Yesterday I went with my partner and two friends to see this remarkable taiko group, Tao Taiko. Taiko is Japanese drumming, which consists of a group of drummers using keg-shaped drums of various sizes, from about that of a man’s chest to about the size of a small car. The drumming is traditionally done as part of Autumn festivities, or in connection with shrine festivals, and it is the essence of Japanese pagan seasonal rites: earthy, bawdy, rowdy, physical and chaotic. The drumbeat resembles nothing so much as a pulse, and the depth and power of the rhythm is compulsive. Even amateur taiko troupes have a strong effect, because the beat is so catchy, the atmosphere so infectiously happy, and the sound huge. Typically during performances the drummers will wear a type of traditional festival clothing, which is all skirts and flowing sleeves, though often the men go bare-chested and the women can dress quite revealingly. The women all look very tomboyish and everyone has a raunchy style and manner, which is added to by the undoubtedly sensual compulsion of the beat, and the fact that the drummers regularly cry out in time to the music. Sometimes there is also dancing, and other traditional instruments. A good taiko performance resembles a pagan invocation or ritual as much as it does a musical performance, and it feels like you’re watching something old and magical.
Tao Taiko have taken this style and added some classically modern Japanese elements: a strong hint of anime style, particularly Final Fantasy; a bit of rock and heavy metal presentation and flair; a little horseplay and humour; and a dash of Chinese opera/martial arts overlap. The result is 2 hours of intoxicating rhythm and power, presented by beautifully proportioned men and women in the prime of their youth. It switches between eery, melancholy musical performances, classical taiko, displays of skill and showmanship, and music/dance performances that incorporate a little bit of martial arts dancing and a little bit of eroticism.
For example, the performance opened with a sad and beautiful quartet of drums, shamisen (a type of lute), bamboo flute and koto (a type of zither). The flute is truly evocative, with a very melancholy tone, and the drum was funereally slow. This performance faded out to be replaced by a group of drummers, and then some dancing. Later five drummers sat in a line on the stage and played a kind of game of passing the beat to each other, pretending sometimes to flip it into the air for another drummer to catch, and trying to catch each other out, with a hint of comedy bullying and posing thrown in for good measure. Later there was a very sensual performance, with a woman with a very fine body standing all sinuous and sexy in silhouette far up at the back of the stage, playing a big drum and dancing, while a man sat at a huge drum at the front of the stage in full light, and kept the main beat. There were also several astounding performances with two flutes and 8-10 drums, and it all finished up with the traditional rowdy, chaotic, multiple drum extravaganza of a normal taiko festival performance.
I’ve seen several taiko performances in Japan but up until now they were amateur groups. I think taiko captures a lot of the essence of rural life in Japan, and displays in music that facet of Japanese life that has never changed – the pagan undercurrent that ties the society together and makes it so radically different to our conservative and hypocritical christian heritage. It’s also perfect viewing for late summer, when the air throbs with cicada and the entire country is gasping in anticipation of the change everyone knows is soon to come. It’s like you’re watching and feeling the rhythm of the seasons, and Tao Taiko have turned that into a memorable performance. They’re touring internationally over the next two years, so if you get a chance, I strongly recommend having a look!