Taiko (lit. “big drum”) is a sacred practice introduced to Japan from China during the Yamato period in the fifth and sixth centuries. It was traditionally used in warfare as a way to rally soldiers, frighten or deceive enemies, and issue commands (1). Taiko was later used to communicate with the gods, to attract or ward off animals on hunts, to send messages between villages, and as a timekeeper and ritual instrument in Buddhist monasteries (2).
Taiko became a popularized art form during Japan’s feudal era, when Buddhist monasteries supported troupes of actors that would eventually give rise to the Noh theatre. Noh performances were accompanied by taiko, yielding drums that would become the standard for modern taiko. Another theatre that became popular during the feudal era was kabuki, which introduced several different kinds of taiko drums to accompany the action on stage (3).
Taiko also played a major role in folk music and festivals throughout Japan, accompanied by a wooden flute and a small hand drum known as a tsutsumi. Taiko is now a mainstay at festivals such as Obon, as one of the major instruments played at bon dances. It has become a performance art in and of itself.
Taiko in North America
Japanese immigrants brought taiko to North America during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to continue the practices of their ancestors. Nikkei communities on the West Coast supported these practices until the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, after which many Japanese traditions were forgotten. In 1969, Reverend Masao Kodani, Johnny Mori, and George Abe began the Kinnara Taiko group at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, eventually inspiring other taiko groups to form. The movement sparked by the formation of Kinnara Taiko became a means of regaining some of the Japanese identity lost during the early twentieth century (1).
Interest in taiko was renewed in the mid-1970s and 1980s due to many reasons- development of an information base surrounding the building of drums and performance, and the first American tour of a Japanese taiko group (1). Today, taiko is gaining increasing popularity as an art form, becoming a means of expression that is a mixture of traditional and contemporary styles and rhythms.
A Taiko drum consists of an open-ended wooden barrel sealed at both ends with stretched cowhide or horsehide and played with wooden sticks called bachi. There are two major types of taiko, which differ in the way the skins are fitted to the drum. Drums in which the hides are tacked directly onto the barrel are called byodome-daiko, while drums with hides held in place by tension produced by hemp pulled across the body of the drum and passed through the hides at opposite ends are called tsukeshime-daiko. A third kind of taiko, the okedo-daiko, is made from staves of wood with a hide stretched across the ends (1).
There are several other types of taiko that differ based on size and function. These include nagadou-daiko (miya-daiko) used in festivals; the o-daiko, the largest of the taiko drums; the chu-daiko which is a size between that of the nagadou-daiko and the o-daiko; the wa-daiko, which can be flat or on a slanted stand; the eitetsu okedo-daiko, which is a miniature version of the okedo-daiko; the hira-daiko, which is a flat drum hung horizontally on a frame; and the uchiwa-daiko, a “fan” drum that consists of a metal hoop with a hide stretched across it (2). Taiko are traditionally accompanied by a wooden flute and a small hand drum called a tsutsumi.