The idea that “history repeats itself” was most apparent this past weekend, with Matsutoyo Kai. The annual Spring performance and luncheon was the next day and I arrived a little late for my shamisen lesson, resulting in an impromptu taiko drum lesson. Under the guidance of Matsutoyo Sensei, I memorized the the song structure and varying tempos, accompanying the shamisen players and vocalists. The songs were not pre-recorded, so my only hope of learning the music was standing in front of me. At the end of the lesson, I was instructed to take the taiko home and practice diligently—I was to play taiko the next day, at the Spring Concert! Incidentally, I had a [rock]band rehearsal immediately after the Minyo lesson, which rattled the sense of taiko rhythm and structure I had worked to memorize!
First and foremost, taiko drums are in no way similar to the Western drum kit. From the way they are played to how they are played, they are definitely in a league of their own. Taiko drums are played with a variety stick sizes, do not rely on rebound, and do not follow a “two four” feel, as is the current trend of popular music. In fact, the tempo shifts quite a bit in Japanese folk music by design, to better convey the mood of a piece. Contrary to Western drum tradition, the drums do not lead the music but are instead an accompanying instrument with a voice of their own. At the end of the day, the singer is the driving force behind Minyo music and the drums lend a supporting tempo, volume, and pulse.
Minyo usually involves at least two taiko-- shime-taiko (small drum) and ooki-taiko (large drum). Both have a batter and resonant head, played with wooden sticks. The side of the drum around the edge is used as well, to produce a clicking sound central to the “beat.” Like most organic instruments, taiko drums require meticulous care. Moisture and even slight changes in temperature can affect the tone. Because of this, special preparations must be made prior to the performance, to ensure optimal sound and the life of the instrument. One faces similar challenges when playing and storing a shamisen, but that will be left to a future post.
I arrived an hour earlier than usual, needing a few “spare parts" to complete my kimono. The most challenging part of packing for the show was making sure all of my kimono parts were prepared the night before. I own only two Kimonos and yet there are still many pieces and fabrics that require care—definitely a far cry from the t-shirt and jeans I throw on for Western performances. With the help of a few band members, I was able to fix a few pieces of the kimono and assemble the garment with minimal struggle. Everyone is very supportive in helping bandmates get dressed and I am always impressed by the camaraderie amongst the various performance groups.
The vibe of this show was definitely more on the serious side, possibly driven by the desire to perform well that day. With a full audience and fellow performers watching, the pressure was on! The stage didn’t leave much room for drums, with a full band present. I tried to sit on the floor near the side of the stage, hoping not to appear so out of place, being the only obvious foreigner in the group. Much to my surprise, I ended up playing at the front of the stage, sitting seiza style on a piece of red felt. Luckily, we only played three songs that way. Even then, I had a difficult time standing afterwards. It had been a few years since I had remained in this sitting position for a public performance, without requiring the help of Matsutoyo Sensei to stand up. I had planned to just gracefully roll off the side of the stage, to make my exit but given the circumstances, that wasn't an option.
The show was a success and I even received a bit of praise, regarding my taiko performance. I think people were just surprised that I was able to stand on my own and know which drum to hit first. Being a foreigner has its benefits 😉