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Funky Beats - Learning Taiko Drumming In Tokyo

Joanna Hall

Drums have never been top of my list of favourite musical instruments, but at the same time I’ve always had a healthy respect for anyone who can play them well. After all, successfully coordinating a pair of hands in perfect harmony is a big enough challenge when playing a piano or a violin, but where drums are concerned, getting it wrong can literally be a headache. So when I signed up for a half-day Taiko drumming course during a trip to Tokyo, I did so with a little trepidation. It was meant to be a good workout, as well as a great way to dip your toes into traditional Japanese culture, but I had no desire to look, or sound, like Keith Moon on a bad day at the office.

There are many ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, but I quickly discovered that one of the loudest, and most fun ways, is learning how to play Taiko drums. Taiko is an energetic style of drumming which features prominently in Japanese festivals, and is used by many people as way to relax and keep in shape while enjoying traditional music. The word Taiko literally means “fat drum”, and the art of playing them has become so popular that there are said to be over 8,000 Taiko groups in Japan.

Fortunately, the course I took wasn’t all drumming. It began with a visit to the Drum Museum to see an impressive showcase of drums from across the globe and throughout the ages, and it ended with a walk around Asakusa, a favourite part of Tokyo which is home to some of the city’s oldest and most impressive shrines and temples. My first taste of drumming took place at the Drum Museum, a small exhibition first established in 1988. Guided enthusiastically by its delightful curator, she explained the origins and importance of Taiko drumming in Japanese history to our group, and had each of us drum on a different instrument to get us in the mood for the real thing.

Before long it was time to head into the heart of Asakusa and the Taiko Centre for just that. There, we removed our shoes and were introduced to Yoshimasa Ochino, a Taiko drumming master who had started learning his craft at the age of just  11, and today was both a teacher and a professional performer. Before starting we had to make our choice of one of the large, barrel-shaped drums, then Yoshimasa took us through some basic rules. They included how to hold the drum sticks so you wouldn’t accidentally throw them across the room, how to hit the drum skins crisply for the best sound, and most importantly, how to pose and bow properly when you finished playing.

Then we started drumming. First, Yoshimasa demonstrated a simple rhythm and asked us to repeat it. Once we had it down pat, he showed us another rhythm and we repeated the process. Once we had the second rhythm in hand, we put the two together and so on. Forty-five-minutes later, after a lot of practice, a lot of effort, and a lot of laughing, we managed to string an entire piece of music together with few mistakes. We’d also had a lot of fun, and while talent scouts wouldn’t exactly be beating down our doors to sign us all up, we collectively felt like we had achieved something special. And not a single drumstick had been thrown in the process.

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