Japanese Drum Troupe Creates New Musical Forms from Taiko Tradition

Drum Tao: The Martial Art of Drumming brings the show Drum Heart to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas April 21. Drum Tao is a Japan-based percussion group that has garnered international acclaim for its high-energy productions that offer contemporary renderings of traditional musical forms.

The production incorporates performance art, visually alluring costumes and sets that include digital mapping to project vibrant images relating to the themes of the pieces.

Taiko is traditional Japanese drumming and the backbone of the show, but the 36-member ensemble of musicians also dance, play flute and shamisen, which is a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument.

Taiko is thought by many historians to have come to Japan from China and Korea in the sixth century. Since its beginnings, it has filled artistic, religious, communication and military functions. Taiko ensembles, called kumi-daiko, started to emerge shortly after World War II.

“Taiko is drumming, it is rhythm, anyone can understand it,” said troupe director Ikuo Fujitaka in a March television interview with Tokyo-based NHK World. “I honestly think that’s the best tool we have to create new forms of Japanese entertainment.

A female taiko performer shows her drumming skills during a 2015 Drum Tao performance in Freiberg, Germany. (Photo: Joergens).

2015 Drum Tao performance in Freiberg, Germany (Photo: Joergens)

“We try to create a beat that makes the heart vibrate in a way that really transports you. You get this intense feeling, almost coming out of the earth.

“The beat of the taiko moves you, doesn’t it? In the depths of your soul. It probably reminds us of before we were born, when we were in out mother’s womb, listening to this booming heartbeat.”

Drum Tao was founded in 1993 and is based in Kuju in Oita Prefecture, near the southern tip of Japan. The troupe lives together in a mountain retreat and undergoes rigorous athletic, as well as musical, training to maintain sufficient stamina for the shows.

Typical days begin with a 5 a.m. run of about 6 miles followed by musical sessions focusing on rhythm patterns.

“I think the reason we are able to fall in line instantly, to play together so well, is that we all train together,” said Fujitaka. “We can all feel the tempo, the pitch. We don’t need to think about it; we can all just work as one.”

A male taiko troupe performer demonstrates the strength and stamina required to perform the Japanese drumming during a 2015 Drum Tao show in Freiberg, Germany. (Photo: Joergens)

2015 Drum Tao performance in Freiberg, Germany (Photo: Joergens)

The group performs about 200 shows annually in Japan and has traveled to 24 countries, entertaining more than 7 million spectators. Drum Tao played at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and has received an award of outstanding cultural contribution by the Japan Tourism Agency.

Drum Heart had an off-Broadway run in 2016, performing to a capacity audience at each performance.

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