As Loud as Thunder

Taiko drumming at the U

Photographer:  Kellen Renstrom

Photographer: Kellen Renstrom

The Institute of Advanced Studies recently held a performance, workshop, and panel discussion focused on Taiko, which translates to “big drum” in Japanese. On Feb. 11, students and community members—many of whom were already familiar with Taiko—gathered in a seminar room at Northrop Auditorium.

Taiko music is at least 1,400 years old, tracing influence from China and Korea before becoming a mainstay in Japanese culture. Originally performed by one man with a single drum, Taiko was commonly played during festivals and the religious ceremonies of Shintos and Buddhists. Although it wavered in popularity over time, it was rejuvenated in the 1950s in order to revive a sense of community in postwar Japan.

Taiko made its way to the United States during the 1960s at a time when African-Americans had soul, Caucasians had rock n’ roll, and Cubans had jazz. The Asian-American community, in large part, lacked a defined sound. Taiko, as described by University of Minnesota professor Josephine Lee, “spoke toward a desire for social power, for a voice, a way to be heard.”

Photographer:  Kellen Renstrom

Photographer: Kellen Renstrom

Taiko drums are sometimes referred to as “thunder drums” due to their bold and resonant sound. The performers often rotated drums during the performance, smiling wildly and shouting as they played.

The drummer’s power is channeled through their core, as they assume a position resembling the “come at me” pose in martial arts, with their drumsticks pointed towards the sky.

“Your thighs will quiver before your arms give out,” drummer Jennifer Weir said.

After they finished playing, the drummers were understandably winded. Some Japanese groups run five miles uphill before they begin practice. According to Weir, however, this group is not quite as focused on conditioning.

“Especially under my direction, we’re a little lazier than most Taiko groups,” Weir said.

Photographer:  Kellen Renstrom

Photographer: Kellen Renstrom

Conditioning is not the only element that differs from traditional Taiko. Originally played solely by men, Taiko is now performed predominately by women, who are estimated to make up 70 percent of the performing community, according to Weir. Smiling during a performance is also unique to Taiko groups in North America.

The Taiko community has a strong presence in the Twin Cities. Organizations such as Mu Daiko, Mu Performing Arts, and Concordia University all offer instruction in Taiko, where registration is open to people of every background.