Japanese Taiko Drum Basics: See the Shape, Know the Name
Among the many instruments unique to Japan, such as the shamisen, the koto, and the shakuhachi, the one with the most powerful presence is the wadaiko drum, or simply the taiko. Incredibly popular both in Japan and across the world, the taiko has in recent years even come to considered an excellent form of full-body exercise.
The taiko is a primeval percussion instrument, made from skin stretched over a wooden body and struck to produce sound vibrations. Even among its fellow percussion instruments, it is reputed for how well its sound echoes. Taiko are often used in kabuki and Noh as well as during traditional festivities and rituals at temples and shrines, and modernly taiko performance has garnered quite a lot of attention as a musical performance art, as well. Each drum is a work unto itself, generally taking at least three years to complete.
The History of Taiko
With haniwa terracotta figures unearthed that hold what appear to be taiko, this drum style is thought to have already existed during the Kofun period, and there is evidence that taiko may’ve been used during the Warring States period (1467–1603) to direct battles.
Types of Taiko
1. Nagadō-daiko (Miya-daiko)
This is the drum that everyone thinks of when you mention “taiko.” The body is hollowed out, leaving an empty cavity inside. Though there are many different materials available for the body, the best is held to be Japanese zelkova, a durable wood with an attractive grain that creates a beautiful, powerful sound. A carefully-selected zelkova drum of the more expensive sort can last a century, maybe even two.
Unlike those with hollowed-out bodies, okedō-daiko are formed by joining together a number of planes of wood from a lighter timber, using similar techniques to those in making buckets (“oke” means “bucket” or “tub”). Appearing in festivals such as the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, this drum is notable for its lightness, allowing the musician to carry it as they perform.
Though the shime-daiko drum body is hollowed-out, the skin of this style of taiko is bound with string or bolts, making for an easy adjustment of tone.
The uchiwa-daiko does not have a drum body but is instead formed by stretching a skin over a circular frame. It gets its name from its resemblance to the Japanese uchiwa fan and when struck produces a surprisingly powerful sound that carries further than you’d expect.
A drum with an hourglass taper and skin stretched on both ends, this type of hand-beaten drum is called a “tsuzumi” just as Japanese drums beaten with a drumstick are called “taiko”.
The portion of excess skin left outside a taiko’s fastener is called its “ears” (“mimi” in Japanese). Taiko skin loosens over the years as it is played, and there will come a time when it must be tightened. If the artisan leaves the “ears” on when skinning the drum, this necessary adjustment becomes all the much easier. (the taiko pictured has had its ears cut)
Taiko no Tatsujin
Taiko and the Bon Odori
A dance which has a very close connection to the taiko tradition, the Bon Odori is definitely worth a try if you happen to be in Japan during the right season. The method used for drumming is actually fairly simple. Fundamentally, the four-beat measure pattern is simply a repetition of four drum strikes (right, right, left, right) to create a “da-dun-ba-dun” rhythm. Make your way up to the center of the yagura wooden scaffold and enjoy the Bon festival spotlight!