Dum… Dum… Duhm… Duhm… DUhm. DUHm! DUHM! DUHM! DUHM! DUHM!
The sound of the drums was almost deafening. A wall of sound thumping into our chests. No wonder: The drummers were all of five feet in front of us, beating away at plump Japanese taiko drums. The nine performers played two energetic pieces before giving all of us in the audience a chance to make some noise, too.
My friend J. invited us to attend the taiko concert. She’s part of a culture class that sponsored the taiko troupe to perform on base. We were very happy to crash the event, held in a large meeting room at the Airmen and Family Readiness Center, and get our first up close taste of this popular style of Japanese music. For the first few beats, Liam’s hand flew up to his ears, but soon he was nodding away with the rest of us, engrossed by the sight of the drummers and the cascades of emphatic sound.
All of the drums were played with sticks. This troupe used five large drums, nagado-daiko, which sat upright at about waist level. They also had two sets of pairs of smaller, shallow drums, set up on stands. For the really big, deep booms, there were two odaiko drums set up sideways, end-to-end, on a stand. These were usually played by one of the three male drummers.
At least for this performance, the music was entirely percussion, not softened by flute or any other kind of melodic instrumentation. It wasn’t at all monotonous, though. The sounds ranged from quiet and slow, a simple, rhythmic tapping of the sticks together, to forceful and bold, as all of the drummers joined together, smacking their drums with great intensity. There’s a jazz quality to it, although I don’t think the performers ever improvised.
Taiko is visual: I doubt that I would want to sit at home and listen to a recording, but the experience of seeing it live was fantastic. (Funny: I feel the same way about modern jazz!) Our drummers dressed in white pants, floral shirts and red aprons, performed barefoot or in soft white Tabi shoes, which resemble socks. They often danced while they played, swinging their arms and feet in ritual motions, sometimes hopping from one drum to the next. They played with incredible, athletic, energy.
After a couple of songs, they invited the audience to have a try. For the first round, Liam was handed a pair of sticks and positioned in front of one of the five larger drums, the nagado-daiko. The instructor led everyone through a short composition. Liam took the opportunity very seriously. I can’t say that his rhythm was exactly right on, but it was fun to see how hard he was trying. For the next round, Wil and I each got a chance to try. I beat on one of the nagado-daiko and Wil got to swing away at the giant odaiko drum. Like Liam, my rhythm was a bit off, but it was sure fun getting to make some noise.
After the amateur hour, it was time to let the pros take the floor again. They treated us to a couple more impressive pieces before releasing us for the evening. They earned a standing ovation from the crowd and – because this is Japan – there was much bowing from both performers and audience.