Mar 13, 2017
Keeping the Beat Alive
Photos by Taiko Center of the Pacific
It starts with a single beat of a Japanese drum. Boom. Boom. Boom. Quickly, with an almost military precision, the air thickens with the sound of a dozen more drums coming together, all beating as one. The sound of the drums is haunting in its rhythm; intense in its precision; historic in its nature and gripping to all those who hear it. This is taiko drumming and it's unlike anything else.
"The kids love to perform at events like that," Chizuko Endo tells me as she references the recent drumming exhibit at Ward Warehouse, led by a team of her young drummers. As one of the founders of the Taiko Center of the Pacific (TCP), she and her husband, Kenny, are considered local experts who have diligently spread their love of taiko to the city. While her organization teaches taiko to all comers, on this day, it was the children's group who put on such a stellar performance in the Village. And that's just one of the many interesting things about taiko: whether you're a child prodigy or a grand master drummer, there's always something more to learn.
I've been practicing taiko for more than 40 years and I still feel like there's so much more to learn. I still enjoy practicing every day and trying to improve.
While the exact origin of taiko is murky, most historians agree that the drums first began appearing in large numbers in Japan in the 6th century, during the Kofun Period, after making their way to the island nation by way of China and Korea. Multifaceted in nature, these drums were originally used in celebrations, festivities, warfare, and for religious purposes. Although Japanese culture may be revered for the beauty they connect to ritual (ever had the pleasure of watching a traditional Japanese tea service?) you'd be hard pressed to find something more moving, graceful, and powerful than watching a team of taiko drummers move through a haunting beat.
Despite the fact that taiko drums have been an integral part of life in Japan for generations, the graceful dynamic performances that we know today, commonly known as kumi-daiko, actually only date back to the 1950s and a man named Daihachi Oguchi. As a jazz musician, Oguchi reimagined the age-old art and introduced his own rhythm, pomp, and flavor to create something enticing. In the coming decades, this modern iteration of taiko swept through Japan and into other nations, taking root in places like Hawaii with strong Japanese communities.
When asked to describe his approach to taiko, Daihachi Oguchi famously said, "Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm in their mother's womb…It's instinctive to be drawn to taiko drumming. In taiko, man becomes the sound. In taiko, you can hear the sound through your skin."
Here in the islands, taiko continues to connect with the people of Hawai'i. That's in large part due to the hard work and dedication of the Endos and the TCP. Having immersed themselves in the history of taiko and having mastered kumi-daiko, TCP has made it their mission to preserve traditional Japanese drumming. And whether they're teaching life-long players or first-timers, their commitment to passing along their knowledge to future generations is unyielding, ensuring that the distinct beat of a taiko drum never dies.
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