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Taiko drummer Mike Gonhata performs at a recent New Wave Friday

Mar 01, 2019

Taiko: The Cadence of Culture

 “When you hear the taiko drums, you can feel the vibrations down to your bones,” calmly states Hawai‘i taiko artist Kenny Endo. As both a performer, composer, and teacher of taiko, Endo is among the vanguard of modern taiko. “It reminds me of something that we’ve lost in our modern, convenient lives. It’s just a real basic thing—as basic as a mother’s heart beating in the womb. I think there’s something about drums in particular that have a resonance within people.” 

Indeed, drums have pounded out the heartbeat of ancient cultures around the world and continue to mesmerize modern peoples with their ability to evoke primal feelings of life, movement, and energy that stir deep in one’s soul. In Japan, taiko is simply the term for drum. There are several different sizes of taiko—each with its own name, construction, and sound—but each conveys a dramatic tension and haunting cadence through the rhythmic percussive movements of the musician. 

Taiko have mythological origins in Japanese folklore, but historical records suggest taiko were introduced to Japan through Korean and Chinese cultural influence as early as the 6th century, during Japan’s Kofun period. Initially, taiko were used for communication, religious ceremonies and in community festivals. In Buddhist traditions, taiko are used for ritual dances performed during the Bon Festival, a community event held in the summer to worship one’s ancestors. By the Edo era (1603-1867), taiko were also being used for theatrical accompaniment. 

 When Japanese immigrants came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations, they brought many of their cultural practices with them, including bon odori (bon dances) and the taiko played during the festivals. While this was Hawai‘i’s first introduction to taiko drumming, the modern-day iteration of taiko, called kumi-daiko, which literally means taiko ensemble, would not be invented until a century later.   

In the 1950s, several kumi-daiko groups formed in Japan, where the members played taiko of different sizes during powerful performances that highlighted the characteristics of their playing—the speed, the technique and choreography of the entire performance. During this transformative decade, taiko transcended its role as an accompaniment instrument and became an art form.

Kenny Endo saw kumi-daiko for the first time while he was in college in the 1970s. The performance enveloped him and he immediately decided to dedicate his life to the ancient Japanese art form. Already a successful jazz musician in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Kenny moved to Japan in 1980 to study taiko and its cultural heritage from a taiko sensei. One year turned into ten.

 When Kenny returned to Hawai‘i, he knew that in addition to sharing his newfound art through performance, he would find a way to pass his passion along to others. Soon, he found himself teaching taiko basics through a continuing education program at the University of Hawai‘i to a taiko-loving groups ranging from young children to the elderly. He also created his own kumi-daiko, and continues to perform with the ensemble and other world-renowned musicians to push the forefront of the art to new realms.

 “In any type of music, the ultimate goal is to capture the feeling of that music. Even when I compose, it’s thematic, meaning that there’s a story behind it,” explains Endo, who has made taiko drumming a mainstream art form in the islands. “As a composer and performer you have to understand that to capture the feeling. It’s actually getting into the frame of mind of expressing an idea. When you get on stage, you have to tap into the energy, history, and legacy of all those who have been on stage before you. If you can lose your ego, you’ll achieve a level higher than your abilities.”

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