Masa Ogawa’s Taiko drumming troupe, Yamato, makes its return to East Lansing Tuesday. Yamato has performed for over 6 million people in 53 countries across the globe, continuing a centuries old Japanese cultural tradition.
Now Ogawa’s drummers are returning with a brand-new show. Through an email exchange, City Pulse was able to grab a Q&A with the Taiko master himself.
Can you explain to those unfamiliar, the significance of Taiko drumming in Japanese culture?
Taiko is a traditional Japanese instrument made with cowhide and one great big piece of wood. Taiko drums were originally made with clay pots and animal hides. People used Taiko as a form of social communication, similar to how we use social media today.
In the 20th century, Taiko was used strictly for music. Before that, Taiko was used ceremonially as well. After World War II, Taiko was used for stage performance. These days, there are more than 10,000 Taiko troupes in Japan, and many other Taiko troupes all over the world.
All of them try to inherit the tradition and create new songs and performances.
What is the background, or history of your company?
Yamato was founded in 1993 by my brother, our friend and myself. One day, my mother found a big old Taiko drum in our hometown's shrine. That Taiko drum is actually more than 150 years old and weighs more than 200 pounds.
She said to me, "Do something special for the shrine festival with this big Taiko!" She was worried about my life and tried to give me the chance to do something great.
I began crafting an original Taiko song with my brother and our friend. The training was so hard for us, but after two weeks of practice, we played that song at the festival.
It was summer, many people were there enjoying themselves. We hit the Taiko and it resonated across the shrine. After five minutes, which felt like a flash, our performance was finished.
Then we could see the crying faces of the people gathered there. It was a special moment and Yamato was born.
How does one become a Taiko drummer? How do you select your drummers?
I do not select the performers, because I cannot make any judgments before understanding them as individuals.
When someone wants to become a professional Taiko drummer, I usually think they learned about our troupe through YouTube. Sometimes they will come to see our show directly, that's better for them, but I think it rarely happens these days.
I do test potential members, but first, I ask them to try to live together with the other members. If they can stay with the other members, they can join Yamato.
What is unique about Taiko when compared to other forms of percussion?
Taiko has its own unique character, the look of a Taiko drum gives it the image of the ancient times.
For example, Japanese people recognize that God is in nature, especially trees, which is why they are an object of worship. That's also why people think God lives in Taiko.
I think that almost all people will feel some kind of holy atmosphere when they see a Taiko performance. Taiko drums are heavy, big and loud. The Taiko sound is different from other instruments. The sound of Taiko is not only listened to by the ear, but also by every pore of the body. It's a vibration.
Musical skill, or even harmony – which is important for other types of music, is not necessarily important for Taiko drumming. The most important point of our troupe is the synchronicity.
Why is Taiko so special to you?
Taiko gives me energy and gives me the chance to meet people. When I hear the very first sound of the drum, I’m already enjoying it.
Taiko does not need any special skill to enjoy. That's the difference between it and any other musical instrument. Even if its their first time, I can play with other people and feel their energy. That is a special feeling to me.
When I hit the Taiko drum as strong as possible, I feel my energy reach people. That was the wonderful feeling for me, that is why I still play Taiko.