YAMATO – THE SOURCE OF PURE ENERGY
The room is full – people of all ages came tonight to enjoy the show that is cautiously advertised as much incredible as loud.
The curtain slowly goes up letting white mist escape from underneath, almost as if someone opened a time capsule that’s been sealed for centuries. The stage reveals itself, and we can almost make up odd shapes and human figures wrapped in shadows. Absolute silence welcomes the air scented with a mild smell of fake smoke. And although it is hard to tell, but surely, at this very moment, everyone’s eyes are set on the stage in anticipation.
Suddenly, a wild roar cuts through the silence followed by the heavy sound of drums and the dim light disperses from above, illuminating several, extravagantly dressed men and women holding a pair of wooden drumsticks each. They immediately proclaim the stage. As they enforce the fight against the air that separates their drumsticks from their taiko, they deliver incredible strength with every strike that sends a chill down the spine. Playing in indescribable harmony, the drummers give their all, and the crowd finally gives in. Sometimes they spin out of control – or, maybe, we do. They create a powerful surge of energy that makes people’s bodies jump and hearts race faster.
To many Japanese people, the sonorous beat of taiko is soothing, for it is the sound of Japan itself, resounding at Shinto rituals and festival in every part of the nation. But I can hardly relate such powerful sound to Japan, a country that in the western world is known as gentle, composed, and, maybe, a little mellow.
But, this vision of Japan most of us carry is probably a fair generalisation. In past centuries, those who would speak their minds, raise hell, or endlessly carp about something might very well end up with their heads chopped off. So you can see that Japanese developed a strong mindset to keep quiet and keep their nose to the grindstone. However, the very bedrock of Japanese society is an emphasis on conformity that permeates everything. And for a few people who don’t see that, you might see some confrontation about toeing the line, doing the right thing.
There are actually a large number of words in Japanese relating to being a busybody, meddling, or sticking your nose in other’s affairs.
So where did taiko begin its course onto becoming the instrument of inspiration and encouragement that is deeply familiar to every Japanese today?
One of the first uses of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy – a use to which drums have been put in many cultures. Taiko were definitely used in battles to issue commands and coordinate movements by the 1500’s; taiko being the only instrument that could be heard across an entire battlefield. According to picture scrolls and painted screens of the time, one soldier would carry a taiko lashed to a backpack-like frame, while two other soldiers would beat the instrument on each side.
Taiko, as it is performed today, is a post-war phenomenon which was born in 1951. Daihachi Oguchi, who created the kumi-daiko style, is given much of the credit for the current taiko boom. Oguchi was a jazz drummer who stumbled upon an old piece of taiko music. Deciding to perform the old music for the Osuwa shrine, Oguchi “jazzed it up” as he arranged it. Coming from a jazz background, he wondered why taiko were never played together and broke with tradition by assembling a taiko drum ensemble.
Intense, insane, incredible – these three words describe the show at its best. Every element of it takes pride in detail, and every performer takes a great pleasure of making the crowd go “ooh and aww”. They seem ethereal, like they don’t belong here on this planet. It seems almost as if they are fighting some invisible war with us and within themselves, marching through the sound of their drums, evoking a wide set of forgotten emotions, strengthening our hearts until our souls burn frantically like fabulous yellow roman candles, and we suddenly catch the glimpse of the land from afar.
At first, they seem like unity, moving arm in arm, side by side, dressed uniformly but effortlessly, each holding a pair of drumsticks, but then you begin to see them individually for they are all different with their skills and personalities. Some of them are funny and some are fierce, but you recognise and remember them all.
The founder of Yamato, Masa Ogawa, came across Japanese drum when he was trying to become a glass artist. He worked with several Japanese drum performance groups before he established Yamato in 1993. Since then, Yamato has progressed and given 3,500 shows in 53 countries. Ogawa composes, choreographs, and works on theatrical designs in order to complete the powerful and visually alluring performance that combines traditional instrument with current music.
As the show continues we are now wholly taken by the folk. There is no time or desire to blink. There is no hesitation to clap your hands to the beat of the drums. There is no shame in howling after each performance. For these two hours, the small but busy theatre became an asylum for the wild, the desirous, and the curious. And as the show ends, we walk out the theatre, we all disperse in many different directions hustling to get the last tube, train, or a bus, and at that moment I think to myself that maybe it’s not Japan that is too content and quiet – maybe we forgot how to let loose and stop the rush to truly be ourselves and simply have fun.
Yamato challenges not only our senses, but they leave you thinking what taiko really means and what the people who play it try and want to convey through their contagious music and absolutely fantastic visual performance.