Monday, October 29, 2007


Yesterday afternoon, I watched a performance of the taiko students from the University of Kyoto of Art & Design at the Kyoto-shi Budo Center (Kyoto Martial Arts Center). The performance actually took place at a karate tournament; although, there were other musical acts as well, including a marching band and a choir. Twenty-three of the taiko students from the university played: because I have had the privilege of watching their practices, it was really neat to see everything come together. They definitely did a great job and I really enjoyed the show; but, due to the fact that the performance was in a large gymnasium, the sound quality was pretty mediocre (not their fault though!). The thousand-plus person crowd really was into the show. Below are some videos from the show, although as I mentioned, the sound might not be too sharp
I love the airborne guy!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


October 23, 2007

On Tuesday night, I went to another taiko practice at the university. The students are preparing for a performance this Sunday at a karate festival (yes, you read that right, a karate festival). Apparently, the festival is organized by the same man that coordinated the actions scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. I’m really excited to see the performance on Sunday!

As I was watching tonight’s practice, I began to really appreciate that Japanese taiko is a musical art the wholly rejects any sort of discrimination. Simply put, taiko drumming is accessible to all.

Below are some videos from the practice. Enjoy!

I was walking along the Kamo River and stumbled across this guy playing a didgeridoo. It was very random...

Monday, October 22, 2007


OH, I completely forgot to mention earlier tonight, Nobu (the student that I am staying with), a bunch of his friends, and I jammed on the roof of one of the buildings at the university. In addition to me on drums, there was guitar, bass, trombone, and a bunch of different hand-percussion instruments. It was a good time indeed; playing outdoors to the lights of the city was an awesome experience.


Another day, more fantastic research opportunities! This afternoon, I visited Professor Tagaki at Kyoto University of Art & Design. I cannot explain how helpful she and everyone else at the Japanese Drums Education Center (the Taiko Department) have been. Professor Tagaki has arranged for me an interview with the executive administrator of Asano Taiko, the most renowned taiko crafting company in the world. Asano Taiko was founded in 1609 (!!!) and pretty much is the Rolls Royce of taiko: check out
and look at the “Products” section of the webpage. Asano Taiko is in Ishikawa Profecture, which is several hours north and east of Kyoto; it is on the coast of the Japan Sea. Actually, it is one of main ports to Sado Island. The interview will be on November 8th. (After doing some research, I discovered that Hideki Matsui is from Ishikawa).

As if that weren’t enough, Professor Tagaki and the other members of the Taiko Department gave me two really awesome shirts with their group name (Shien), and a really nice towel that has prints of different Japanese drums. It was such a thoughtful gesture, and it’s been so neat getting to know Professor Tagaki, the other members of Shien, and the students of Professor Tagaki’s taiko class.

I just realized that I haven’t really written about Shien; so here is a little background information. Professor Tagaki founded Shien in 2000; there are eleven members in all, although I have only met five. The group performs nationally and internationally. Accordingly to a handout about Shien, the members, “all excel in concentration and spiritual strength, but they still keep challenging themselves through everyday training for a performance that unifies the energy of the drums and the drummer’s spirit.” (This fits so perfectly into the parameters of my research, you probably think I’m making this up!)

After my really great meeting at the Taiko Department, I went to watch a performance by Shien. The show was in this really nice building that is normally used for tea ceremonies, and is located on the absolute top of the campus; in fact, I might very well be the highest point in all of Kyoto. There is a splendid view of the entire city and the surrounding mountains. Shien performed three songs: “Hado,” “Nagare,” and “Yatai-Bayashi.” The first two compositions were originals, and the last was a traditional festival song from the Chinchibu District in the Saitama Prefecture (outside of Tokyo). There were five members of Shien performing today, Professor Tagaki, Noda, Yoshida, Kohara and Suziki (although the last two only played on the second number).

There were three types of drums used: nagado-daiko, shimedaiko and okedaiko. Rather than me trying to describe just how fantastic the performance was, below are a bunch of videos from it. It is true that the videos fail to fully convey the excitement of the show, but they are still pretty cool. Enjoy!


Here are videos from Shien's performance on October 22nd. My favorite is the last one!

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Here are a handful of videos from the Soratane Matsuri. Banzai! (Translation: Hooray!)
Also, I had made it so you can comment on my posts without signing in or registering. So, it should be easier to comment now...


Last night, I went to the Soratane Matsuri at the Yui-myonuji (Buddhist) temple in the neighborhood of Kataoji here in Kyoto. The festival was an all-day event; although the music mostly was at night. This festival (“matsuri” is Japanese for “festival”) is relatively small; about a hundred people attended.

I arrived shortly after 6pm, and soon thereafter, there was a fire show, with several dances and eight djembe (African hand drum) players. The music was African, and not Japanese: the players brought a “Rasta” feel, as many of the had dreadlocks. To be honest, I had never heard of Japanese fire shows; and the act itself, in combination with the “foreign” music, was a pretty wild experience. I definitely did not expect to see such a display here in Japan, let alone at a Buddhist temple!

Then, the taiko students from the university performed about a half-dozen songs. About twenty students played; although, not all at the same time. Their performance was fantastic: the crowd gave a standing ovation at the end of their set. I have had the privilege to watch their practices this week, and must admit that they sounded their best tonight. The most memorable aspect of the performance was that it was on the footsteps of a Buddhist temple, and in the background, there was a shining golden statue of the Buddha. (You’ll understand what I’m talking about when you see the videos and pictures).

Notice the djembe players.

Fighting fire with fire.

The golden Buddha in the background is really cool!


Last Thursday night, I attended another taiko practice at the university. This time, however, I participated! I must admit that playing taiko is tremendously difficult. The mechanics of the sticking are completely different that of playing Western-style drums: rather than using your wrists and fingers, the taiko stick requires the use of your entire arm. Thus, physically, it is a much more taxing exercise.

Furthermore, so much of what makes taiko drumming so special is syncing the of your motions with the motions of the other players: that is to say, there is an insane amount of coordination among all the players. When you watch the videos, it is apparent that all of the drummers are in perfect unison.

I must admit that after twenty-five minutes of playing I had blisters on my fingers! As difficult as it was, it was a truly awesome experience.

Also, on Thursday afternoon, I went to the Kyoto National Museum to see a special exhibition of the Kano school, traditional Japanese art from the mid-16th Century. Not surprisingly, my favorite painting was entitled, “Emperor Xuanzong Hits a Drum and Makes Flowers Bloom.” Unfortunately, photography was prohibited; you can probably imagine what this painting looked like (the title says it all). In the permanent collection of the museum, there were a several display cases of drums from the 17th and 18th centuries: some of the drums had pretty cool paintings on them, including ones with designs of maple leafs, dragons and clouds.

A view from the university.

Outside the museum.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Here are a couple more photographs from the taiko practice...Starting tomorrow, I will be staying with Nobu, another student of Noriko, at a Buddhist temple. I am unsure whether I will have internet connection, so if I am out of touch for a while, that is why!

Professor Takagi in the middle. Enlarge this picture to see the (very cool) intensity.

The class bows...Side note: I really need to learn how to bow properly.

The class drums away.

The many shapes of taiko sticks.


October 16, 2007

Last night, I attended a taiko practice at the University of Kyoto of Art & Design. Noriko Fuku, my primary contact in Kyoto, introduced me to Yoshimi Takagi, the director of the taiko program at the university. Professor Takagi is a celebrated taiko performer herself: after watching she indeed is a fantastic player. In the past, she has taught several of Kodo drummers. Interestingly enough, next April, Professor Takagi and her sister are performing a duet of taiko and classical piano: this has never been done before. I’m sorry I will miss it!

For almost three hours, I watched the taiko practice. There were three distinctive parts: first, the students performed about seven or eight pieces; second, Professor Takagi and her assistant gave various instruction and performance tips to the students; and lastly, the professor and her taiko group, Shien, rehearsed for an upcoming show next week.

The student performances were really great: the students have been studying taiko from anywhere from six months to four years. There were about 35 students in all. At least half of the students were female. The number of participants in each performance varied, ranging from five to twenty-five students playing at a time.

There were several different kinds of taiko drums used: nagado taiko, shimetaiko and oketaiko. Below are pictures to distinguish these three drums. The nagado taiko is the classical sounding drum; a very full sound indeed. The shimetaiko is almost like a tightly-tuned snared drum: it has a distinctive high-pitched sound. (It’s probably the drum you can here the clearest in the videos). There are two types of shimetaiko drums; one that is tuned with ropes, and another that is tuned with thick metal lugs and bolts. The shimetaiko drums with the metal lugs is much easier to tune, but makes the drum very heavy and less aesthetically pleasing. The oketaiko almost looks like a marching drum: it has a strap so the perform can move around with ease. In the videos, it is the glossy black drum with purple roots. In addition to the drums, for some of the performances, there was the occasional hand cymbal player and flutist.

Watching the almost-flawless technique of the performers was a very special experience.
Because the auditorium was solid concrete, the whole room would shake with the booming of the drums. While I was attending a practice and not a formal performance, the quality of the music was still very excellent. The perfection of the motions of the drummers was remarkable: they were always in unison, in perfect posture. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching the “dancing” element of the performances. Taiko drumming is an art that exerts the entire body.

After the class was over, Professor Tagaki performed with several of the more accomplished students. (It is the third video). The highlight of the evening was when the professor, her assistant and one other player performed on the oketaiko drums. (There are two videos of this; the trio of drummers). It should be noted that they were performing original music. In regards the spiritual element of her music, Professor Tagaski said, “One soul [is very] small; but three souls [can make a] big sound.”

I took many pictures and videos; below this post some of my favorite videos I shot. Unfortunately, because the music was so loud, the sound quality is pretty poor. I also recorded some audio clips, and will post those as soon as possible.

The two different types of shimetaiko drums.


Here are a handful of videos from a taiko practice at the University of Kyoto of Art & Design:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


October 14, 2007

On Sunday evening, one of Noriko’s assistants, Yuki, took me to a traditional Ainu music performance. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, mostly from Hokkaido, the northern island. Today, they are a minority, with only about 150,000 Ainu remaining.

Traditionally, the Ainu people sing and dance to entertain the gods. In this performance, the myth of the origin of the god of fire was sung. After doing some research, I have learned that within the Ainu belief system, according to scholar Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, “the musical instruments are said to be imbued with souls.” In general, the religion of the Ainu people is animist – that everything, animate or not, has a soul.

There were three musicians, two men and a woman. The performance was interactive: at one point, the female singer taught the crowd a verse and had everyone sing in unison. This reflects the fact that typical Ainu music performances are an experience for the entire community.

The choice of instruments was very interesting, ranging from a tonkori (a stringed instrument of the Ainu people), an open-faced drum of the Ainu people (about 16” in diameter), a djembe (Western African large hand drum), a goblet drum (North African medium-sized hand drum), a xylophone, and a violin.

The Ainu drum (I am unsure of its name, unfortunately) was an especially beautiful drum: there was an abstract pattern of people around the drum – although, it should be noted that the sound of the drum was not extraordinary.

The performance highlights the general interconnectedness of music, religious or not. The synthesis of Eastern and Western instruments is a very interesting concept: to a varying degree, fusion music is apparent in almost every culture. Nonetheless, in a religious context, the hybridization of Japanese (Ainu), Western and African instruments is a very progressive prospect. For me, it is so interesting to observe the indigenous Ainu musicians perform religious music on non-traditional (Western and African) instruments. One would think that Ainu music would be performed entirely on the instruments of the Ainu people; or at the very least, on Japanese instruments.


Two djembe solos and a full band performance...Enjoy!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Here are two photographs from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, which was first built in 798.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Whew. So that last post was really, really, ridiculously long...I am Kyoto right now; I arrived yesterday afternoon. I am staying with one of Noriko's students, Rei. It has been a really neat opportunity to live with a local! There are many temples I want to visit, so I think I will do some temple-hopping this weekend.

Yesterday, I visited Noriko and her students at the university. Next week, I will be staying with Nobu, who lives at a temple near the university. Nobu is a musician, and in the late afternoon, we went to a music studio on campus and jammed for a bit, myself on drum kit, and Nobu switching among the bass, acoustic guitar and djembe. It was really fun, and I’m sure we will be playing more while I am in Kyoto.


October 10, 2007

Today, I returned to the Miyamoto Japanese Percussion & Festival Shop to visit the Drum Museum, which is on the top floor of the shop. The museum was founded in 1988, and is financed by the store. Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten was drum crafter from Tokyo (then called Edo) in the mid-19th Century; he founded his shop in 1861. The museum itself is rather small: it is only one room that is probably about a thousand square feet. Despite its modest stature, the museum is teeming with drums from all corners of the world. On the introductory plaque at the museum, it read, “These drums were collected with the aim of fostering an appreciation for the role they have played in different cultures around the world.”

The wealth of drums is not limited to Japanese percussion: in fact, there are more international drums than Japanese drums. (Although, naturally, there are more drums from Japan than any other individual country). There is a diverse representation of drums from around the world, including, but not limited to: Zaire, Ivory Coast, Angola, Trinidad & Tobago, Iran, India, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Tibet, Ireland, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, China, Korea, Mexico, Peru, and Greenland. This list is not complete; so imagine drums from all these countries (most countries had more than one drum on display), plus several other countries, in one room. It was a pretty special sight. As I think about it now, it has to be the place in the entire world that has so many drums from so many different origins in a single room.

Some drums you can even play! Shortly after I entered the museum, the curator came in with two pairs of thick taiko sticks. She demonstrated a traditional taiko beat for me, and then had me follow her lead. Then, one of us would continue with that set beat, and the other would play an improvisation. We only played for a couple of minutes, but I am proud to say that I have played my first taiko drum! It is really wonderful that the museum is interactive: as a drummer, it would be difficult to see all of these great drums and not be able to play some of them!

Another fantastic aspect of the Drum Museum is that there is background information, in English, on almost all of the drums, detailing the crafting technique and broader cultural (or religious) implication of the said drum. Without a doubt, this made it a much richer experience.

Being that there are over three-hundred percussion instruments in the museum, there is no way I can write about everything I saw. I did, however, take notes on all of the Japanese drums on display, and also my favorite international drums.

Of the international collective, I had three definite favorite ones. First, was the senufo drum from the Ivory Coast. This drum is made from a hippopotamus’ foot, and is used for coming-of-age ceremonies. There was another variation of the senufo drum that had a wooden carving of a woman with her hands raised holding the drum, and thus acting as a stand for the drum. Second, was the tromme, a small drum from Greenland, made from driftwood and a walrus’ stomach. Shamans would play this drum in while reciting their daily prayers. Last, and most certainly not least, was the damaru rnga-chun from Tibet. Hands down, this is the strangest drum I have ever seen or heard of; and not because of its physical appearance or actual sound it makes, but rather for what is it crafted from. The damaru rnga-chun is made from a human skull and human skin. (I probably should have put a disclaimer at the start of this paragraph). Apparently, in ancient Tibet, the damaru rnga-chun was revered as a sacred object, and used in ceremonies to pray for the physical well-being of others.

Another other point of interest from the international drum collection was the African slit drum, which was almost identical to the Fijian lali: I would be very curious to find out if there is a direct connection between the two drums, or if it is just coincidental that the two drums appear the same.

There were at least eight or nine different types of drums from Morocco; but, I’ll write about those in a couple of months! Also, there were about a half-dozen different types of steel drums from Trinidad. According to the museum, “In the late 1930s, it [the steel drum] was feared that the natives of American descent were using the drums for secret messages so they were outlawed.” I’ll have to investigate that next summer.

In total, I counted twenty-four different types of Japanese drums; and for many of these unique drums, there were multiple variations, such as in size and style. As much as I would like to write about each drum (I have detailed notes on all of them), I am not sure if that would be worth it. So, instead, I will write about a handful of my favorite ones:

There is a tremendous rang of taiko drums; with differences in size, shape, type of head, and overall design. Taiko drums can have two types of heads: either tying the heads to one another with rope, or bolting the head directly onto the shell of the drum. On one plaque, it was noted that, “An aim for making the drum is to simply the tuning process.” In all honestly, I would think that pulling on a rope would be the easier tuning technique; as, I would imagine, tuning the bolts requires using a hammer. Then again, more taiko drum heads are secured with bolts than rope, so maybe the tuning is not that difficult after all.

Depending on the type of drum, the thickness of the drum skin (the head) varies: the thinnest is called namituske, and the thickest, gochogake. The drum skins always are thicker in the front than the back. The skin itself is made from either horse, ox or cow. The shell of the drum almost always is made from zelkova wood, which is a type of elm tree. There were a couple of clay drums as well.

The shimedaiko is largest taiko drum: it is absolutely huge and indeed sounds very overpowering. You probably have all seen this drum before – it is the classic massive Japanese drum. The drum is so large it, “uses a special stand to keep it off the floor.” Perhaps like the instruments of Hindustani music, the shimedaiko has a sacred value and therefore must always be above the ground. Players use bachi sticks, which are very long and made from bamboo.

The nagado-daiko is the standard drum of traditional Japanese music. It is crafted from zelkova wood and ox hide. They are fairly large drums, somewhere in between a Western floor tom and bass drum. One interest note about the nagado-daiko is that it is tax exempt, as it is most commonly used in Buddhist temples.

Albeit it is not a drum of any real religious significance, the social implications of the ameya daiko are pretty neat. “Ameya” means candyseller, and back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, candysellers would play this drum, dance and sing to attract customers. The first seller to do so was a man named Hanzaburo Kyokueho, who would walk, play and sing all around Tokyo (Edo). The drum is rather thin, and is somewhat reminiscent of a large tambourine without the cymbals. The ox hide head is bolted onto the wooden shell. So, from this initial candyseller/drummer, an entire genre of performance was created, called, “ameyagei,” candyseller’s entertainment.

Another drum that has an interesting non-religious history is the yokyu daiko. This drum is a perfect rectangle, which, of course, is an odd shape for a drum. The yokyu daiko was used for archery; it would be placed directly behind the target, and, “If you hit the target, a clean ‘kachiri’ sound [would occur]; if you miss and hit the drum, a thudding ‘don.’” Makes me want to take up archery!
There were several drums that were instrumental to various religious services and practices – sorry for that pun, I really didn’t mean it! The uchiwa daiko is a thin drum made from ox hide that is connected to handle; so it almost looks like an oversized ping-pong paddle. (There is a picture of me holding on in an older post). According to the plaque, “Nichiren sectarians beat it when they recite their bible, since the Kamakura period.” It should be noted that Nichiren is a school of Buddhism; the term “bible” is used generally here.

The himojime nagado daiko is used for folk music from Shinshu, in central Japan. This drum drew my interest because it is remarkably similar to the Indian dholak. I am unsure of its exact roots, but I would not be surprised if it is, in fact, directly modeled after the dholak. If Buddhism, an Indian religion, made it all the way to Japan, I figure it is also possible that the dholak did as well.

The paranku, and its larger cousin the okinawa taiko, are both an intricate part of various Buddhist rituals and prayers. The drums themselves are similar to the nagado taiko, but not nearly as deep. Historically, these drums would be used to praise the spirits of deceased ancestors. Specifically, the participants would ask Amida Buddha to guide the spirits of their ancestors to heaven. (I recognize that this does not sync up with the normal tenets of Buddhism; but, as we all know, religion is never consistent anywhere).

Without a doubt, the most beautiful drum was the kaen daiko: there were three variations of this drum, and each was absolutely breathtaking. The drums are hand-painted with gold, red, blue, green and black: there are either wooden carvings or paintings of dragons on the head or the drum itself. These drums are used in various Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. The drums were actually only one-eighth of their normal size; and even so, they were good-sized drums!

There were so many other Japanese and international drums that I could write about, but I’d be surprised if anyone is still reading this right now! This post is definitely way too long, and honestly has taken me a few days to write.

My only qualm about the Drum Museum is that photography is prohibited. I recognize and respect their rules; yet, especially since the closing line of the mission statement of the museum affirms, “We hope that the Drum Museum will promote understanding, research, and love for drums,” I do not agree with that rule. I understand that flash photograph may damage the drums over time; but, I really feel that it is such a wonderful place, it should be shared. I feel bad that I have all these descriptions, but almost no pictures!

In broken English, the curator told me that she could take pictures of me in front of the drums, but I could not take any of just the drums. I guess you will all have to come to Tokyo someday to see it for yourself! It’s worth the trip, I promise!

I spent well almost three hours in this one room, to ensure that I digested everything there was to see. I will leave you with this quotation from the introductory plaque at the museum: “Between man and God, and among men, these drums of the world have served as a means of communication.” Sounds like my research in a nutshell…

Here I am sitting next to a shime daiko, a beautiful black, orange and drum used for folk music, and Nougaku, traditional performing arts. The head is made from ox hide and deer skin.

I am standing next to a large shimedaiko (the black one) and some smaller nagado-daiko drums. It is difficult to tell how large the shimedaiko is, but it a very deep drum.

Here is my favorite, the three kaen daiko drums.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Yesterday, I ventured to Miyamoto Japanese Percussion and Festival Store in western Asakusa. While I was still searching for the store, I realized that it was in same neighborhood as the Japanese Percussion Center – I began to worry that maybe the two stores were in fact the same story, because, I thought, what were the odds that there were two multi-floor percussion shops in same neighborhood? (Please note that the vast majority of streets in Tokyo do not have names; thus, navigating around the city can be quite difficult. The truth is that even if there consistently were street signs, I couldn’t read them). As it turns out Miyamoto and the JPC are two blocks from one another.

Entering Miyamoto, you are engulfed in a sea of traditional drums, which are all scattered around an assortment of festival paraphernalia. Just as JPC had a wide array of international percussion instruments, Miyamoto had a diverse collection of Japanese drums, the bulk of which I never even seen or heard before! Most of the drums were nagado daiko drums; the standard drum of taiko. (Just so you know, “taiko” and “daiko” are the same thing: just like “Taoism” is pronounced with a D-sound, and therefore sometimes spelt “Daoism”). All of the drums were made of natural materials: finished wood for the shell and animal-hide for the heads. There also was a modest collection of brass hand cymbals.

Something I noticed about the drums was that there are several different types of drum heads and ways to fasten the head itself. Some heads fit perfectly on the drum, like any normal Western drum; yet, some were (intentionally) much larger than the shell of the drum. Furthermore, there were three different means of securing the head to the drum: tying ropes from the top head to the bottom head, in a manner very similar to the Indian dholak; some had metal lugs and bolts to secure the head, almost like Western snare drums; and most commonly, particularly with the nagado daiko drums, the heads were stapled with a semi-circle bolt (I honestly don’t know what the right word for it is; in the pictures, it is the black circular doohickey on the edge of the head). I am not sure how a nagado daiko would be tuned, since the head seems so intact to the drum.

Another neat aspect of Miyamoto was the collection of drumsticks. Unlike Western drumsticks that have a definitive top and bottom of the stick, the taiko sticks are evenly shaped. The range of the stick size was extremely impressive, varying from (length/width) 32cm/18mm to 63cm/55mm. (I’m not on the metric system either, so just imagine a really small thin stick almost like a long pencil to a decent-sized tree branch). There was even one kind of stick that was flat and only about a quarter inch wide, but almost three feet long!

The drums ranged in price, anywhere from about ¥10,000 to ¥700,000 (that’s like $85 to $6,000). In their catalogue, I even saw a drum for ¥1,995,000 – about $18,000! So needless to say, I refrained from purchasing one. I figure that it Sado Island should provide ample opportunity for that. Also, like my experience in Fiji, I want to witness the crafting of my drum, so I know its history!

After I visit the Drum Museum – which is above Miyamoto – tomorrow and learn more about what I saw in the shop, I will write more in detail about all of these Japanese drums. Unfortunately, no one spoke English at the shop. This, of course, was frustrating; yet, just by studying the drums themselves, I was able to learn about them. There were instructional books of how to play the different drums, but they were all in Japanese. Some did have pictures, so I might end up picking one up.

I spent almost two hours in Miyamoto. It was kind of like being in Japanese drum heaven! I can’t wait until I get to check out the museum!