What Is Taiko?

The moment we think of “Taiko”, we start imagining big fat drums that are used for creating music! Taiko is a Japanese drumming instrument that uses thick sticks, which are called as Bachi Sticks. Taikos are extremely huge drums that can weigh as much as three tons. In Japan, they are usually made up of hollowed out tree trunks, whereas in the US they are commonly made from wine barrels. As these drums have large heads, the sound is much deeper as compared to the smaller drums.

What is Taiko Drumming?
Drums are the most commonly used instruments in the percussion family. We usually tend to use any surface to drum on, but the true essence or the heartbeat of the drum lies in the drummer and the type of drums he plays. Taiko drumming is a traditional Japanese art form that makes use of drums that are of various sizes. The largest drums in size and sound are known as the odaiko drums. These drums are very large with some of them measuring to almost eight feet in diameter. Once they are positioned in a particular place, they can be hardly moved from there.

Traditional Uses of Taiko Drums:
As the Taiko drums are massive; their sound can be heard over great distances. Hundreds of years ago, these drums were used as means of communication. They were used to signal distant villages to warn them of an approach of a disaster or caution them about the beginning of a war. It was also used as an easy method to signal troops on the battlefield.

Modern Uses of Taiko Drums:
With the change in customs in present-day Japan, the Taiko drums are heard only at the time of village festivals or religious ceremonies. There are few Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan that have Taiko drums at the entrance, and they use it during celebrations. They are used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions. It also plays a major role in Japanese festivals wherein it is accompanied by a flute and Tsutsumi. Tsutsumi is a small hand drum that was traditionally used in Noh and Kabuki dramas. Moreover, Taiko is still used in Kabuki theatre to accompany actors and singers.

Four Principles of Taiko:
The Taiko drumming requires that the drummers develop an awareness of their body movement as well as their interaction with other drummers. So, they try to achieve the four principles of Taiko. These principles are attitude, musical technique, energy and form. Once these principles are achieved, they get the feeling of satisfaction as they have achieved the ultimate expression of Taiko.

Photo by Chris Lewis

Taiko is an influential and physically demanding discipline of collective drumming. It is famous across the world, and some of its popular groups include the San Francisco Taiko Dojo from the US and the KODO from Japan. The people of Japan have always enjoyed dancing to the beats of the Taiko drums. The local festivals and religious ceremonies of Japan offer their unique Taiko performances that are still mesmerizing the people around the world.

The History of Taiko!

Taiko is a sacred practice in Japan. However, one may not know that it was originally introduced to Japan from China. The practice was initiated in the fifth and the sixth century during the Yamato period. Taiko is a Japanese drumming instrument that was used in classical and folk musical traditions. Ancient people in the Jyomon Era used the Taiko drums as a tool for communication or for celebrating religious rituals. Then, the Taiko drums were started to be used in warfare. They were used to gather the soldiers, frighten the enemies, and issue important commands to them.

Later on, these instruments were used to send messages between villages, inform villagers about an unpleasant incidence that could happen, ward off animals during hunting, etc. The Buddhist monasteries used the Taiko drums as a ritual instrument to communicate with the God. The popularity of Taiko began during Japan’s feudal era. At this time, the Buddhist monasteries used to support actors that gave rise to the Noh Theatre. The performances of Noh Theatre were escorted with Taiko drums that made their acts popular.

Daihachi Oguchi is considered to be the father of modern Taiko. Earlier around 4000 years ago, Taiko was used to provide signals to the villages. Some villagers believed that the boundaries of the village could only extend up to the area where Taiko drums could be heard. So, the head of a big village used to have large drums.

There were different meanings of each beat that was produced in the village. The villagers were aware that simple beats meant that the hunters were setting out. Or, it also meant that a storm could arrive any moment, and the villagers were required to keep their fruits and vegetables safely in a covered area. The beats of the drums were very important to the villagers as it made their life easier.

Some of them were so content with the Taiko drums that they had started to believe that it was inhabited by a God. As time passed, the belief started becoming stronger and stronger. So, the villagers provided the chance of beating the drums to few learned men. There were few men that were authorized by the priests to play the Taiko on special occasions. In this way, there were some popular religions developed in Japan which included the Shinto and the Buddhist.

At present, Taikos are used in religious ceremonies and local festivals of Japan. Some of these drums can be found in the Shinto shrines and the Buddhist temples. It is one of the major instruments that are played at Bon Dances. The dynamic sounds of the drums have amazed most of the people worldwide.

The Japanese immigrants have spread the beautiful sounds of these drums across the globe. During the late nineteenth century, the immigrants of Japan took the art form of Taiko to North America. Even now, North America continues to practice this amazing Japanese originated rhythms and styles. Taiko has now become a universal musical language that is trying to make the world closer.