Japanese taiko drums are perhaps some of the most dramatic percussion instruments ever created. Originally used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions, taiko drumming has moved with the times and evolved into a modern art form called kumi-daiko, which refers to ensemble taiko drumming. Exhibitions of kumi-daiko can include taiko of all different shapes, sizes, and pitches. Anywhere from one to dozens of performers use sticks called “bachi” to strike the instruments.
There are many different types of taiko, but they all share one feature-heads on both sides of the body, which are characterized by a high level of tension. Such a design is most likely the result of Japan’s summer climate, which is very hot and humid. Drum heads with high levels of tension would counteract the slacking effects of that humidity. Taiko drums can range greatly in size, but largest is the Adaiko. Such drums are made from a single piece of wood, often from trees that were hundreds of years old when finally felled. Indeed, some Adaiko are so large that once they’ve been placed in a Shinta shrine or Buddhist temple, they are never moved again. Other types of taiko drums include the shime-daiko (which is available in various sizes), uchiwa-daiko (fan drum), hira-daiko (flat drum), and o-daiko (big drum).
The existence of the taiko drum can be traced back to 6th century Japan. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has attended a taiko performance that in feudal times, these instruments were often used for martial purposes. Their resounding and invigorating resonances were ideal for motivating the troops, setting a marching pace, or disseminating orders. In everyday life, both then and now, the drums are used in the religious music of both Shinta, Japan’s native religion, and Buddhism, which was imported some time around the 5th century. Additionally, noh theatre, kabuki theatre, and gagaku, the traditional music of the Japanese imperial court, utilize the sounds of taiko drums.
As previously mentioned, modern taiko performances take the form of kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. Daihachi Oguchi is credited with forming the first modern taiko ensemble, Osuwa Daiko, in Japan in 1951. However, there have been several other influential taiko groups. Sukeroku Daiko also emerged in the early 1950s, and the group’s performances were heralded for their speed, fluidity, power, choreography, and solo performances. In 1969, Za Ondekoza was founded by Tagayasu Den. This group would eventually evolve into Kodo, one of the world’s most recognized performance ensembles and host of the Earth Celebration International Music Festival since 1988.
Over the past few decades, taiko drumming has seen a significant increase in popularity in the United States. The first American taiko group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was formed in 1968 by Seiichi Tanaka, a post-war Japanese immigrant. Other similar groups followed and in 1990, students at UCLA formed the first intercollegiate taiko ensemble, Kyodo Taiko. This founding marked a new and popular trend for taiko in the United States. Today, it is estimated that 36 collegiate and 300 independent taiko groups exist in America.