The family of Japanese drums known as taiko is ubiquitous in Japanese society. They are used in religious and court rituals, as accompaniment for theater and festivals, and on their own as featured instruments in concerts. It is this last usage of taiko that is perhaps best known outside of Japan, but it is also the most recent of musical developments concerning the drums. The usage of taiko at the center of a performance is a post-World War II development, a combination of musical and visual elements from both across Japan and outside of the country, resulting in somewhere the rests in between old and new.
This essay explores the history of contemporary taiko performance, tracing its expansion beyond festival and theatrical roots into a performance medium featuring the drums themselves. Five groups and artists will be highlighted, demonstrating how they helped to develop contemporary performance techniques and repertoire. With an emphasis upon the link between standard festival and theatrical usages of taiko and the contemporary use in concert settings, this essay will reveal how, in post-World War II Japan, artists combined many different musical and visual influences into a new mode of performance.
What Are Taiko?
Taiko is the Japanese word for drum, typically applied to drum types native to Japan (the term wadaiko, literally “Japanese drum,” can also be used). There exist within Japan a wide variety of taiko, all used in many different fashions, but a few in particular can be linked to contemporary taiko performance. The type of drum used most often in contemporary performance is a byō-uchi-daiko (“tack-hit drum”), a drum in which skins are attached to both sides of a wooden body using tacks. A byō-uchi-daiko with a barrel-shaped body called a nagadō-daiko (“long-bodied drum”) is perhaps the most frequently used type of byō-uchi-daiko in contemporary taiko performance (Figure 1).
Performed alongside byō-uchi-daiko in a variety of performance contexts is a rope-tied drum called a shime-daiko (“tightened drum”) or tsukeshime-daiko (“attached, tightened drum”) (Figure 2). The skin used for a shime-daiko head is stretched over and sewed to a metal ring; the resulting circular head is then placed on both sides of a short, cylindrical wooden body. After ropes are drawn through holes in the heads, the skin tension is raised by tightening the ropes.
One other prevalent types of taiko used in contemporary performance is a katsugi okedō-daiko (“shoulder-carried bucket-bodied drum”), commonly used in festival music of the Tōhoku region of Japan (Figure 3). While the bodies of byō-uchi-daiko and shime-daiko are typically made out of a single piece of wood, katsugi okedō-daiko bodies are comprised of many boards joined together like a bucket and fitted into a bamboo hoop; the heads, meanwhile, are constructed and tightened in a manner similar to shime-daiko heads.
The above types of drums are typically hit with bachi, or drumsticks, but there also exists a particular type of drum in Japanese music that is hit with the hand. Called tsuzumi, these are hourglass-shaped wooden drums with heads on rings placed on each side of the body and tightened using ropes (the body construction and hitting type serve to separate them from shime-daiko) (Figure 4). These drums are commonly used in hōgaku (Japanese classical music), particularly in theatrical settings.