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In ancient Japan, there was a drum that was used to intimidate enemies on the battlefield, in Kubuki theater, at festivals, and in Buddhist rituals. One legend says that the sound of the drum defined the boundaries of a town: when you couldn’t hear the beats any longer, you had left the bounds of the town. This is taiko, the drumming that spent most of its history as the exclusive domain of Japanese men. Traditionally, only one person would play at a time, replicating common patterns and beats.
By the time World War II rolled around, taiko had faded. Many of the realms it had ruled were no longer a part of Japanese life, and it was relegated to festivals and religious ceremonies. So how is it that this historically exclusive art is now wildly popular on the West Coast of the US and is spreading through the continent?
Enter Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer who unearthed a piece of taiko music. In a move completely breaking from tradition, Oguchi decided to bring together a whole group of people to play overlapping rhythms, creating more complexity and interest. He tried using different kinds of drums to play different parts, smaller ones for the beat and deeper ones as features. The new version was called kumi-daiko (group drumming) and it caught on in a big way in Japan.
Sukeroku Daiko, a group that formed a few years later, further revamped the drumming by moving the drums onto slanted stands, allowing for more movement and fluid choreography. Japan was seeing a complete renaissance of taiko.
Today, some of the most elite taiko groups in the world are based in the US. How did taiko make the leap?
After World War II and Japanese internment, many Japanese-Americans shunned traditional Japanese culture in an attempt to assimilate. So when Seiichi Tanaka moved to San Francisco in 1967 to open a martial arts dojo, he saw no taiko anywhere. During the yearly matsuri festival, he became determined to introduce taiko in America. He found a local Buddhist temple with a couple of drums and taiko in America was born. After he opened the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, groups began to pop up along the coast, quickly exploding into an art form that inescapably caught the attention of thousands.
Since then, approximately 1000 taiko groups have sprung up in America, on campuses, as professional music ensembles, and as festival entertainment. It’s become wildly popular with women, especially those who want to get in touch with their Japanese heritage but aren’t interested in staying quiet. It’s easy to see why. The drumming has become intensely energetic, beautiful, intricate, and powerful. On the west coast, there are taiko groups in nearly every city, especially in California. Taiko musicians have started collaborating with DJs, with traditional musicians, and with just about anything that makes noise (up to and including cloggers). In 2006, LA group TaikoProject was featured in a Mitsubishi ad, followed up with performances at the 2009 Academy Awards and the 2011 Grammy Awards. It’s hard to deny that taiko has fully arrived.