Traditional Usages of Taiko
While taiko are used in a variety of musical settings in Japan, there are two primary genres from which contemporary taiko artists have routinely drawn inspiration: festival music and theatrical music. The drums discussed above are used in both genres, but often with different hitting techniques and used in different contexts. At the same time, however, these two musical worlds are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as elements of festival music can be found in theatrical music and vice versa, but as will be discussed later in this essay artists have taken particular elements from each musical environment while developing contemporary taiko techniques.
Taiko are a common sight at Japanese festivals (matsuri), used both for visual and musical purposes. One float carried as part of a procession during the June festival Sannō Matsuri in Tokyo, for example, features a statue of a rooster standing upon a painted nagadō-daiko (Figure 5). The musical role of taiko in festivals is more common than the visual, however; drums are hit during ceremonies are shrines and temples during festivals both as part of ritual and announce the beginning or end of a ceremony.
And yet, it is the use of taiko in the musical genre of matsuri-bayashi (literally, “festival orchestra”) but a phrase used for both the ensemble and the music itself that is most closely linked with contemporary taiko performance. Matsuri-bayashi are an essential part of matsuri proceedings; in their most visible role, they serve as part of Shintō festival processions, accompanying the mikoshi, a portable shrine believed to serve as palanquin for the gods, as it is carried around the area surrounding a shrine. In this situation, musicians either sit on a float as they play (Figure 6) or walk behind a cart upon which their drums are mounted (as seen in Video 1).
Both the music played by matsuri-bayashi ensembles and the instrumentation of the ensembles themselves varies according to region, but most ensembles feature a small nagadō-daiko with a head diameter of 12 to13 inches, at least one shime-daiko, a bamboo flute called a fue (or some other melodic instrument), and a metallic percussion instrument (often a handheld gong called atarigane or a pair of small handheld cymbals called chappa). The drums and percussion instruments primarily serve as rhythmic accompaniment for the melodic instrument in matsuri-bayashi, but in some festival settings taiko have a much larger role. For example, the drums are the main focus of the music of the Gozu Tennō Matsuri on the island of Miyake, part of a chain of islands southeast of the main island of Honshū.
Matsuri-bayashi are largely associated with Shintō festivals, but there are drumming traditions as part of Buddhist rite that have also influenced contemporary taiko performance. Most prominent among Buddhist usages of taiko is the drumming called bon daiko, played for the late summer festival of Obon that honors ancestor’s spirit. A major part of Obon festivities are nighttime celebrations featuring group dances called bon odori. In bon odori, dancers circle around a tower called yagura, stepping and moving their hands in time to folk songs called ondo. At the top of most yagura rests a single taiko (typically a nagadō-daiko). Before World War II, a full musical ensemble could be found on the yagura, featuring drums, melodic instruments like the fue or shamisen (a three-stringed lute-like instrument), and a singer. In the postwar period, however, the ensemble disappeared, leaving only the taiko (Figure 7).