From Stanford to Switzerland, wadaiko drumming has spread across the globe. What is it, and where did it come from?
A Brief History of Taiko Up to the Edo Period
Taiko (太鼓) is short for wadaiko (和太鼓), the traditional Japanese drum, which has existed for centuries. It is first thought to have been used by the ancient Japanese to signal each other and to petition the gods for rain and good harvest. Clay statues with taiko slung from their shoulders have been excavated from burial mounds that date back to the 6th century.
Also during the 6th century, taiko transformed from a simple communication tool to a respected musical instrument, as immigrants from Asia arrived with their own drums to Japan. and taiko was inducted into the Gagaku Department of Imperial Music, making it more than a simple tool for communication. In 752, taiko took on greater religious significance when it was played at the unveiling of the giant Buddha statue in Nara.
Skipping ahead to the 13th century when the arts began to develop in Japan, taiko was used to accompany Noh theater, and later on in the 17th century became an integral part of nagauta, the music of kabuki. Meanwhile, it is believed that in the 16th century, the famous warlord Takeda Shingen used taiko in the Battle of Kawanakajima to rally his troops and intimidate their enemy.
Taiko in Japan Since 1951
It is hard to believe, but in all these myriad cases throughout history, taiko was always used as a solo instrument. It wasn’t until recent history (1951) that an innovative drummer named Daihachi Oguchi proposed the revolutionary idea of performing multiple taiko together in ensemble style. This is kumi-daiko, which is the style we are familiar with today. Master Oguchi’s taiko group, Osuwa Daiko, performed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and went on to tour the world, even making it to Iraq to perform at the “World Peace Festival.” Master Oguchi passed away in 2008, and after him came a man who went by the name Den Tagayasu (田耕). He formed the legendary group, Ondekoza, which was a community of drummers who lived and trained together in a schoolhouse under a strict regimen, with the motto “running and drumming as one.”
Ondekoza won worldwide attention at the 1975 Boston Marathon, where they crossed the finish line and jumped straight onto a stage to do an energetic taiko show for the other runners. Subsequently, they embarked on a US Marathon Tour in 1990, a China Marathon Tour in 1998, and since then have toured in Taiwan and Europe, in addition to performing in Japan for the Emperor. From Ondekoza came another renowned group called Kodō (鼓童). Their members also live, run, and train communally and have performed worldwide. Like Ondekoza, their striking performances involve powerful kakegoe (voice), immaculate kata (form), incredible waza (technique), and energetic, dance-like choreography, which has turned taiko drumming into something of a martial art.
A relatively newer group, Drum Tao was formed in 1993, which took taiko to yet another level. They have performed on and off Broadway, wowing audiences with their colorful costumes, acrobatics, and the incorporation of modern technology like projection mapping.
Thanks to these pioneering groups, taiko has become explosively popular in Japan. There are currently an estimated 5,000 taiko groups all across the country, and since 2002, public schools in Japan have been required to include traditional Japanese instruments, including taiko, in their musical curriculum.
Taiko Outside of Japan
Taiko came to the US with the arrival of Japanese immigrants and was already well-established by 1910 as an accompanying instrument in bon-odori. However, it was nearly erased from memory following the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Thankfully, during the 60’s, a taiko revival came. It began with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968, and was fueled on by Ondekoza and Kodo’s activities in the 70’s and 80’s. Today, there are over 1,000 taiko groups in North America, including collegiate groups, some of which have gone on tour and even received accolades from the Japanese government. Some of these prestigious American taiko groups include:
San Francisco Taiko Dojo–established in 1986 by a pupil of Daihachi Oguchi
San Jose Taiko–established in 1973; awarded the Foreign Minister’s Commendation of Achievement by the Japanese government
Taiko Project–has recorded tracks for TV and film; was featured in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony video performance of the song “Imagine”
On Ensemble–a group formed in 2002 that blends taiko sound with world music; enjoys the patronage of Japan’s Imperial instrument maker
Stanford Taiko–established in 1992; hosts nearly 300 students a year at the Intercollegiate Taiko Invitational
Outside Japan and North America, taiko is also wildly popular in the UK, continental Europe, Oceania, and South America. Here are just a few of the well-established groups:
The UK (Tamashii Taiko)
Spain (Isabel Romeo Taiko)
Brazil (Associação Brasileira de Taiko)
New Zealand (Tamashii Taiko Drummers)
Australia (Taiko On)
Switzerland (Taiko Zürich)
How Taiko Is Made
Now that you know some of the history of taiko and what it has been used for over the centuries, let’s look at how the instrument is actually made, and the different kinds of taiko there are.
The body of a taiko is made from a single piece of wood, usually the trunk of a Japanese Zelkova tree (けやき). Since a standard taiko is 60cm (nearly 2 feet) in diameter, the tree used must be over 100 years old. After being hollowed out, the wood is dried for 1 to 5 years. A cow hide is then stretched over the ends to form the drum head. This is either fastened with nails (鋲打ち太鼓, byō uchi daiko) or fitted with a steel ring and tensioned with ropes (締め太鼓, shime daiko).
What Types of Taiko Are There?
When you hear the word “taiko,” what kind of drum do you imagine? The giant one sitting on its side atop a stand, or the one carried by happi-clad drummers at a matsuri? Taiko come in all shapes and sizes!
Nagadō Daiko/Miya Daiko 長胴大こ/宮太鼓
This large-bodied taiko is the standard in most taiko stage performances. Nagadō daiko is placed on a stand and played either standing up (miyake style) or sitting down (yatai style). Players strike it with bachi (バチ, drumsticks) in the center to make a booming sound or on the rim to make a clacking sound.
The bass drum of taiko, ōdaiko is set on its side so that the drummer faces the drum head. This is what professional taiko drummer Kensaku Sato performed on at the closing ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Eisa Daiko エイサー太鼓
Another variety of the ōdaiko but about the size of nagadō daiko is the eisa daiko, which is used in traditional Okinawan (Ryūkyū) music.
Shime Daiko 締太鼓
A small, light drum of the rope-tensioned variety, this taiko is set on a stand at an angle. It is higher pitched than the nagadō daiko and ōdaiko and is used to accompany Noh and kabuki performances and to keep time in ensembles.
Okedō Daiko 桶胴太鼓
The medium-sized taiko that is often used at matsuri, this one is hung from one shoulder by a strap. Rather than being made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, this one is made wine-barrel style from several planks of wood.
Hira Daiko 平太鼓
Compared to the others, the hira daiko’s body is quite short, like a flattened pancake. This drum is used in the graceful yet vigorous awa odori dance of Tokushima Prefecture.
In contrast to the other taiko, this hourglass-shaped drum is played by hand, rather than drumsticks. The large variety is called ōtsuzumi and the small variety is called kotsuzumi. Tsuzumi is used to accompany Noh and kabuki theater and in minyō folk music.
The wood used to make bachi are of varying hardness, making them better suited to different taiko. Kashi (bamboo leaf oak) or kaba (birch) are used with nagadō daiko, and hō (Japanese whitebark magnolia) and maple are used for smaller drums like shime daiko and oke daiko.
Learn To Play Taiko
Now that you are know the history of taiko, how taiko drums are made, and the different types of taiko, you must be thoroughly enchanted with this instrument, which means it’s time to try it yourself! The best way is to find a class near you and register for a trial lesson. If you don’t live somewhere near a taiko studio, or if you are more comfortable learning from a distance, check out our favorite channel–Taiko Music Tsukuba. This three-member team offers practice drills and fun mini workouts you can do to the beat of the taiko drum.
If you join a taiko studio, they will most likely lend you a taiko, but if you opt to practice at home, you can make a cheap DIY taiko from a roll of clear tape and something hollow like an empty trash can, an old tire, or a plastic bucket. Although we have yet to try this method, the sound appears to be surprisingly good. A couple lightweight wooden rolling pins will do for your bachi.
If you have downstairs neighbors who you know will complain about your new hobby, you can always purchase a rubber drum pad from Amazon for around $25.
On the other hand, if you are looking to form or already belong to a taiko group, you may need authentic taiko, bachi, and outfits. In that case, check out Taiko Center Online, a shop based in Kyoto that ships worldwide. They also sell a create-your-own taiko craft kit and adorable miniature taiko to hang on your phone, which would make good gifts for your taiko-playing friends.
Over to You
Thanks for reading! Did you learn anything new? Has your idea of taiko changed? Let us know in the comments, or post a photo of your own taiko experience on Instagram with the hashtag #wafuuinthewesttaiko!