What is Taiko?

Taiko are a broad range of Japanese percussion instruments and in Japanese the term refers to any kind of drum, but outside Japan it is used to refer to any of the various Japanese drums called “wadaiko” (Japanese drums) and to the form of ensemble taiko drumming more specifically called “kumi-daiko” (set of drums).  Although now very much associated with Japan, there are many sources and historical accounts, of which the earliest date from 588 AD/CE, noting that young Japanese men traveled to Korea to study the kakko, a drum that originated in South China.

Taiko as it is performed today is a relatively recent invention, generally agreed to have been created by Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer by trade, in the early 1950’s.  Oguchi was asked to decipher an old taiko score (a traditional piece of music for the Osuwa Shinto shrine) that a relative had found.  Feeling the music to be rather monotonous he rewrote it as an ensemble piece, creating the kumi-daiko movement by assembling a collection of taiko drums –traditionally played individually– and playing in 20th-century jazz style.

Taiko have been developed into a broad range of percussion instruments that are used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions. There are several drums that make up a taiko ensemble:

Shime-daiko

Shime-Daiko-drum

A small drum, often used in taiko groups to keep the basic rhythm and establish time, but is a versatile solo instrument as well.

Nagado-daiko

Miya-Daiko-drum

The nagado-daiko (long-bodied taiko) is by far the most popular taiko used in the modern kumi-daiko style of playing.  They are also very common in festivals and in temples and shrines (where they are often called miya-daiko).  There are many styles of playing this taiko, with a wonderful selection of different stands that hold the nagado-daiko in various positions.

Oke-daiko or Okedo

Okedo-Daiko-drum

The short bodied styles of okedo which are becoming increasingly popular have a loud, flat, booming sound, and are often played with slats of bamboo which produces a sharp, slapping sound.  The larger form of okedo tend to be bigger than a typical nagado-daiko, often around six feet in length and three feet in diameter.  They are usually played horizontally, raised up on a high stand.

As well as drums, several other instruments can be found in the ensemble including:

Chappa

Chappa

The chappa are small cymbals with a bright tone.  They are usually played as accompaniment to the drums.

Atari-gane or chan-chiki

Atari-gane

The atari-gane is a small metal gong that is usually played in a straight rhythm directly on the beat with a small mallet.  It functions as the ‘timekeeper’ for taiko pieces.

Japanese flute or fue

fue-flute

Frequently the only non-percussion instrument in a taiko ensemble is the Japanese transverse flute or fue.  It is normally made from bamboo and has a clear, high voice. The fue provides the melody accompaniment to the drum rhythms.