Wadaiko: History, Significance of The Taiko Drum

Wadaiko – History, Significance of The Taiko Drum

For much of Japan’s history, the majority of the population of Japan had been farmers. They would pray to their god and play drums to celebrate harvests, give thanks, or avoid disasters. This tradition birthed yearly festivals. These festivals had Buddhist roots, which is why taiko is often seen in shrines and temples as well as local festivals.

Taiko drummers, singers, and traditional flute players perform together at these festivals and people dance together to the uplifting music. Oftentimes, the performances are speckled with shouts of encouragement that signal transitions in the songs. The music and dances vary according to the region of Japan and different styles have been passed down throughout the years.

Photo by Rikujojieitai Boueisho on Wikimedia Commons.

After WWII, the spiritual sense shifted to one of entertainment and wadaiko became more performative rather than religious. Teams emerged and taiko players adopted uniforms with flashier colors to draw in audiences and imbue them with energy and excitement. Now, there are millions of drummers and thousands of teams all over the world. Following the new spirit of the art, taiko is now a popular part of Japanese school-life, teaching students teamwork and Japanese spirit. The mood isn’t always so serious, however, as there are even popular video games with taiko that allow people to play along with their favorite rock and pop music.

While there are some mythological origins of taiko, historically, it’s suggested that the drums as we recognize them today were introduced to Japan from the cultural influences of Korean and China in the early 6th century. However, this doesn’t take away from how Japanese it is. The term wadaiko itself refers not just to “harmonious drumming,” evoking images of its spiritual uses, but to the uniquely Japanese way of drumming. Taiko has had various functions throughout the years from communication to religious ceremonies to military action.

For instance, in the Jomon period (7000 B.C.), Japanese drums were used to signal departing hunters or incoming storms. They were used much in the same way modern loudspeaker announcements are used in towns.

For old festivals and religious ceremonies, the rumbling, thunderous sound of the drums was fitting for the gods and taiko were used for prayers of rain and successful harvest, traditions that persist even today. Today, it’s best known for its performance art uses in theater, concerts, and festivals. In modern society, it has even played a vital part of social movements for minorities in public protests.

Photo by protowink on Pixabay.

Types of Taiko drums

The most recognizable form of taiko drum is the nagado-daiko, or “long-bodied drum.” The leather head is rivetted onto a deeply stained hollow body of wood. These are the big kahunas of taiko and the ones everyone wants to play. However, they are more delicate than they seem and are reserved for the most experienced players. Sometimes, they are too large to transport, so they remain in their performances spaces, for instance temples and shrines.

However, a different style of drum can also be used as the Odaiko or “big drum” for performances. This is the okedo drum, which has a couple of different styles. Smaller okedo drums are often carried on stage and played while dancing. The bigger okedo are the ones that can be used in place of nagado. Small okedo fit well with small nagado and shime drums to make a set of drums with various sounds and pitches, lending depth to performances. Also, though it is lighter and weaker sounding compared nagado, the variance of okedo allows for more creativity in performances, especially through the element of dance.

Photo by Taiko-Kaiser-Drums on Wikimedia Commons.

Supplementing the larger taiko are shime-daiko, named for their rope tension structure. About the size of a snare drum, they provide a high-pitched, fast percussive beat to compliment the reverberating booms of the odaiko. Like all taiko, they can be found in theatrical performances such as Noh or Kabuki, as well as at the forefront of festivals.

Often, traditional flutes are played during taiko performances to provide a melody atop the heartbeat core of the drumming. The hayashi style shinobue is especially popular. This style of Japanese traditional flute is carved straight from a white-ish bamboo stick with red paint peeking out from the inside. They provide a nostalgic high-pitched tune piercing through the crowds in festivals.

Playing Taiko

Recently, I had the delight of trying out taiko drumming among people practicing for a port festival in Kesennuma City, in Miyagi Prefecture. I felt firsthand the physicality of drumming that I had only read about prior to writing this article. When playing taiko, there is a huge emphasis on kata. Similar to the kata of martial arts, this refers to the “how” of the performance, the posture and movement of the player. This makes playing taiko a holistically physical activity.

You use your whole body to play the taiko, not just your hands. When I played among my peers, we all planted our feet firmly in the ground and centered our weight. We all rhythmically bobbed to the beat back and forth. And this was all aside from the dynamic fluorishes with our bachi, our “drumsticks.” All of it came together to make playing taiko a dance in itself. 

I later had the privilege to play taiko during the end of the firework celebration of the festival. For anyone who doesn’t know, fireworks in Japan are shown differently than in, say, America. In Japan, it’s typically quiet, all except for the pops, whistles, and crackles of the fireworks themselves. There aren’t loudspeakers with radio medleys or national anthems backing the visuals.

To feel that physical quietness...then followed by the eruption of bombastic drumming alongside the finale was deeply moving. It felt as if we all shared the same heartbeat created by the drums. That veracity, I think, is why taiko has remained such a large part of Japanese culture all these years. I hope one day you get to experience it for yourself.

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