“Taiko” is often used to mean the relatively modern art of Japanese drum performances (kumi-daiko), but the word actually refers to the taiko drums themselves. While various taiko drums have been used in Japan for over 1400 years, and possibly much longer, the style of taiko best known today has a relatively short history, beginning in the 1950’s.
Reputedly, the first use of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy –a use to which drums have been put in many cultures. In addition to the martial aspect, taiko has been used in the most refined cultural settings as well. Taiko were definitely used in the opening celebrations of the Todaiji Buddhist Temple in the sixth century and quickly incorporated into the Imperial court music. Certain taiko have gone on to become some of the most elegant and beautiful of all Japanese instruments. Taiko has continued to find a place in religious ceremonies, both Buddhist and Shinto. Some Buddhist sects use taiko to represent the voice of Buddha, and Bon dancing in summer is centered on Buddhist rites. It was used in village Shinto rites to offer up prayers to the Gods. In addition, the village festivals were celebrated with the sound of drumming. These festivals developed a rich body of traditional taiko rhythms, now a never-ending source of inspiration to modern players.
HOW TAIKO BECOMES POPULAR
Taiko as it is performed today, as a massed drum ensemble, is a relatively new phenomenon. There are over 4,000 taiko groups in Japan currently. Some are local preservation societies, “hozonkai,” that just drum for the local festivals, but a handful of others have gone on to international acclaim.
In 1969 Tagayasu Den founded Za Ondekoza on Sado Island in Japan. Collecting a group of dedicated youths disaffected with modern big city life, he created a new kind of taiko group totally dedicated to taiko drumming as a way of life; rigorous training, including daily marathon running, and communal living forged powerful taiko performances that have awed the world. Za Ondekoza is credited with bringing taiko to audiences worldwide. The original members of Za Ondekoza went on to form Kodo in 1981 after splitting with Den, who started a new Za Ondekoza. Kodo has gone on to international fame, becoming perhaps the best-known taiko group outside of Japan.
In 1968, Seiichi Tanaka formed the first North American Taiko group, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and around the same time, Kinnara Taiko from the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, created a uniquely American hybrid – Japanese American Buddhist Taiko.
Taiko, although utilizing ancient instruments, has been infused with a thoroughly modern spirit, and has continued to grow in popularity in both Japan and throughout the world. With an incredibly deep traditional base to draw on, and with groups such as Kodo pushing taiko music to ever greater musical heights, taiko stands poised to become a part of the universal musical language drawing our world closer together.
Summary: The Thundering World of the Taiko by Takeshi Takata, 01/1998 edition of Look Japan