Taiko, the heartbeat of Japan

Story and multimedia by Tauna Lynne Price

Watch Kenshin Taiko perform at Utah Valley University


The thunderous beat of a taiko drum echoes through the air. The pounding fills up the empty space in your lungs and consumes your body.

Taiko means “fat drum” in Japanese, according to a Web site dedicated to taiko resources. Tracking the Japanese taiko has proven extremely difficult. “The oldest physical evidence of taiko in Japan is a haniwa clay figure of a drummer that dates from the sixth or seventh century,” notes the Web site.

Taiko is a percussion instrument that performers strike with a pair of bachi. Drums have heads on both sides of the body. The heads, usually made from circles of rawhide, are soaked and stretched at least twice to ensure that the heads are properly shaped and that the tension is uniform on all “sides” of the drum.

Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion, had this mindset when making the taiko. “Because we are taking the life of a cow, we have to reconcile with that spirit and understand we also will be communing with that spirit and then with the tree itself,” said Matthew Stevens, a member of the Salt Lake City group Kenshin Taiko. “We are bringing in nature to make music with us, it is to be celebrated.”

After the tree is cut, a 10-year process begins for one drum to be made. The tree is hollowed out, allowing for the manufacturer to make several drums from one tree trunk. Stevens said the wood must be dried carefully and gradually.

Taiko is used in religious, ceremonial and festival performances. These lines have all assisted taiko in continuing to branch out. Taiko has made its way to America, forming its own legitimate branch on the tree, Stevens said.

It’s not just the beating of a drum; there is a therapeutic connection to the taiko. “And then you spend a moment … with taiko and when you go back, you might find that those problems don’t seem so weighty anymore,” said Stevens, who accesses culture through taiko, helping with the two-way conversation of American taiko and Japanese taiko.

Besides positive therapy results, the taiko also has a very religious connection. Taiko has a spiritual element, which gives many players the feeling of being closer to God. The Japanese Christians share their faith many ways, especially through taiko, said Gordy King, a member of Kenshin Taiko.

Taiko initially was used to define the limits of a village. A villager would beat a drum and runners would go out to the edge of the sound, and that was the limits of the village. People who heard the sound of the drum were part of the village. “We kind of incorporate that in our church,” King said. “We play at the Japanese Church of Christ. When the sound resonates and outsiders hear us play, we are inviting them into our family. If you’ve heard the sound of our drum, then you are part of our family now and you’re welcome to come,” King said. “Our small eclectic group has all different kinds of faiths and races.”

He added: “It’s not just about doing things on stage, it’s about being a community that enjoys making something beautiful together and that’s something really amazing, to create something wonderful for people.”

Taiko introduces musicianship. “Being involved in taiko, [it] very quickly and wonderfully sucked me into a very deep and compelling thread and vein of people,” Matthew Stevens said. “This is a visceral enjoyable fun thing. It’s great to see people look at it from the outside, look at it as shades of impossible, then you find yourself sucked into performing.”

Kim Correa, an active member of Kenshin Taiko, said, “I first saw Taiko performed at a Japanese Village in California when I was a child.”

During the summer of 2009, Correa took her kids to a Kenshin Taiko performance at Red Butte Garden’s Family Night. She found the taiko presentation amazing. Her children, ages 7 and 9, along with other children from the audience swarmed the stage. The performers allowed the children to play the drums. The kids loved it, Correa recalled.

Correa struck up a conversation with Ron Boisvert, a member of Kenshin Taiko. He encouraged her to take advantage of the free lessons the group offers on Mondays and Fridays. The following Monday, she and her children went to the Japanese Church of Christ, Correa said.

“I wasn’t the only person to bring kids along, and although my kids didn’t take an interest in drumming, they made new friends and enjoy playing in the courtyard and sometimes helping out in the kitchen,” Correa said.

She had previous experience on a western drum kit, but she found taiko completely different.

“I fell in love with drumming right away,” Correa said. “I learned songs and rehearsed for a couple of months, then the group, especially Laura Olson, encouraged me to do my first performance.”

Correa made the International Gardens Peace Festival in the summer of 2009 her first stage appearance. Despite her nerves, she completed two songs and had a profound experience.

Correa said taiko became an amazing way to connect with people, feed her artistic side and acquire friendships among a diverse group of people. With any group, there is conflict. However, the Kenshin performers work through their issues, and that has helped Correa strive as an individual.

“We build lasting relationships because not only do we rehearse twice a week and perform often, but we also do group activities like going out to eat, celebrating birthdays, going to plays and local festivals and more,” Correa said.

The appeal, the broad spectrum, use and the charm of Taiko, is wonderful for many different reasons, Matthew Stevens said.

“First, you have a form of music and it comes with all the things that music comes with. Expression, composition, it’s a form of tradition, so you can tap into that long tradition and continue to grow that tradition forward,” Stevens said.

Culture and communication also are important, he said.

“Last is the friendship, a social aspect, you come together as a team, you have social interaction with a very strong tie and almost a very, obviously, physical level and mental level, it reverberates very deeply. You can feel it,” Stevens said.

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