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Taiko Drum History and Culture in Japan

What are those big powerful drums you see at festivals in Japan?

By 3 min read

The celebratory sound of taiko (drum) has become integral to many festivals and performances across Japan. For centuries, taiko artisans and ensembles have helped preserve and advance these traditional Japanese instruments. Let’s dive into the history, craftsmanship and use of taiko drums in Japan.

The cultural significance of taiko extends beyond mere musical accompaniment, embodying a profound connection to Japan’s spiritual and communal traditions. Rooted in ancient Shinto rituals, taiko drums were believed to possess the power to communicate with deities, purify sacred spaces, and invoke a sense of unity in the community.

Taiko drums have evolved, adapting to various regional styles and incorporating modern elements into their performances. From the thunderous rhythms of festival processions to the delicate nuances of contemporary compositions, taiko continues to captivate audiences worldwide, transcending its traditional roots and finding resonance in global music scenes.

The Taiko Legend

It can get really sweaty.

Legend has it that the Japanese taiko, or “big drum,” has its roots in the ancient Jomon period when the sun goddess supposedly danced atop a large sake barrel. However, some historical records indicate that the first taiko drums were introduced from other parts of Asia during the Kofun period. Drumming on through the ages, the taiko has played various roles in communication, spirituality, entertainment and war.

In Feudal Japan, taiko was the heartbeat of battles, conveying orders and lifting the spirits of warriors. The belief that its powerful beats could resonate through the spirit world made taiko an essential part of ceremonies and festivals across Japan.

Carved from the immense trunk of a centuries-old tree, the taiko owes its durability and aesthetics to trees such as the keyaki (the Japanese zelkova tree). The meticulous process involves cutting, carving and waiting several years for them to dry.

A taiko can be made of a single hollowed-out tree trunk, or multiple wood planks, and engraving a pattern modifies the sound. The fine-tuning and shaping a taiko’s body reflects a craftsman’s knowledge and years of experience.

Types of Taiko Drums

A Taiko drum group performs for the crowd during the 58th Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival in Koza Athletic Park.

Each drum emanates a distinct and beautiful sound determined by size and design. For instance, the miya-daiko is an ornate taiko with a full body that produces a deep, resonant sound. The animal hide stretched over its body (the drumhead) is nailed in place, so its pitch cannot be adjusted.

On the other hand, the shime-daiko is a shorter drum with a wide body. Its drumhead is held in place by ropes, which allows the tension to be adjusted and, to some extent, the pitch to be tuned. This drum’s high pitch and quick response make it well-suited for playing intricate and fast-paced rhythmic patterns.

The world-renowned Kodo Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble and 400-year-old drum manufacturer Asano Taiko designed three original drums. Together, they crafted the shime-jishi, hibiki, and the world’s first taiko that can have its top and bottom drumheads tuned differently, the kanade.

Taiko in Performance

As the New Year dawns on Japan, the heart-pounding sound of taiko can be heard at concerts, public events, temples and shrines. Kumi-daiko, or taiko ensembles, showcase their prowess, creating powerful, rhythmic sounds to ward off bad spirits and bring luck for the coming year.

A grand kumi-daiko performance may involve over a hundred taiko drums, seamlessly blending dance, martial arts, and modern compositions. The colossal o-daiko, the largest drum in the ensemble, can tip the scales at a whopping 880 pounds. Ensuring its upkeep, setting it up on stage and transporting sizable taiko drums for international shows require meticulous planning.

Have you ever seen a taiko performance? Let us know in the comments.

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