The Roots of Taiko

Taiko literally means “fat drum” and is synonymously used as a term for the relatively modern art of Japanese Drum Ensembles (kumi-daiko). More properly, the Japanese term for “Japanese Drum” is Wadiako.

The exact history of Japanese Taiko remains shrouded in speculation, although some educated guesses have been made possible. The oldest physical evidence of Taiko in Japan is a haniwa clay figure of a drummer that dates from the sixth or seventh century. The Japanese Taiko strongly resembles Chinese and Korean instruments which were probably introduced during their strong cultural influence waves from 300-900 AD. It has also been speculated that the predecessor of the Tsuzumi style of Taiko may come from as far as India, which came along with the introduction of Buddhism. However, most cultural influences stopped for the most part around the year 900 and although stemming from these influences, Taiko evolved in unique Japanese instruments.

Reputedly, one of the first uses of Taiko was on the battlefield; to intimidate and scare the enemy. Taiko was historically noted for it’s use in the 1500s to issue commands and coordinate movements in battle, as it was the only instrument that could be heard across the entire battlefield. A war Taiko used y Shingen Takeda, a famous Shogun (warlord) of that era, still exists and is preserved by Osuwa-daiko. It is a remarkable Nagado style Taiko with three large holes cut in the side, to increase the sound volume.

Taiko was also used for signals in the community. During the Jomon period, about four thousand years ago, simple Taiko beats would be used to signal that hunger were setting out, that a storm was coming and harvesting. While there is no direct physical evidence to support this theory, ti is believed to be true as other cultures had exhibited similar behaviour. Because these signals were so important to the daily flow of life in the community, people were very thankful of the Taiko and thus began to believe that the Taiko was inhabited by a god. This belief began to develop on only holy men were allowed to beat the Taiko, as does the custom remain in Shinto and Buddhist religions.

Taiko remains a big part of Shinto and BUddhist religion in Japan and are visible in their temples and shrines all over Japan. One consequence of this association with religion was that Taiko were played only on special occasions and only by men who were granted permission by the priests. However, this provided a rich body of traditional Taiko rhythms which are now an endless source of inspiration to modern players.

Taiko as it performed today, as an ensemble (kumi-daiko), is a post war phenomenon which was born in Showa 26 (1951). Daihachi Oguchi, creator of the kumi-daiko style was a jazz drummer who happened upon an old piece of Taiko music. Coming from a jazz background, he wondered why Taiko were never played together, and broke with tradition by putting together a Taiko drum ensemble.

By using Taiko of various sizes, Oguchi was able to create a verity of “musical voices” which were assigned roles in his arrangements. The basic composition formula was as follows: the high pitched shine-daiko carried the “ji” (back rhythm), the Odaiko played a simple rhythm that firmly held the pulse, various nag ado-daiko each had melodic rhythms, and the metallic bell sound of the tesu-zutsu. He also introduced sets, similar to a drum set where a single Taiko performer would play various sized Taiko. Oguchi went on to lead Osuwa Daiko, one of the most influential Taiko group and style in Japan and in the world.