Monday, October 12, 2009

Review: Yamato, the drummers of Japan

So yesterday the gf and I drove out to Modesto to see Yamato, a Japanese taiko group formed back in 1993. I'd heard of them for a while, but never had a chance to see them locally. It was their first stop on this US tour, and an early show at 2pm on a Sunday. So what did I think?

Their set was two hours with intermission, and a total of seven songs. When I saw the song list, I said, "these are going to be long songs." And they were, but that's neither good nor bad. The troupe is listed at 16 players, but only 10 were on stage, so I wonder if they take all 16 and rotate per show or list total members, including those left at home. They use the staging creatively, with several levels of risers in the back, silkscreens that the show video on (used sparingly and subtly).

The group is more focused on energy, interaction, chops, and visuals moreso than deep stances, or testosterone. There were no slant stands and only one very short section of a song was in dongo/swung triplet. It was a solid show with two encores, and the audience was very appreciative. Now for the breakdown:

The Pros:

- Non-stop ki. Granted, there were moments of calmness or ma, or space, but it was purposeful and just a pitstop on the way to another long bout of energy. And unlike some taiko groups, it wasn't just raw energy, it was very refined and focused. At times it was razor-sharp in execution of an exacting rhythm, bounding around playfully between mobile players, or as a group in close-quarter precision that only practiced familiarity can bring.

- Super-precise! Yamato plays a lot of very fast, very busy patterns, and I think I only heard two bachi clicks and one note that sounded *almost* in the wrong spot. Considering how fast many of their pieces are and how many notes they play in the show, that's pretty incredible. The precision is in both individual members and in the group, as when passing patterns down the line or switching off roles.

- Transitions. Transitions are a bane to many taiko groups. It's usually a secondary thought because the songs themselves have all the focus. Often it's a "just go to the microphone and play some flute" sort of vibe. Yamato takes as much care in their transitions, whether it's a play off the previous song, a build up to the next song, or something random just to fill the space in between. They were often on par with the songs themselves.

- Use of kiai. I've never heard a taiko group this strong use so few kiai. But when they did, it was often choreograped/set and added a very intentional emphasis when delivered. There were a few kiai done during improv sections to support a fellow player, but it was a huge difference from hearing most taiko groups, with many many many kiai, often quantity over quality. It was like having a sharpshooter vs. a militia.

- Equality. In almost all taiko groups I've seen, either a certain gender stands out as "stronger" or certain individuals stand out. In Yamato, the group was split 50% male and 50% female, but no one stood out. That may sound bad, but in this case, it worked for them. The women could hang with the men, and the men didn't look awkward next to the women. That went for movements, energy, or chops. That's pretty remarkable and a refreshing change.

- Humor. I have never seen a non-comedy show, taiko or otherwise, that had this much humor in it. I *have* seen many taiko groups use humor in their shows, some of which works and some of which doesn't. Yamato was able to get the whole audience to laugh - not just chuckle, but laugh multiple times during the show, and yes, on purpose. There were silly movements during transitions, anticipations that turned into something else, conjured imagery (soccer balls, ping pong, etc.), and "one-upsmanship" that played with competitive nature. Out of roughly about 15-20 funny sections, only one looked awkward, but to have so many in one show AND to nail 95% of them is pretty damned amazing for a taiko show.

The cons:

- Really, again? The first time they do the throwing/catching act, it's awesome. It's done dynamically and with great energy. The second time, it's more subdued, but still interesting. The third time, it seems like it's just there to fill space. The amusement is gone, and I'm finding myself wondering when it'll end. There's also a small bit of bachi twirling, which follows the same formula: First time it's complex and amazing, second time is more individual and ok to watch, and third time is "yeah, you did that before". It's not horrible, but it's enough to lessen the enjoyment of the movement. And finally, even though I liked the difference in kiai "philosophy", there was one exception. To end the last song of the first half, the members all kiai loud and long up to the heavens, leaning back slightly. It's unusual, but it works. Still, it's done again twice more to end songs in the second half, and I'm left wanting to hear more different endings.

- Which song had what again? With only seven songs, they made each one into a sequence of mini-songs. Sometimes they would bring a theme back, but sparingly. The changes came quick, quicker than I would have liked. I really want to enjoy the groove of a piece, to be able to feel the pulse and get into a song through at least a modicum of repetition - either in the patterns or ji (underlying beat). Without that, I feel less able to connect to the song, and become more of an outside observer. To some, this may not be a factor, but with all the tempo changes, meter shifts, drum mixing, and pattern switching, I felt like I was watching 70 songs instead of 7, and only the humor helped differentiate the songs.

Overall, I liked the show and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in taiko. The criticisms I have aren't enough to overcome the many good things about it! Go see them live!

1 comment:

  1. I happened across your blog as I was blogging about seeing Yamato. I appreciate your insights from a taiko drummers' perspective. As a performer and producer/director myself I too, consider the audience experience and the role of the performer's ego. I read your blogs about ego and find them asking many of the same questions I ask myself and our performers. It is a delicate balance of ego vs confidence. What I found delightful in Yamato was their complete support for each others strengths and the fun they had performing. It was felt loud and clear. May yours be felt as well!