan lit., drummer (from a hereditary duty of the caste); deriv. of parai, a festival drum


FOR MOST JAPANESE, taiko simply means "drum." In this book, the term is used in a more technical sense to signify a subset of Japanese percussion. Japanese drums are typically differentiated based on their size, shape, and material composition. Drum shells hollowed out from blocks of wood are classified differently from drum bodies made up of individual wooden slats, like a wine barrel. Drums also differ based on the kind of dried animal skin used for playing surfaces and the methods of attaching skins to the drum body, either by ropes, tacks, or bolts. Drums also are sounded in distinct ways (by hands, sticks, or mallets) and are employed differently in the three main genres of Japanese performance: music of the imperial court (gagaku), music accompanying the classical stage performing arts (koten geino), and music used in religious ritual or the folk performing arts (minzoku geino).

Prior to the emergence of ensemble taiko drumming, taiko drums were used most extensively within the folk performing arts. This historical context contributed significantly to the development of taiko in the postwar period. In contrast to the classical performing arts of the stage or music of the imperial court, the lack of strict control over performance and instruction within the folk performing arts gave individuals the flexibility to use these instruments for performance ensembles. The fact that there was specifically a taiko boom is therefore not merely coincidental but reflects the particular structural location of these instruments within Japanese musicality.

Just as the popularity of ensemble taiko has brought taiko from rare and restricted use in the classical arts to the focal point of dynamic stage performance, it has also raised the cultural standing of taiko makers in Japan. Previously relegated to outcast status for the occupation of drum making, which for generations had been deemed "polluting," taiko makers from the latter decades of the twentieth century onward enjoyed both high demand for their drums and growing recognition for their art. The higher profile of the instruments and those who make them is both evidence for and a consequence of the taiko boom. Instruments and instrument makers have thus moved from marginal positions to the center of Japanese cultural life.


The Drums of "Gagaku": The Music of the Imperial Court

Gagaku is the music and dance of the Japanese imperial court. It has its origins in older court music from China and Korea, which was brought to Japan in the fifth century, and from India, which arrived in the seventh and eighth centuries. In 701, imperial authorities established an imperial music bureau to oversee performances of court music. At the time of the bureau's establishment, most musicians in the imperial court remained Chinese or Korean, and the creation of a distinctly Japanese variety of court music did not occur until the middle of the ninth century, when a group of noblemen under the leadership of former emperor Soga arranged the divergent mass of styles that made up contemporary gagaku into the form they take today (Malm 1959, 89).

Since the Soga reforms, court music performances have been divided into two parts: one devoted to music of Indian and Chinese origin (togaku) and the other to music of Korean and Manchurian origin (koma-gaku) (Malm 1959, 89). Each of these is further subdivided into instrumental music (kangen) and dance music (bugaku). The type of drums used changes depending on whether instrumental music or dance music is being played. For example, the dadaiko, the largest of all the gagaku drums, is used only in performances of dance music. It has a carved-out wooden body and is covered on each end by cowhide drum skins that are held to the drum by long ropes tensioned with wooden pegs. A decorative wooden flame envelops the front head of the drum, which is imprinted with a mitsudomoe pattern (a yin-yang symbol with an extra teardrop). When struck with a felt-tipped mallet, the drum produces a low and resounding boom. Impressive as it is, the drum is used sparingly for percussive effect (for example, when a dancer stomps his foot on the stage). In performances of instrumental music, a gaku-daiko is used in place of the dadaiko, to similar effect. The gaku-daiko, which is about half the size of the dadaiko, is suspended from a wooden frame, and its cowhide drum skins are held on by a series of drum tacks.

Gagaku ensembles also make use of two smaller drums, the san-no-tsuzumi and the kakko. Like the dadaiko and gaku-daiko, these drums are used alternately in performances of togaku and koma-gaku. The san-no-tsuzumi, a small hourglass-shaped drum of Korean origin, is played only during performances of koma-gaku. Positioned on its side, the drum's front is struck with a thin stick in one of a limited number of short patterns. The kakko drum is a barrel-shaped drum of Indo-Chinese origin that has two rope-fastened deerhide heads. In contrast to the san-no-tsuzumi, the drum is struck on both sides during performances of togaku in one of three simple patterns: a slow descending roll, a tap with the right stick, or a press roll with the right hand.

In sum, the four drums of gagaku are used for effect more than for sophisticated timekeeping. Musicians and performances of gagaku are strictly regulated by the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency. The regulations have helped preserve gagaku since the ninth century (much of the original Indian, Korean, and Chinese court music has long since disappeared), but they also have prevented significant innovation. Although some musicians have left official court music to experiment with combinations of court music and orchestral music (Lancashire 2003), to my knowledge no ensemble taiko group has integrated the instruments or motifs of court music into its performance. The ensembles of classical Japanese theater have been a much greater source of inspiration.

The Classical Performing Arts: Noh

Noh is a kind of Japanese theater that developed from folk theatricals in rural villages and towns (Malm 1959, 106). The first of these, sarugaku, or "monkey music," was a form of comic theater derived from ritual performances at Shinto shrines. Sarugaku was augmented in later years by the addition of Chinese acrobatics (sangaku) and the rice-planting dances of peasants (dengaku). These two forms of sarugaku remained virtually indistinguishable until they were formalized and stylized in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by a father-son duo, Kannami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo. Both men were affiliated with a shrine in Nara and were sent by the shogun at the time, Yoshimitsu, to Kyoto, where they combined contemporary sangaku with Buddhist chanting to create a new hybrid theatrical performance called sarugaku-no-noh.

Sarugaku-no-noh, which came to be called Noh, was heavily influenced by the Zen Buddhist emphasis on "restraint and allusion" (Malm 1959, 108). In its current form, performances of Noh include long periods of chanted dialogue ("song") and slow, highly scripted movements ("dance"). Songs and dances are accompanied by an ensemble (hayashi) made up of a flute called the noh-kan and three drums: ko-tsuzumi, o-tsuzumi, and taiko. The ko-tsuzumi is the smallest of the three drums. It has an hourglass-shaped body made of zelkova wood, much like the san-no-tsuzumi used in court music, and two rope-fastened horsehide heads. The inner shell of the drum is carved with a special pattern to improve resonance and timbre, and a small piece of deerhide is applied to the center of the bottom drumhead to control reverberation. A ko-tsuzumi player places the drum on his left shoulder and strikes it with the fingers of his right hand. Tightening or loosening the tension on the ropes running the length of the drum raises or lowers the pitch of the drum. Skillful manipulation of rope tension, together with various finger strikes, produces the five basic ko-tsuzumi sounds.

The o-tsuzumi is shaped like the ko-tsuzumi but is slightly larger. Two sets of ropes extend along the body of the o-tsuzumi from cowhide heads on each side. One set holds the drumheads to the body; the other wraps around them and is tightened or loosened, as in the ko-tsuzumi, to raise or lower the pitch of the drum. The drum skins are made out of cowhide, not horsehide like the ko-tsuzumi. In contrast to the ko-tsuzumi, which is held by the left hand on the right shoulder and then struck with the right hand, the o-tsuzumi rests on the performer's left hip and is struck with a sideways motion of the right hand. Deerskin thimbles are sometimes used to enhance the sounds produced by the drum, which are divided into three basic types, ranging from strong to weak.

The barrel-shaped body of the noh taiko differentiates it from the two hourglass-shaped tsuzumi and defines it as a type of taiko. A block of zelkova wood is carved out to fashion the body of the taiko, which is approximately six inches deep and twelve inches across. Two drum skins, made either of cowhide or horsehide, are held to its body by tightly drawn ropes. The drum rests horizontally on a stand that keeps it several inches from the floor, and it is struck with two lightweight sticks whose ends taper slightly. Noh taiko are, therefore, distinguished from tsuzumi drums not only by their barrel shape but also by the use of sticks, instead of hands, to produce sound. Varieties of shime-daiko used in the folk performing arts have slightly thicker heads, which allow for higher pitch and greater durability. Since Noh theater grew out of folk performing arts like sarugaku, it is appropriate to think of the noh taiko as a lighter-weight version of its more robust folk cousin (figure 3).

The Classical Performing Arts: Kabuki

Originating in the risqué riverbed dance-theater of a Kyoto shrine maiden named Okuni, kabuki evolved into a form of popular theater more suited to the urbane tastes of merchants and city dwellers than Noh (Foreman 2005, 38). Still, a debt to the Noh theater is evident in the conservation of the Noh ensemble in kabuki theater. Together with the shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lute), the instruments of the Noh ensemble are the major source of musical accompaniment for kabuki performances. Drummers in kabuki ensembles use drum calls (kakegoe) to mark time and coordinate their performance, as in Noh. In addition to this ensemble music, musicians concealed in an offstage area called the geza provide sound effects. The geza houses a myriad of percussion, including the drums of the Noh ensemble as well as the larger odaiko and okedo-daiko.

Like the shime-daiko, the barrel-shaped odaiko is carved out of a single block of wood, but it is much larger—approximately four to six feet in diameter and slightly smaller in height (figure 4). Its two cowhide drumheads are fastened to its body by a ring of metal tacks, like the gaku-daiko. Odaiko were originally used to advertise kabuki performances. In those early days, the state of kabuki theater was so tenuous that audiences would not know whether performances would take place until they heard the sound of the odaiko. In contemporary kabuki, the odaiko is played in the concealed geza with long, thin bamboo rods to create sound effects, such as falling snow or rain.

The okedo-daiko (or daibyoshi) is cylindrical in shape, and it is constructed out of individual staves, not a hollowed-out shell. The staves are held together by two hoops, and the drumheads are fastened with ropes to the drum body, which has similar dimensions to the odaiko (figure 5). Evoking its origins in the folk performing arts, it is used in the geza to create the atmosphere of a "folk" festival. In size and form, the okedo-daiko and the daibyoshi are indistinguishable—the name daibyoshi being merely the lingo of geza musicians. Along with several types of gongs and mallet percussion, geza musicians augment the sounds of these two taiko with gaku-daiko, for scenes depicting war, and the uchiwa-daiko, a fan drum, for other percussive effects.

Noh and kabuki, along with court music, are classified together in Japan as hogaku, or "music of the homeland." In common usage, hogaku is opposed to yogaku, or "Western music." In addition to its connection to stage theater or court music, musicianship in the world of hogaku is strictly regulated—one usually cannot begin stage performance without passing through an apprenticeship of ten years or longer. The strict regulation of training and performance distinguishes Noh, kabuki, and court music from the music of Japanese ritual and festivity.

Folk and Religious Music

The music of Japanese ritual and festivity derives primarily from a collection of religious practices and worship in Japan dedicated to ancestors and supernatural spirits (kami) called Shinto (Kawano 2005). At structures enshrining particular spirits, formal rituals evolved into the sacred music and dance called kagura, or "god music." Kagura is typically divided into two types: music for Shinto functions or formal parts of ceremonies at local shrines (mi-kagura), and music that accompanies Shinto festivals (sato-kagura) conducted at important seasonal moments in the agricultural cycle. The often-spectacular grand processions associated with contemporary Japanese festivals descend from sato-kagura.

The music that accompanies these rituals and processions (there is no completely instrumental folk music) is provided by ensembles typically made up of two kinds of taiko (small shime-daiko and larger chu-daiko), Japanese flute (fue), and small brass gongs (atarigane). Chu-daiko are smaller versions of the odaiko used in the kabuki geza. Chu-daiko, also called miya-daiko, are the most extensively used variety of taiko in the contemporary taiko ensembles that are the subject of this book (figure 6). The appellation miya, which means "shrine," derives from the near ubiquity of these drums in Shinto shrines. (They are also found commonly in Buddhist temples.) The extensive use of chu-daiko in kagura, festival processions, Bon dance, and other forms of the folk performing arts relates directly to the consolidation of the majority of the Japanese population under the religious institutions of Shinto and Buddhism.

Festival ensembles are often named for the areas where they originated, a custom that reflects the Shinto emphasis on marking place through ritual (see Kawano 2005). Although their rhythms can be complex, they are usually rather slow and timed to coincide either with dances or with movements in a procession (Malm 1959, 50). That said, of the three types of music discussed here, festival music is where taiko drums play the most central role. Organized around rhythmic cadences rather than harmonic motifs, the drumming of festival ensembles is more extensive than that found in other kinds of indigenous Japanese music, such that "the importance of the drum as a center of many Japanese folk dances is little realized by the casual visitor to Japan" (248).

Taiko, especially chu-daiko, also retain an important position in Buddhist ritual. Shomyo chants, based on sacred Buddhist texts and hymns, are vocalized to the steady rhythm of the chu-daiko drum. During the annual summer Buddhist festival of O-Bon, chu-daiko drums accompany festival dancing and singing. In fact, it is from the musical accompaniment to this ritual that one influential style of ensemble taiko derives (see chapter 2). During the rituals of the Nichiren sect of Japanese Buddhism, fan drums, mentioned earlier in connection with the music of the kabuki theater, are also used to accompany enthusiastic chanting.

The division between folk performing arts and religiously inspired festival music is ambiguous, because most of what is called "folk music" in Japan, with the exception of some folk songs or work songs, is derived from religious festivals or worship. Yet the folk performing arts are usually considered distinct from religious music and the performing arts of the stage, even though classical performing arts like Noh and kabuki have roots in just these folk entertainments. Whether or not they are considered separate from or part of religious music, folk performing arts are distinct from the classical performing arts in several other respects.

Excerpted from "Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion (Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes)" by Shawn Bender. Copyright © 2013 by Shawn Bender. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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