A History of Taiko Drumming

June 21, 2011

By Jonathan Hicks

Taiko, meaning “big/fat drum” in Japanese, refers to a traditional and very interesting drum which is still used today in Japan and around the world. The Taiko drums and drumming tradition was thought to have been possibly brought to Japan from China or Korea along with the Buddhist faith. Despite this, as the drums began to develop they were regularly made and improved on in Japan. These instruments began to be known as being a very traditional and unique Japanese instrument. After hearing the word Daiko many people often get confused as to why this word is being used instead of Taiko. However it is actually quite a simple concept; “Daiko” is used as a suffix used when speaking of a type of Taiko drum, Taiko drum group or a style of Taiko playing when a compound word is being used. When being used in a compound word the “T” sound changes to a “D” sound.

Byou-daiko (Head fastened with nails)

The construction of these drums is just as interesting as the drums themselves. Taiko drums are traditionally made using only one piece of wood for the shell of the drum. You may be wondering how this could even be possible. These drums were traditionally made by hollowing out a tree trunk. Some of the trees, used for the bigger instruments, needed to be thousands of years old. The largest of these instruments known as an O-daiko could exceed 3 feet (91cm) in diameter and could weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). When it comes to the head of these drums animal skin is used (much like most hand drums). The most popular skin to be used is that of a young Holstein bull. For the larger O-daiko drums a full hide of the animal is needed to make the drumhead. The heads of Byou-daiko drums are fastened to the drums by stretching the head over the top and then tacking (with some sort of nail) the head to the side of the drum. The heads of Shime-daiko drums, however, are kept on with a rope; these days a bolt or other device can be used. This allows the drum head to be tuned, which is very convenient when transporting the drums to places with varying humidity.

Shime-daiko (head fastened with rope)

The first Taiko drums were believed to have been used as an instrument of war as they were the only instrument that could be sounded and heard throughout an entire battlefield. Often times a soldier would strap a Taiko drum onto his back (like a backpack) and two other soldiers would follow him and play the drum on either side to ward off and scare the opposing army. Another use for the Taiko drum on the battlefield was to send commands to the soldiers of the army who were scattered across a battlefield. In this way this drum was obviously very useful due to its loud volume. Along with being used on the battlefield the Taiko drum was often used for religious ceremonies and also to signal entire communities of an oncoming storm or the beginning of the traditional hunt.

Largest O-daiko (9 foot diameter weighing over 4 tons! That’s 8818.4 pounds!!)

Nowadays Taiko drums are most often played in ensembles containing only Taiko drums. In these ensembles you will find many different kinds of Taiko drums ranging from very small drums to extremely large ones. These drums allow the artist to express themselves in a way which is very unique to their style of music.

This year at the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival we will be hosting a concert by Uzume Taiko. This group from Vancouver has experienced success both nationally and internationally. On the international stage “Uzume Taiko has performed throughout the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Channel Islands and Japan”.  This show is sure to be a spectacle of drumming!  Uzume Taiko will be performing on July 16th at 8:45pm at the Masonic Temple.

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