The Drum Is Everything

Nobody can know what the first musical instrument was, but many people believe it was the drum.  Even today the drum somehow reaches a place in our soul that no other instrument can really reach.

I expect that most of you are familiar with Taiko – or Japanese drumming.   Taiko actually means “big drum” and now is popular all around the world with professional Taiko drummers making spectacular performances and touring to major cities and playing in major concert halls.

But this style of playing drums  – Taiko  –  is actually very new in Japan.  Taiko drums were traditionally used in Shinto and Buddhist festivals.  The Taiko drum is played by hitting both the sides of the drum and the skin of the drum.  The drums are carved from a single piece of a tree and the very biggest need trees of more than a hundred years old to make them.

Modern Taiko started when Daihachi Oguchi who was a jazz drummer was asked to play the Taiko in his local Shinto festival.  He became fascinated with the idea of using the instrument in a more creative way and started to experiment.  Eventually he formed the first of the modern Taiko group in 1958  and Taiko developed into the great performance art it is today.

The first video is of the famous Taiko group –  Kodo.

Kodo in Japanese is written like this  鼓童  it can be read as two meanings.  “Heart Beat” or “Children of the Drum”  so it is a really good name for them.

They come from Sado Island, where Den Tagayasu , the slightly mad Taiko pioneer lived.   He was a Marxist follower of Mao and built a commune and formed a Taiko group because he believed that Japanese people could be reborn from working the soil and playing Taiko.  Of course having such a charismatic person on the Island resulted in the many great drummers coming from there.

Kodo – O-Daiko

However, traditional Taiko drumming is very much simpler and is part of the Matsuri or festivals we have in Japan which celebrate different Shinto or Buddhist occasions.

In the next clip you can see the really traditional Taiko drumming.  This was at the Obon Festival in Tokyo.  The Obon festival is our equivalent of Halloween but it is not scary like the USA one.

The Obon festival is a festival of light to show our dead ancestors the way to the next world and is a happy occasion.  There is special dance called the Obon Odori which people do in a circle to celebrate and then we light lanterns to help our ancestors see the way to the next world, and in some places, the lanterns are floated down the rivers.  The Taiko is placed in a high platform and the people do a special dance around the Taiko.   Unfortunately I could not find a video that showed both good drumming and dancing so I choose one with good drumming for you!!!

Obon Matsuri

Taiko is really popular now,  but it is not the popularity of the elite groups playing in fancy concert hall, that give Taiko the vibrancy and power it has in Japanese music these days.  It is the thousands of Taiko groups playing in schools, universities and neighbourhood associations and just groups of friends, all having a really great time just making a really LOUD noise!!!

I think the level of participation in Taiko drumming now is really very very high and Taiko is becoming like a major musical activity which is great. There are thousands of people of all ages and both genders really having a wonderful time making music, and some how connecting to the most primitive part of our soul, through the medium of music.

I want to finish this post with a video which for me captures the spirit of modern Taiko.

I would like to leave you with the young boys and girls of the Kanagawa Western High School Taiko Unit playing in the Mount Fuji Festival.  The video is an armature video, but it capures the pure and happy hearts of the boys and girls.


Kanagawa Western High School

16 thoughts on “The Drum Is Everything

  1. Hi Sakura

    As always fascinating stuff!!. We have seen Japanese drumming in films and on TV and I have always admired the skill of the drummers.

    As you may have heard, Spain is a very noisy country. The drum is not only used in Flamenco now, but for centuries has had a military use as it has been called the “box of war” for centuries, and is very popular too.

    Many Spanish regions have musical bands that include drums. It is also used in the processions at Easter.
    This is a group of children from a school in Teruel, taking part in a competition.

    The most famous use of the drum in Spain is in Calanda on Good Friday. They call it “La Rompida” (the breaking) -they start drumming at midday and finish at 5:00pm- they say you can feel the walls of the houses vibrating for some time after the drumming has stopped.
    The origin of this tradition dates back to the twelfth century when the town was alerted to an attack from the Arab forces by the drumming of the peasants in the fields. It has since acquired religious connotations.

    Thank you for posting such interesting things

  2. Thank you so much for reading the post and your really interesting reply!!! I did kinda think that Spain was noisy!!! It was really interesting to see the kids playing the drums, they were really cute!!

    The “La Rompida” was really interesting!!! It must be very emotional to be there to see it live!!!

  3. I love a good bit of drumming.
    My brother had the song here as a single years ago and it was one of the things we played most.
    My very first “independent” trip to London was to see Stomu Yamashta’s Red Buddha Theatre Group perform “Man from the East” ( perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of Japanese stuff !)

  4. Hi Pairubu!!!

    Stomu Yamashta is an interesting guy actually, Did you know he wrote the mucis for the David Bowie film “Man Who Fell To Earth”

    It must have been exciting to see him so young, The “The Man From The East”, was produced in 1970 decade sometimes I think so…

    I am pleased you liked the drumming, my favourite is the High School kids, they are having so much fun and really very good!!!

    I really enjoyed the Burundi drums!!!

    • I don’t remember much of the Red Buddha Theatre show, to be honest, it was a long time ago. I went with a friend to the matinee and we were the only people in the stalls ! ( upstairs bit of the theatre).
      I do remember someone brandishing a severed head ( not real) and some lady breasts ( real) and Stomu sort of crawling out under a kind of dragon dancer costume at the end to take the ( rather feeble) applause.
      Still, it was an interesting day out.
      The music was percussion heavy, of course.
      I loved the HIgh School kids too. Really “giving it some welly”, as we say over here.

      • Hi Pairubu

        I have never see the play but it sounds really interesting!!!

        Do you know the significance of Red Buddha?

        He is Amida Butsu one of the 13 divine manifestations of Buddha. He is really important in Japan because he protects children and travellers. But also he performs a very important job for kids who are dead.

        Children who die before they are born and children who die before their parents can not go to the next world before the parents. So they go to a place to wait that is very cold and windy. If they can build a tower of stones by putting one on to the top of another one until it reaches a certain hight they can go to heaven, But as it is very windy the wind will blow over the stones, so Amida Butsu goes there with them and he shelters them from the wind with his coat so they c an build the tower sheltered form the wind and go to heaven, So he is very important.

        In Japan you will see statues of Amida Butsu, with a red cloth scarf around his neck. This is to symbolise this.

      • I really like the expression “giving it some welly” !!! English is such a funny language!!!

        I check on Urban Dictionary for terms like this but sometimes I am not sure if the definitions are always correct. Definition number 1 seems strange to me….

        But if definition 2 and 3 are correct they are indeed “giving it some welly”!!!

    • I see, I wouldn’t use the urban dictionary too much. The expression means “to put a lot of effort in”. I think it derives from “Wellington Boot”*, which we all refer to as “Wellies”. So , when one is “wellying” something it’s like kicking something enthusiastically whilst wearing rubber boots.

      * Named after The Duke of Wellington, English commander at the Battle of Waterloo and late Prime Minister.

  5. Hi Sakura E
    This is a typical song from Panamá called “El Tambor de la Alegría” – the Drum of Joy- and it is intended to teach children the importance of percussion in music.

    • Hi Mrs Maki

      It is a really cheerful song and you can really hear the “happy drum”!!!

      I like the rhythm very much and the singer has a really nice voice!!!

  6. Ah! Sakura, The Drums, The Drums.
    I first saw Wadaiko Yamato in London in 1999. They had so much energy and projected their enjoyment of their performance that it was one of the best evenings I have ever spent at a concert.
    I have the album of some of the music they played on tour. Long time ago, still play it now sometimes.
    Just to show how much fun they are……………………..

  7. Why can’t I put more than one comment in the reply box ????????

    Anyway,,,,, KODO. Saw them at the Barbican Center and thought they were a bit serious.
    I prefer the chillout version of their music “Sia-So” the 1998 Remix Project.
    This from Kevin Yost

  8. Wadaiko Yamato are really fantastic!!!

    They are from Nara. Yamato is the old name of Nara and so that is why they chose the name.

    Masa Ogawa, the founder, is an important taiko composer and teacher actually.and has done a lot make Taiko popular by his teaching and making his compositions available to other groups.

  9. ahh….the Taiko, one of my favourite sounds of the summer.

    For at least two weeks before the local summer festival this year (the first one in our new place) we were treated to the Taiko drummers practicing every single night. It was great to throw open the patio doors and let the sound of the drums waft through on the summer breeze. We were pretty disappointed when the festival actually came ‘cos we couldn’t listen anymore!

  10. I like my drumming to be communal as opposed to solo :- this should be right up my strasse!

    I think this was on the Stereo MCs DJ Kicks CD (can’t be sure as at work so unable to listen) a KODO rework from DJ Krush :

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