The Arts Unit and Taikoz give insight into a fusion of Australian and Japanese cultures and rhythm, an exciting and dynamic artform that appeals to all ages.
Taiko is the Japanese word for ‘drum’. When rendered in kanji , taiko appears thus: 太鼓. The first character, – tai – means ‘fat’ or ‘big around’ and the second, 鼓 – ko – is ‘drum’, hence ‘big, fat around drum’. Taiko instruments come in many shapes and sizes and, generally speaking, can be grouped into two overall categories according to their method of tuning:
Miyadaiko (literally, ‘shrine drums’) are solid-body taiko usually carved from one tree log with the skins tuned and held in place by tacks.
Shimedaiko on the other hand, can either be solid-body or stave-construction drums with skins that are tuned by means of rope.
The taiko set is essentially a drum kit of taiko comprising one or two shimedaiko, one or more okedō with the addition, sometimes, of a small nagadō, which gives a single player a relatively wide choice of tones and pitches.
Being of solid-body construction, the ōdaiko is classified under the miyadaiko family of taiko. The ‘ō’ in ōdaiko literally means ‘big’ or ‘grand’. These days the term is often used for any drum larger than 84cm in diameter but it can also refer to the largest drum in the musical ensemble; for instance, even though the medium-size chūdaiko used in Chichibu Yataibayashi is measured around 2-shaku (60cm) in diameter, the Chichibu players often refer to this taiko as ōdaiko rather than chūdaiko (medium drum) because it is the largest taiko in their particular ensemble of instruments.
Traditionally, the ōdaiko was played in a side-on position. However, because this method has a tendency to limit the freedom of movement in the left arm and hand, one of the most significant innovations of taiko soloist Eitetsu Hayashi was to ‘equalise’ the two arms and hands by facing the ōdaiko (i.e. playing with his back to the audience). In the now-legendary taiko ensemble Ondekoza, Hayashi was the main ōdaiko player. With the encouragement of the group’s leader Tagayusu Den, he developed this unique method of playing in order to achieve greater power, dynamic control, rhythmic complexity and ultimately a higher form of musical expression. It is no surprise that the style of playing the ōdaiko with the back to the audience (now called seitai-gamae style) has become extremely popular world-wide.
Shaku is an old Japanese unit of measurement that is still used to measure the size of a taiko. One shaku is approximately 30cm. A shaku is made up of 10 smaller units called sun. The largest ōdaiko in Japan can reach over 6-shaku in diameter; i.e. 180cm or more! The word shakuhachi (end-blown bamboo flute) literally means ‘one shaku, eight sun – a common size of shakuhachi.
Taikoz is fortunate to own two Asano Taiko Company ōdaiko. However, the group’s largest ōdaiko – measuring over 1-metre in diameter (3.6-shaku in the old Japanese measurement) – was made in 1996 by two Tasmanian craftsmen, internationally acclaimed wood sculptor Marcus Tatton and drum maker Dan Magnus. It is made from a single trunk of stringybark eucalyptus, weighs over 200kg and takes six men to place on its large wooden stand.
The original Tasmanian-made skins were replaced in January 2011 with Asano Taiko skins. The head of the Asano Taiko Company, Yasuo Asano, undertook the tuning of the skins. It is interesting to note that some elements of Mr Asano’s process of tuning are a family-held secret. By not allowing others to see and copy their methods of tuning, Asano Taiko can maintain the distinctive timbre of their instruments, and even though the Asano family did not make Taikoz’s ōdaiko, its sound changed dramatically after the original Australian cow-skins were replaced with Asano (Japanese) skins and tuned by Mr Asano using the family’s unique method of tuning.
The Asano Taiko Company is based in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. Tracing their roots back to 1609, the Asano Taiko Company is the largest and oldest taiko making company in the world. Taikoz performs on a wide range of Asano made taiko.
(aka Okedō-daiko, Oke-daiko, Okejimedaiko)
Being of stave construction and tuned by means of rope, the okedo-daiko is classified under the shimedaiko family of taiko. The name stems from two words: oke, meaning ‘bucket’ or ‘tub’ and dō meaning, ‘body’. The shell is made from staves of lightweight hinoki or sawara wood that are held together by glue and a ring made of bamboo. Generally speaking, the okedō has a medium to low pitch depending on its diameter and depth. The skin is stitched to a metal ring similar to the shimedaiko pictured above.
There are sub-categories of okedo-daiko such as:
Dengaku literally translates as ‘rice-field music’, a type of music derived from a popular genre of dance and music entertainment in the 14th-16th centuries. The dengaku okedōdaiko used to accompany the dance is made from hinoki wood, covered in lacquer, tuned by rope and light enough to wear around the player’s shoulders.
Eitetsu Hayashi, the great taiko soloist and innovator, developed an okedō whose shell is slightly longer than its diameter. The sound is generally deeper and fuller in tone and often used as part of the taiko set.
Literally ‘shouldering drum’, the katsugi okedō is of lightweight construction – usually under 10kgs – enabling a player to sling the taiko over the shoulder and play while moving. The virtuosic stick work most commonly associated with this instrument is a modern development widely attributed to the Kodo ensemble. Katsugi okedō is capable of fast, intricate rhythms and, as such, is often used in up-tempo, festive music. The metal ring that the skin is attached to does not protrude beyond the wooden shell as much as Eitetsu-style and dengaku okedō, allowing for greater ease in executing the fast, fluid cross-over movement of the left hand bachi (stick).
Being tuned by means of rope, the shimedaiko is classified under the shimedaiko family of taiko. This name comes from two words: shimeru, the verb ‘to tie’ or ‘fasten’ – most commonly with rope – and ‘taiko’. The shimedaiko is a small high-pitched drum that is seen and heard in min’yō (Japanese folksongs) as well as the kabuki and noh theatres. Each skin is wrapped around a metal ring and held firmly in place by stitching. Holes in the skin allow the rope (called shirabe) to be fed through, which is then tensioned and tied with a series of knots to attain and hold the optimum pitch. A small patch of deerskin is pasted to the centre giving the drum a soft, mellow tone.
The tsukeshimedaiko (tsuke means to ‘append’, ‘affix’, ‘attach’) is more often referred to simply as shimedaiko and is similar to the shimedaiko described above, but without the deerskin patch. It can be tuned to a high pitch by means of rope, although bolts are now often used. This style of shimedaiko is most commonly used in matsuri (festival) music and is a mainstay of most mixed-taiko ensembles.
Tsukeshimedaiko come in a range of sizes that are measured by the depth of the wooden shell and corresponding thickness of the skin. The shallowest and lightest sized shimedaiko is referred to as namitsuke and this ranges upward in thickness and strength to 5 chogake shimedaiko. The most common size used in professional taiko ensembles is 4 chogake.
Chogake refers to a system of measurement commonly used for tsukeshimedaiko. There are four sizes that range from 2 chogake to 5 chogake. 2 chogake shimedaiko have lighter shells and thinner skins, whereas 5 chogake shimedaiko have the heaviest shells and thickest skins. Because of their very solid materials, 4 and 5 chogake shimedaiko are capable of being tuned to a very high pitch. Chogake is often shortened to cho.