Guide to the Taiko

The taiko is a Japanese percussion instrument that has contributed to and influenced the musical styles of Japanese music. There are different sizes of taikos. The sizes range from the size of a snare drum to the size of a car. However, the most commonly used taiko was the ‘chu-daiko,’ which is the size of a wine barrel.In Japanese, the taiko literally means “drum.” Although this term usually refersto the Japanese drum, it is also used to refer to the Japanese art of drumming, also known as ‘Kumi-daiko.’ For several centuries, the taiko has been part of the Japanese’s rich culture and music. A long time ago, this instrument was predominantly used in the military arena. During that time, the taiko was often used to motivate the soldiers, call out orders, intimidate enemies, as well as to dictate the marching pace.

Much like the bugle that has been used in the military, the taiko was also used to communicate orders during the Warring States period in the 16th century. In fact, every beat of this drum has a significant meaning and was even detailed in the Japanese war chronicle, called the Gunji Yoshu. According to the texts, nine sets of five strikes would call an ally to battle, while nine groups of three beats mean to advance and persecute the enemies. The official in-charge was called the “Yaku,” who generally mark six steps per beat.

Moreover, in the traditional settings, the taiko drum was also used in Japanese theatres for rhythmic needs. It was associated in the Kabuki play, a classical Japanese dance-drama, such as in The Tale of Shiroishi and the Taihei Chronicles. Also, it was continually used in classical music, called the gagaku. In local festivals and traditional dance, the taiko also has its part. Aside from its military, festivals,and theatrical use, the taiko also became a musical art form that involves choreographed movements and a music ensemble. This is the taiko instrument as we know it today. One of taiko’s defining aspects is its dynamic playing style. This instrument is loud, fast, challenging, and has movements related to the Japanese martial arts. Over the last thirty years, there are more than 8,000 taiko groups recorded in Japan.As it was mentioned, the term taiko was also used in the drum performance itself. In the ensemble style of playing known as the Kumi-daiko, this particular drum is used. The Kumi-daiko was developed in 1951 by a Japanese drummer named Daihachi Oguchi. Oguchi was known as a master performer of taiko in traditional settings like shrines and festivals. Initially, Oguchi was trained as a jazz musician. However, later on, he received an old piece of taiko music from a relative. Although he couldn’t read the traditional notation, Oguchi had come up with a way in order to transcribe the musical piece. He also added his own rhythms, which had transformed the piece and became playable on different-sized taikos.

More recently, the taiko then reached several countries and has reached North America. In this country, the instrument had a variety of ways of drumming. The first North American taiko group, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was created in the 1960s by a grandmaster named Seiichi Tanaka. Following that, the Kinnara Taiko of the Senshin Buddhist temple in California was then founded based on the Japanese-American Buddhist taiko. Later on, the San Jose Taiko followed suit in 1973, focusing on making taiko a Japanese-American art form.

Interestingly, the North American taiko is attributed with developing the art of building this drum using wine barrels rather than carving them out of a single log. This is because wine barrels were much cheaper and easier to make. With that, the taiko has been accessible outside Japan and had been notable throughout the world. In 1990, a collegiate taiko group located in North America was established. It was the UCLA Kyodo Taiko that was founded by Mark Honda.

After that, in 1992, the Stanford Taiko and Jodaiko (UCI) was also established. Since then, the Stanford Taiko had begun the Intercollegiate Taiko Invitational event, in which collegiate groups gathered for performances and workshops related to taiko. This event, later on, increased in size since it was started. Recently, 300 collegiate taiko players attend the said event.