Learning the Rhythm and Feeling the Beat
The Burlington Taiko Group brings Japanese culture to the United States
Story by Nicole Weber
The members of the Burlington Taiko Group take their positions. They raise their arms and strike, pivoting their feet and flexing their arms. As a martial artists would say “kiyah!”, the drummers shout “kong!” prior to striking the Japanese Taiko. The group adjusts. Some members move to another Taiko drum, “kong.” A pattern is created. The group continues to move around the stage; increasing the volume of their voices and the velocity of their movements.
Stuart Paton formed Burlington Taiko Group in 1987 after moving to Burlington from San Francisco, where he learned the art of Taiko. “Taiko is one of the big things that influenced my life, but growing up in Tokyo was an even bigger influence,” Paton says. “I enjoyed the combination of movement, discipline, and voice. Also its connection to parts of Japanese cultures and language.”
Taiko, meaning big drum, became a part of Japanese culture after it moved from India to China and then into Korea with the spread of Buddhism, eventually settling in Japan. Fran Stoddard, a performing group member who has been with BTG for 15 years, says Taiko is practiced “mainly for ceremonies and festivals.”
Stoddard says that choreography was added to Taiko mainly in Japan. Taiko also became more of a performance art in the last century.
"I enjoyed the combination of movement, discipline, and voice. Also it’s connection to parts of Japanese cultures and language."
Paton explains that the Samurai used Taiko to instill fear in their enemies. Town villagers used the art to pray for rain and good harvest.
There is also the old misconception that Taiko was used to call wars. “There is a lot of oral history and transmission in Taiko, so some incorrect information is being learned and retaught,” Paton says.
Performances are comprised of a group of people hitting Taiko drums and moving around to depict a story. BTG performs dozens of pieces. "Choreography is what makes Taiko. Music is a big part as well,” Stoddard says.
“It’s an energizing combo of movements, pose, and music. I really love that it is a group activity and a lot is done in unison,” Paton says.
Some of the Taiko pieces that BTG performs are to call on dragons (“Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi”) and the Japanese depiction of lions (“Shishi-Gashira”) to guard the surrounding area. These performances were meant to bring luck and good fortune. The striking of the drum in these, as well as other pieces, is strong and loud and can be misunderstood by the audience if the cultural difference is not properly explained. “A lot of people think (it) comes from anger. I don’t see that at all. I see it as being positive and (having) strength,” Stoddard says. “Someone might say, 'Oh, you’re really pounding it out. You must be angry.' The issue is the audience may want to pound it out from anger.”
"Someone might say, 'Oh, you’re really pounding it out. You must be angry.' The issue is the audience may want to pound it out from anger."
David Cowles, performing member of BTG for 16 years, likes to perform the “Shishi-Mai,” the Tokyo-based piece that calls on the lions. “I really like performing in particular in elementary schools because the kids are so enthusiastic.”
BTG has performed in New England as well as in New York, Plattsburgh, Philadelphia, Ohio, California, and has toured in the Gaina Festival in Yonago, Japan. The group is currently comprised of 14 performing members, several apprentices, and a youth ensemble that is always influx.
To become a member, potential performers start as beginners, and with enough practice and dedication move up to the rank as apprentices. From there, they can become performing members, though a select few apprentices do perform with the advanced members.
It can take anywhere from one to ten years to become a performing member, but the average is between one and six. “Practice is part of it,” Paton says, adding that the rest is knowing “music, etiquette, correct range of motion, power, and endurance.” He explains that etiquette is essential for being in unison as a group and continuing the Japanese tradition. “Japanese etiquette is to respect yourself and others,” Paton says. Of course people with prior experience, or who are very motivated, are more likely to advance faster. “Effort is really important.”
“I was a drummer in high school,” Cowles says. He was really excited when he saw BTG perform with Middleburry’s Festival on the Green and took a workshop with Paton the following winter. “I like playing in a group, particularly this group.”
"Japanese etiquette is to respect yourself and others."
Practice is once a week, though a second practice time is offered. BTG typically performs two to three times a month, and the performing members have rehearsals once a week.
“I think it’s terrific. I’m well into my 50s and started well into my 40s. I wish I started when I was a teen. It keeps me staying in shape, which I need to be. I also work out on the side to make sure I can practice. It is also very meditative because all you can focus on is playing Taiko when you’re playing,” Stoddard says. “It’s good physically and for the mind, and it’s creating music that affects people.”
Taiko drums are about 20 inches tall. They have a wooden body that is connected to a stand and is covered in cow skin. Cow skin is used because it is more pliable.
BTG builds all of their own Taiko drums, which can be expensive. “Japanese Taiko (drums) are really nice and expensive, so we made our own. At the time, (it’s) about $400 in materials per drum. Our 5 foot diameter Odaiko and stand cost us about $10,000 to make,” Paton says.
“Our normal size drums now take us about 70 hours to build, but our first drums took a lot longer,” Paton says.
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