Taiko means "big, fat drum" in Japanese. Taiko have been played in Japan for more than 1,400 years at religious ceremonies and festivals. Today, groups play taiko worldwide as a performance art.
Taiko come in many different sizes. Traditionally, there are two types:
- Byou-uchi daiko are made out of a single piece of wood or made of staves like wine barrels. The heads are stretched to tremendous pressure and tacked into place.
- Shime-daiko have stretched heads sewn around iron rings that are tightened around a hollow metal or wooden drum body using wood or screws, bolts and rope.
Players use bachi, or drum sticks, and various kata, or stances, to strike the drum. Combining music with choreography and strength training, taiko can be a physically demanding musical expression.
Long ago, taiko were beaten in warfare to boost the morale of the troops and to fool invading armies into believing that a formidable opposition was on the march. It was also used as a communication method among neighboring villages as taiko's deep, thunderous sound traveled for miles. Taiko has also been associated with the gods and religions of Japan. Above all, however, the most popular use of taiko, past and present, has been at festivals.
Modern performance taiko evolved in the 1950s, thanks to Grandmaster Daihachi Oguchi of Suwa, Japan. Oguchi-sensei, a jazz drummer, is credited with arranging the various sized taiko to play in an ensemble to create kumi-daiko. After founding Osuwa Daiko, in Suwa Japan, St. Louis' sister city, he later traveled to St. Louis in 1986 to start St. Louis Osuwa Taiko.
Oguchi-sensei said taiko has universal appeal. "Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm, dontsuku-dontsuku, in their mother's womb," he once told The Associated Press. "It's instinct to be drawn to taiko drumming."
What started as a few people playing simple arrangements of shrine music in Japan grew to hundreds of groups playing worldwide. The spirit of taiko spread like wildfire, fueled by the talents and vision of taiko masters such as Oguchi-sensei, Den Tagayasu of Ondekoza, Seiichi Tanaka of San Francisco Taiko Dojo and many others. Modern day taiko is a choreographed blend of music and movement played in many different styles all over the world.
The first formal introduction of taiko to the United States was in 1968 by Master Seiichi Tanaka with the formation of the first North American taiko group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo. He and his group went on to inspire many, if not most, of the taiko groups throughout the America. Since then, taiko has not only become popular but has also become a part of a universal musical language drawing our world closer together.