IIn a venue on the Japanese island of Sado, 71-year-old Yoshikazu Fujimoto bangs the towering drum mounted in front of him, producing a boom so powerful it reverberates through the floorboards.
Fujimoto is a veteran performer of the Japanese taiko drum, a musical form that has its roots in religious rituals, traditional theater and the joyous abandonment of seasonal festivals called matsuri.
But for all its ancient pedigree, taiko as a stage performance is a fairly modern invention, developed by a jazz musician and popularized in part by one of Japan’s most famous troupes: the Sado Island Kodo. .
Fujimoto is the oldest of the 37 musicians who make up the group, which recruits its members through a rigorous two-year training program.
“Taiko itself is like a prayer,” said Fujimoto, who came to Sado in 1972 to join the group that became Kodo.
“The area hit by the sound of a drum was once said to constitute a single community,” he said.
“Through taiko…I want to be part of a community with the public and send a message of living together, a message of compassion.”
The effect is an overall wall of sound that seems to enter the rib cage and vibrate through its bones.
And it’s very physical, with Fujimoto grunting in effort as the muscles of his nearly bare back flex under the straps of his tunic with each strike.
‘One with sound’
“I become one with the sound,” he said. “Playing taiko makes me feel alive.”
Kodo’s performances range from dark power solo o-daiko to ensemble pieces with flute and vocals, and even comedic interludes that encourage audience participation.
The first is made from a single hollowed-out tree trunk with a cowhide or horsehide nailed to each end. The second uses skin stretched over rings attached by strings to a wooden body.
They have been part of rituals and theatrical art forms like Noh and Kabuki in Japan for centuries.
But drumming in these contexts is often a solemn practice, while modern taiko is closer to folk festivals where troupes often made up of local residents play in the streets or fields to unite the community, ward off harmful influences, or pray. for a good harvest.
“Contemporary taiko drumming drew a lot of inspiration from this local festival and combined with more formal traditional performing arts to evolve into what we think of today as taiko drumming,” explained Yoshihiko Miyamoto, whose Miyamoto Unosuke has been making taiko for over 160 years.
Then in 1969, musician Den Tagayasu moved to Sado to found a taiko troupe which he hoped would attract young people to the island and revitalize it.
‘Right to Your Soul’
Fujimoto left his native Kyoto to join the group known as Ondekoza, and when they broke up he stayed and helped found Kodo.
Membership now involves an arduous two-year training program, where apprentices between the ages of 18 and 25 live in dormitories, with no telephones or televisions.
“The day starts at 5 a.m., when we get up and go out immediately to stretch. Then we start cleaning and polishing the floors,” said Hana Ogawa, a 20-year-old who completed the intern program this year.
After the cleanup, the trainees go for a run and then spend the whole day training, with breaks only for food. They have one day off per week.
It might not be for everyone, but Ogawa, who decided to join Kodo after watching them perform in high school, has no regrets.
“I’m happy every day, because I love taiko and I pursued that goal and achieved it, so it’s a dream come true,” she told AFP.
“Taiko has the power to connect people with his sound,” he said.
“Especially in our contemporary times, you hear the noise of machines everywhere, but taiko uses this raw skin and wooden drum bodies,” he added.
“It’s like a nature sound, it’s very organic. I think that’s one of the reasons it comes straight to your soul.”
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