Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Question Everything: Kiai


Sorry, had to kiai there. What's a kiai? I just did one, didn't you hear it?

The "ki" in kiai stands for spirit, or energy, and the best definition for "ai" in this case is a meeting, a bringing together. It's not a "spirit yell" as I used to hear it referred to. Nonetheless, a kiai is a sharp, loud, focused vocalization.

Regardless of what art or style one practices, the basic kiai involves tightening the diaphragm and forcing air out through the mouth, while using the throat as little as possible, unlike shouting. In karate, when teaching this to beginners, I tell them to imagine reaching up high for something, then picture someone coming by and slapping them in the stomach. The reflex is to tighten that area up; that's the basic reaction involved in generating kiai.

There are kiai in martial arts; this is where kiai are the most prevalent. In those arts, the kiai are said to:
  • make one "in the moment"
  • enable one to take a blow by tightening up the muscles
  • startle or demoralize the enemy
  • punctuating a form/indicating an important move
In taiko, I've heard the kiai used for:
  • exchanging energy with the performers and giving to the audience
  • expression
  • adding a vocal component to the music
There are other examples for both, but I feel what I've listed cover the large majority. For the most part, they don't really overlap, but there are similarities. Consider the taiko player that kiais in a song vs. the martial artist who's sparring. Sometimes they are acting by initiating a kiai/attack with kiai, because they feel it's a good point to do so. Sometimes they are reacting to a movement, such as another soloist's spin or an opponent's attack. In either case, it is a matter of intention.

This is where things get interesting. You can't kiai loudly without intention. Try it! ...wait, make sure you're not near people, or they'll think you've lost it. What I'm getting at here is no matter how relaxed or lethargic you make yourself, to kiai with any sort of technique, you have to engage your body, thereby producing a physical intention. When you tighten those muscles up, your body goes through stress. Pressures are generated and bloodflow increases. You can lie there like a rag doll, but once you kiai, you're exerting energy and for that time, you have intention - even if it's just intention to kiai!

So like in martial arts, to kiai brings the taiko player into the present - and when they are doing it in a focused direction and with all the energy of an ensemble, it becomes a dynamic, vital part of what taiko is all about.

Okay, that's a good overview of kiai, now for the juicy stuff.

Why do you say what you say when you kiai?

I'll bet, for 99% of people who kiai, it's because it's what they've heard before. Students have asked me "what do I kiai?" All I can say is "don't end with consonants."

In martial arts, the kiai tend towards things like "ei" and "oia". In (North American) taiko, they tend towards "yoh" and "sah". There's a new breed of taiko kiai emerging from the collegiate crowd, those like "su" and "say". So again, I ask, why?

I've heard stories about the "older" taiko groups from Japan, that they had to get used to what they were hearing from North American players. But where did the Japanese players get *their* kiai from? My guess is martial arts. Supporting that theory is that a lot of kiai from Japanese groups tend to sound like kiai I hear in karate.

I'm not one to judge what makes a kiai "right" or "wrong", but I can talk about what makes a kiai "good". I was going to get into the linguistics of different kiai, but it got way too long. Kiai need to be simple and the ending is what really gets projected. You can't kiai sounds like "yar" very loud, because the rrrrr is a limited-volume sound. Kiai like "yo" and "ho" have worked well because the y and h are "softer" and the o gets the bulk of projection. Kiai like "ei" and "oia" work because the mouth can be in any position at the time. The newer kiai, like "say" and "su" stike my ears as weird, though.

The "ss" sound tends to cut through when most people do that type of kiai, overshadowing the vowel sound, and I don't hear it as much of a kiai as a shout. Is that bad? No, but it's not what I would call a kiai. If we're going to define a kiai as I have several times in this post, then it's not a kiai, not really. And maybe that's why it sounds odd to me - people shouting at a taiko performance sounds weird, but people kiai-ing sounds normal.

Sometimes people are putting too much thought into what they're saying and not how they say it. A group full of screaming taiko players is powerful, to a degree, but a lone player kiai-ing with clarity and technique is even more amazing at times.

The effort one puts into a kiai is proportional to the effect. If you're focusing and using the right muscles, your body reacts and the listeners can hear your intention. If you're just shouting or holding back your energy, the difference is audible if not also visible.

There's a viewpoint that the quiet hits in taiko are just as vibrant as the loud ones; the only difference is the volume. Just like striking, kiai isn't about volume, it's about technique. If you understand what a kiai is and why you're doing it, you have options to choose what you say and when you say it. So-re!

1 comment:

  1. when i usualy kiai i use like "iap" start with 2 long vocals and end with the "p" at least thats how people hear it ... the thing is that u r leaned in karate shotokan that u use the kiak in the decisiv hit .. todome ... the final hit .. what really hapens is that you do a short maximum contraction of all ur muscles and u becam hard as rock for 1 or 2 second while u do that u breath out all you air so you generate a sound .. if u cant do that u can simply shout "kiai" or "ai" or anything but short and the power of the sound must be as a samurais sword cuting a bambo tree.... if u know the sound ..
    thats my opinion in that .. this actually gives u extra power on the hit .. believe me i tryed it and it worked .. but u have to train hard to understand the meaning of kiai

    if u have comm just leave me a email at oicalisto@yahoo.com