Friday, August 21, 2009


So kumidaiko (group drumming) is pretty darned new as an art form. We're looking at about 60 years of history as of right now. And slowly but surely, taiko is creeping into the media and advertising.

*Omg no!!!!!!!!!!*

But wait, don't we want the art form to flourish, to be recognized as a serious musical form, to be enjoyed world-wide? How can we struggle so hard to gain more audience and at the same time, hide from them?

*Because we need to keep taiko true to its roots!*

We do? Really? Why? A tree has roots, but continues to grow - if it only grew close to its roots, it would be a shrub! Let's look at some art forms with similarities to taiko.


I've heard taiko compared to jazz a few times, and I went to look up the history of jazz as an art form. While Wikipedia isn't the best source for things, here's a passage that echoes what I've heard in my own musical training:

"By the swing era, big bands were coming to rely more on arranged music: arrangements were either written or learned by ear and memorized – many early jazz performers could not read music. Individual soloists would improvise within these arrangements. Later, in bebop the focus shifted back towards small groups and minimal arrangements; the melody (known as the "head") would be stated briefly at the start and end of a piece but the core of the performance would be the series of improvisations in the middle."

Sounds a lot like taiko to me. Most taiko players can't read written notation, and many groups don't have the personnel for or purposefully choose to have a smaller group - or in larger groups, songs may only have a small number of players. Improvisations and solos are very common in taiko as well. The "swing era" is roughly around the mid-1930s, or about 80 years ago. That puts group taiko drumming roughly 20 years behind.


I don't want to just use one example though, and jazz is really more of a musical form more than a visual form, so what about a cultural art form that uses music and dance? I remember a chat I had a long time ago where someone compared taiko to flamenco dancing. So I looked up the history of flamenco and learned a lot.

Flamenco describes both the dance and the music (guitar, singing, clapping, etc.) The "Golden Age" of flamenco was roughly between 1780 and's been around a while! However, between the end of that time and 1922, there was more and more focus on the dancing and less on the music and art as a whole. To many, it was in danger of becoming unbalanced and commercial, but it survived and now has a spot on the international stage.

Please excuse my brevity on the history of this art, but my point is that a cultural art form thrived for quite a while, got unfocused and unbalanced, and thanks to a few strong-willed practitioners, now has a well-deserved positive reputation.


I use karate because it too started as a Japanese art form, albeit it purely physical and not musical. I am so not going to go into the beginnings of karate, but I'll bring the important parts for this post around. In the 1930s, Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi adopted the belt ranking system that Judo founder Jigoro Kano created for his art. Funakoshi's way of making karate into an organizable, teachable system for schools made karate widely popular and accessible. This also led to its quick spread worldwide.

In the U.S., the popularity of the art led to countless numbers of schools started by those both with honest intentions and those with business intentions. Often a school was started by someone with questionable ability, but with good marketing skills, and whole chains of such schools could thrive while the original art was shaped and remade into something which only contained the thinnest veneer of its history. These schools are often referred to as "buy-a-belt" schools, where as long as you go through the minimum time and pay your fees, you'll eventually get a black belt.

With karate, you have lineages and organizations made to keep teachings uniform. It's almost ridiculous how many of them there are and how often they splinter, making it impossible to claim legitimacy. For years now, there has been a push made to make a similar style of taiko organization here in the U.S., with an officiating body that people can join and pay dues to. The amount of resistance to that push is unrelenting. And so, for better or worse (I say BETTER), we have around 300 varying groups in North America, from collegiate to community to faith-based to professional. Some form from out of nowhere, some are made of remnants (I mean that in a good way, trust me) from other groups. They all play for their own reasons and no one can tell them what or how to do things (unless that's what they're into!)

If you want a taiko performance where they scream constantly and sweat drips off their chiseled bodies, there's a group for that. If you want a taiko performance with both kids and grandparents, there's a group for that. If you want a taiko performance with electric guitar, there's a group for that. I say all that because as taiko evolves globally, there will be more and more groups that try and do more and more with taiko. Some may fail, some will thrive. Taiko is "out" of the collective bag, my friends!

*But they're using taiko in bad ways on TV!*

Yup. Sure, it depends on your definition of "bad" (see this post for my thoughts on "bad" taiko), but I admit I squirm when I see the Mitsubishi "Dragon Lady" commercial or the part on the movie Redbelt where masked taiko players walk around the ring playing portable okedo drums (really, why did that go in the script?). I think they're poorly thought-out ideas, but that's because people still don't know what taiko is all about.

Gotta tell this story...the worst thing I've seen with taiko to date was in a Billy Blanks movie which I will not name here. You remember Billy Blanks? He invented Tae Bo. Yes, now you hate him too. In this movie, before a "death match", there was a lone taiko player playing the "matsuri" base rhythm. For those who don't know matsuri, it's a festival piece - matsuri means festival in Japanese. It's a generally "happy" song, in whatever arrangement a group might put it in. Here, it was like hearing Disney's "It's a Small World" used before a Demolition Derby, without intentional irony. Ugh.

Ok, wrapping up.

- Taiko is not jazz, but it's got a lot of similarities. Jazz is commonplace and used *everywhere*. Some jazz musicians practice the classical forms and others invent new ones.

- Taiko is not flamenco, but like flamenco it is a cultural art that could possibly lose its perspective. However, in this day and age, that threat is more imagined than anything. Both taiko and flamenco are strong, passionate, vibrant arts, but flamenco has already gone through its growing pains and we can learn from that.

- Taiko is not karate, but both arts have countless numbers of variety and variations from one group to the next. Karate can be commercialized, watered-down, "pure", effective, and/or political, to name but a few. In many ways, taiko is already skipping down that same path, just without a ruling body to guide it, whether we like it or not.

There will always be taiko groups that are asked to do a commercial or movie or TV show. Sometimes they'll be asked to do ridiculous things, and some of them will accept - maybe for money, maybe for exposure. Many groups (mine included) tend to shy away from anything they don't feel does the group or the art of taiko justice. To me, I feel that the more we stay away from a potential audience because of fear, the more we go misunderstood and the cycle continues.

Taiko is an art form. It *will* be commercialized, poorly used, and misrepresented like others before and after it, but the more we fight to keep things under "control", the longer it will take to flourish. It's crazy to both want to expose new audiences to taiko and yet control which audiences they are. Roots support us but they should never choke us off.

Kenny Endo, one of the premier taiko players, has a great saying (which I will probably butcher because it's 2:30am), "When you play taiko, it may be the first time someone has ever seen taiko, and may be the last time someone will ever see taiko." It's up to us to make sure both of those experiences are the best they can be. I agree with that. I just think that instead of sticking more fingers in the dam of the inevitable, we need to get prepared for the onslaught and meet it on our terms.

Taiko is going to be truly out there, sooner or later, and I want to make sure that when it does, it's kicking some serious ass.


  1. It was interesting learning about the history of samba... If you chose to express yourself through music, you have to accept that your music will be imitated and reinterpreted. That is the nature of culture and art.

  2. The commercialization of taiko is a very tricky area. It's a fine line between positive exposure and "selling out" in a tasteless manner. Also, because taiko is often associated with Japanese culture, I think there is also a fine line between commercialization of taiko and negative objectification of Japanese culture for advertising purposes.

    Thought-provoking post as usual.