For those who are musically inclined or want to learn about Japanese drums, that is now possible with open taiko group, TaiKomotion. Have you ever spotted those large drums at traditional Japanese festivals? Those wooden percussions are called Taiko (太鼓) drums, and they have a rich history and importance in Japanese music. Yet, at a school in southern California, a group of taiko musicians are bringing this art form to the West. We interview Miranda Smith to explain.
For someone unfamiliar with taiko, can you briefly explain its history?
If you go by mythology, taiko started when a goddess stretched skin over an empty barrel and started dancing on top of it. More historically, the taiko drum design came over from China to Japan where it was used for signaling and festivals. The style of taiko that we play is called kumi-daiko (組太鼓), which started in the 50s when jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi took old taiko songs and reinterpreted them to be played by multiple people.
So TaiKomotion keeps this ancient instrument alive. So, where are you located and how long have you been doing this?
We’re based in Orange County, California and have been an active group for eight years now!
What’s the first thing you teach a student in taiko?
We start with stance and grip. The stance is how you position your arms and legs relative to the drum and grip is simply how you hold the drumsticks. The grip is actually the more important of the two as it’s possible to hurt your hands if your grip is incorrect.
Of course, get the fundamentals down first. So, are there levels of achievement in taiko? Such as in martial arts like Karate, there are belts to signify a student’s proficiency. Is there anything similar to that in taiko?
Not really. Some groups require you to audition in order to join the group, or others ask you to audition a song before they let you perform in public, but that’s the extent of it. It’s common to split the team based on years of experience or particular interest but these aren’t official ranks or levels.
Ah, I see. It seems taiko requires a high degree of coordination. How do you keep in sync?
Practicing is certainly key! Aside from that, there’s a small drum called the shime-daiko (締め太鼓) in the back that keeps the beat and all the people on the larger drums play and move according to that rhythm. While the large drums are the focal point for many taiko performances, really it’s the shime-daiko that’s the star of the show. We also kiai (気合) which is a short shout at certain points of a song which also keeps us in sync.
Okay, so are there certain arrangements or compositions that require strict adherence to the notes or can one improvise around those beats?
It’s a mix of both. Most taiko songs have composed sections as well as solo sections in which players are given time to play whatever they want by themselves. Of course, there are songs that are pretty much only solos and others where everything is set in stone.
That’s interesting. As an outsider, taiko may seem like an exclusive activity. Are you open to accepting people and what is your guiding philosophy?
Our guiding philosophy as a group is to accept anyone who is interested in playing taiko, regardless of experience or background. So to us, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have musical experience or never heard of taiko before meeting us. The only thing that matters is your desire to play taiko.
That’s great! Who would you say are the most note-worthy people you’ve performed for so far?
They’re just mostly big names in the taiko community. Kenny Endo, Seiichi Tanaka, and Tiffany Tamaribuchi are big names in North American taiko, but not so well known outside of that.
Who would you love to perform for and why?
Being invited to play for Kodo would probably be the greatest honor that we could imagine. Kodo is one of the most famous taiko groups, both in Japan and internationally. They’re very highly regarded. Being able to play for them would be incredible.
We wish you the best of luck with the dream. Coming back to rock music, we have noticed some Japanese rock bands that use traditional instruments. Are you familiar with any bands that use taiko?
The one that sticks out is Lolita Dark which is a rock band based in Southern California. We’ve been to a couple of their shows before so we’re familiar with them. There’s another band called Black Ros3 whose members are also taiko players. Outside of that, we’re not super familiar with Japanese rock bands in general.
Above all else, what would be the one thing a person would need to know about taiko?
Taiko is about community and togetherness. You can’t play a good song unless everyone is in sync with each other and support your community through your actions. It’s been incredible to be part of TaiKomotion and we’re all glad that we can gain more understanding of each member through the TaiKomotion group.
That’s great to hear. Now please leave our readers a message!
If you ever get a chance to see a taiko performance, definitely do! While the drums themselves may be ancient, but in North America is still young and still in its early stages of development. There’s a lot of new exciting taiko music coming out now with different instrumentation, as well as crossovers from different genres and new ways to play taiko.
We’d like to say thank you to TaiKomotion for speaking with us about their philosophy and efforts in taiko drumming.