In Perfect Tempo: Drum Tao Japanese Samurai Drum Rock Review
In a short trip to Kyoto, I was amazed by the seamless union of traditional and contemporary elements both in architecture and even in food. In some places, you would be transported back to early Japan when the fine dust didn’t hinder from wearing silk kimonos and the only sounds you would hear on the road are that of rickshaws. Some would take risks in combining modern ingredients in traditional recipes, but outside temples there are sticks of dango with its usual sweet soy syrup.
This seamlessness is quite true in the arts as well, and it’s not just in Kyoto. In 1993, a group of highly trained athletes and skilled musicians established TAO, a Japanese samurai drum group with the purpose of entertaining the world. The Kuju Highlands in Japan’s Kyushu island is home to over 30 artists, each well trained in the Japanese art of taiko drumming.
Equally physical and musical
According to the Zoellner Arts Center 2014 study guide on TAO, the members of the group all wake up at dawn to go on a 12-mile run and intense muscle training. After which, they undergo 10 hours of drum and choreography rehearsal.
Taiko drumming is both an intense form of musical art and physical training, with these two aspects relying heavily on each other. It’s a performance of speed and coordination, endurance and patience. Tamashii, a contemporary Japanese taiko drumming group based in New Zealand puts it perfectly, “movement is just as important as rhythm, so in our view, taiko can be thought of as 50% dance and 50% music.”
Drum TAO harnesses a strong energy that is felt both in power and grace, as seen in the moments when they would bring out their harps and guitars, and the two women of the group would perform a short dance. After which, the two would play on the opposite sides of the biggest taiko drum and you as an audience member would be left to wonder how they synchronize so perfectly without seeing each other.
Taiko, theater, and fashion
After years of training and performing, the drum group TAO decided to fuse fashion, entertainment, and theater into one giving rise to a new perspective on the art of Japanese taiko drumming. The group currently performs with other traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto (harp), shamisen (3-string guitar), and the shakuhachi (flute) in a fluid repertoire that will keep you at the edge of your seats for two whole hours.
In their Manila leg, we saw how TAO cleverly utilized taiko and technology, with sets that would sometimes rely on the projections on the stage and perfectly choreographed light-up bodysuits.
What’s more is that their performance doesn’t exclude the audience, as if they were performing something untouchable or unrelatable. They make it as interactive as they can by incorporating the audience’s laughter and applause at certain points in the show.
Feeling the pulse
There’s a certain fear before entering a TAO performance, especially when you’re not well-versed in Japanese drum culture or even in percussion as we were. Unlike your usual Billboard 100 concert, you enter this one thinking there are no melodies or even words to be heard or taken in.
But TAO’s primary tempo hits just right. It starts following the regular speed and beat of the human pulse and gradually accelerates into a theater-wide adrenaline rush. You will feel it.
In music we have this term called ‘perfect pitch’. It’s the ability of a person to identify and/or hum a certain pitch without reference from a keyboard or any pitch-giving instrument beforehand. I’ve always wondered if there’s the same phenomenon towards tempo – knowing exactly what’s 120 beats per minute, without having to look at the ticking second hand of your watch. After watching TAO, it’s as if they all have perfect tempo all confident with their entrances and rests without the benefit of a conductor or metronome.
The art of taiko drumming has evolved throughout the years. But what fascinates me the most is that it has remained true to its unrestricted form of art and the closeness of their rhythmic patterns that feel so inline with the human heartbeat. Ikuo Fujitaka founded TAO, meaning ‘the road’ or ‘the way’, and surely this philosophy continues on as they find ways to bring their audience alongside this passionate experience. It’s not every day you have these artists on stage welcoming you to share in what they’re truly passionate about.
Fujitaka recounts that hundreds of trainees run away from the training grounds every year saying that they couldn’t handle the intense physical and musical demands. Since then, the training has been adjusted and many now seek to join the group during recruitment periods. Aside from physical and musical abilities, Fujitaka notes that you must be able to harmoniously live with others in order to be considered part of TAO.
During the show, you don’t see performers dead-tired from their months of rigorous training. You see passion, strength, and all of them just having fun.
The amazing kind of different
Drum TAO is the kind of show that you don’t see every day in the Philippines. It’s something you look forward to whenever they go on tour because it’s beautifully different and there’s nothing else that will thrill you the same way.
The combination of traditional Japanese melodies, breathtaking choreography, and stunning martial arts sequences will keep you from being bored even for a second. And besides, to take you away from the seriousness for a while, they have these comedic skits that are slightly on the edge of plugging their own merchandise. Who else is going to do it, right?
Unfortunately, by the time this article is published, Drum TAO would be back in Japan training for their China tour. But this is already their second Manila show so I don’t think there’s anything keeping them from doing a third rerun here in the country.