Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Way of Taiko

Recently, I was contacted by Stone Bridge Press, the publishers for The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian.  I was offered a copy of the 2nd edition in exchange for a review.  My taiko library is rather short on books aside from a bunch of Kodo stuff, and I knew The Way of Taiko (TWoT) had been around for a while, so I was very happy to review it.

Overall, I would say the book is well-written and a wealth of information by someone who clearly loves the art of taiko.  My only issues are small ones that come from having a different perspective of taiko overall, but I still highly recommend the book to anyone who plays taiko today.  The book is compact and that suits the format really well.  The pages are of good quality and the pictures are vibrant and plentiful, over about one-third of the book itself.

We start with a historical perspective of taiko that continues through the era we're in today, with a glance towards what may come.  We go from taiko in Japan in its earliest days to the birth of kumidaiko, to its introduction in North America and a little bit past that.  There were some things I didn’t know about, or some I’d heard but forgotten!  For this part alone, I think a copy of TWoT should be in every taiko group’s library, from casual to professional to collegiate to senior.

The next section goes into instruments and their usage, a daunting task with so many different stories and opinions out there.  I have to give the author the benefit of the doubt for the things I hadn’t heard before, simply because I don’t have anyone saying otherwise.  For instance, even though SJT uses the term “jozuke” where other groups use “chudaiko”, TWoT says that they are basically the same drum, but called different things depending on what stand they’re placed on.  While I’ve never heard that before, I have no reason to not believe it.

In this section it might have been nice to give a mention to the popular non-Japanese instruments used in North American taiko (clave, shekere, etc.), but I realize that might have been a lot of extra trouble to document.  Still, seeing as how this book is not just about Japanese taiko but also North American taiko, it would have been welcome in this 2nd edition.  It would also have been nice to hear more about the katsugi-okedo, since its popularity has grown enormously in the last few years, as well as the Korean influences on that style of playing.

There's a section about the mindset a taiko player should have, and this is where I start to find myself less engaged, because my style and background are different.  It would have been nice earlier on to have seen something say that this is not the only way to approach taiko, like no one style of karate is the only way to study karate.  Some people might like to hear this perspective on how to approach playing taiko however, so I don't think it's entirely out of place. While it would be a pain for the author to constantly say “this is only one way to think about it” or “this is how I learned it”, in the book there is only one short mention in the middle of these sections that this is Tanaka-style.

There are detailed explanations on how to hold the bachi, how to stand at the drum, how to strike, etc.  I don’t think someone would try to learn how to play taiko from this alone, but it does a good job of trying to cover all the basics for this particular style of taiko.  It conveys that there is a lot more to taiko than just grabbing a stick and thwacking at a drum.

There was also a section on how to behave during a practice that sounded more like how to behave at a very strict karate dojo.  Like earlier, this distanced me from the reading, even though my background is in traditional karate, because 95% of the groups I’ve met (Japanese, American, European, etc.) are very much not like this.  Again, I realize she is describing Tanaka-style taiko (and describing it well), while I have a very different perspective and a lot of different experiences that differ from that.

Given that my biggest issue was around the author coming from a very specific style/viewpoint, a better title for this book might be “A Way of Taiko.”  I don’t mean that in a snarky way, I’m being very sincere.  Despite my minor criticisms, I think this book is an excellent reference for anyone who plays or is in interested in taiko.  There is a lot of great information in this book, and knowing what the author is trying to convey makes this something that belongs in any taiko library!

With the 2nd edition now out, if you or your group doesn't have a copy, now's a great time to fix that!

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