Richmond, VA – They came from the West (they had played in Charlottesville the night before). They came with a passion (情熱 or Jhonetsu). On February 21, 2020 at the Atria Theater in Richmond, VA, Yamato The Drummers of Japan shared that passion. Yamato (大和) which means “Great Harmony” in Japanese, suits this troupe quite well, as the harmonious beats of drums (taiko or 太鼓) captivated the waiting audience for two hours of sheer joy.
What transpired over the course of the evening was a three fold journey into my passion for learning new things, my passion for music and the arts, and a passion for ‘the show’.
Part 1 – Passion For Knowledge
I had been scheduled to interview Jun Kato, a senior member of Yamato, prior to their performance that evening. I arrived a little early and was able to observe, first-hand, the troupe working with River City Taiko, a local taiko group. I recognized several of the members as they had performed at the Asian American Celebration in Richmond last year. Kato took the sensei role very seriously, as he worked with the local group to hone their skills. Of course, the group had many questions to which Kato and the troupe had answers.
Then, it was my turn. After being introduced we made a little small talk and then it was time to learn a little about the art of Kumi-Daiko (組太鼓,the style of drumming, or as translated, “set of drums”). Jun started by telling me the names of the various Wadaiko (和太鼓, “Japanese drums”). While I had done some research ahead of time, it was soon obvious that I had some more learning to do about taiko. Jun introduced me to a few different drum types.
The Shime daiko is a small drum, made from a single tree, with the heads tensioned by rope. The drum makes a higher pitched sound due to its high tension, which requires two very strong people people pulling on the ropes to apply. Jun joked that tensioning the heads was like athletic training.
Another type of drum that also has a rope tensioned head is called the Okedo. It is larger and rather than a single tree construction, it is more like a barrel. Like the shime, it is tuned with a rope, however, it is put together like a wine barrel.
We then talked about other drum styles that are not tensioned by rope, the first being a larger drum called odaiko, or flat drum. This style is very heavy and takes several people to move. A smaller drum of similar design is called the nagado. Both are made from a single tree, the nagado being made from a rare wood called keyaki (欅 (ケヤキ)).
Now it was time for the history lesson. The Kumi-daiko was first invented in 1951 by Daihachi Oguchi, the founder of Osuwa Daiko. Oguchi was a jazz drummer who had been tasked with interpreting taiko music written in old Japanese notation. Inspired by the western drum set, he adapted the music to multiple drums, with each individuals taking on the role of the hands and feet of the drum kit. Oguchi was very successful in melding the traditional instruments and sound of the traditional Japanese taiko into a modern ensemble. In many respects, Oguchi is to Kumi-daiko as Elvis was to Rock and Roll.
As I learned from Jun, Yamato was founded in 1993 by Masa Ogawa who is still Yamato’s director. It was founded in Nara Prefecture, Japan, said to be the birthplace of Japanese culture. Ogawa’s first experience with Kumi-daiko was at the request of his mother to play taiko they had found in a temple. He wrote a song that used four people, including his brother and friends. Since 1993, Yamato has grown from four people doing Kumi-daiko in a temple to 20 members, eight of which are on this tour. In the 27 years since its founding, Jun tells us that Yamato has performed over 4,000 times in 56 different countries.
We talked a little about what kind of person want to be part of Kumi-daiko and what kind of person succeeds. Jun believes everyone wants to be a taiko musician. It is very strenuous work to succeed and one always has to want to get better every day. It is also very important to work with, understand, and appreciate all the members of the troupe. The musicians have a very strong connection and they strive to work to make one sound. It is also very important to work with and understand the audience (more on that later).
The final topic for our discussion revolved around what Yamato wanted the audience to feel and understand at the end of the night. Jun emphasized that the show was called Passion (情熱 or Jhonetsu) and they needed to show the audience passion. When asked what he wanted or expected the audience to take away from the show, it was about delivery of the energy of their passion. Jun also said that when they deliver the energy of the passion to the audience, the members of Yamato also feel the energy. A successful night would result in a large exchange of energy.
To end the interview, Jun and I jammed a little on nagado-daiko, also known as mia-daiko, which also happens to be the most popular taiko drum. I was flattered that he recognized that I had some drum experience in my past. In hindsight, I wish I had practiced a little before going, Jun seemed to want to jam a little more. It was a great way to end a very fun and informative interview.
Part 2 – The Passion (情熱 or Jhonetsu) For The Music, Art, and Show
When the curtain rose, the stage was dark. As lanterns light pierced the air, so did the sound of beating drums. The first piece was entitled Netsujoh (熱所), which is the emotion, the passion that ignites with the heat of fire. The troupe hammered the drums as the flames ignited.
The next piece was Ishikure (石塊), or Pebble. The Japanese word for rock is Ishi, which also pronounced the same as the word for intention. Yamato’s performance demonstrated the stone’s intention through their music and performance.
Just as Jun had described, Yamato wanted to deliver the energy to the audience. They did so with music and no words. What was a joy to watch was the interaction between the troupe and the audience. As the night continued, one could not only feel the energy in the performance rise higher and higher which was transferred to us in the audience. The interaction between Yamato and the gazing eyes was unlike any I had seen before. Much of this member to member and member to audience interaction took place in Rekka – Wildfire, where two teams of drummer competed fiercely on the taiko! What stated with one, soon went to two. The energy continued to multiply as the two went to four.
Coming out the intermission was Ucho-ten – Rapture. Ucho-ten refers to the highest level of the heavens in Buddhism. This was portrayed in the music by a mesmerizing bamboo flute and some intense drums.
The audience interaction continued throughout the second half. On multiple occasions, it almost appeared as though members of the troupe were competing with each other and looking for the audience to take sides, or just join in. The audience participated with escalating enthusiasm.
When I spoke with Jun earlier, we talked of the hard work and conditioning needed to be a taiko drummer. Their physical condition was visually obvious when the men removed their shirts, exposing their sculpted backs to the audience. While taking pictures of this part of the performance, one of the female patrons approached me with a request to give her one of the photos of this performance. If she happens to read this review, please feel free to send me an email, I will send you one!
With their performance of Garakuta VII – Junk, I was amazed at their ability to tell a story with sounds, not words. Using small Japanese cymbals called tebiragane (手平鉦), the members were able show and tell what started out with a game of catch and evolved into a heated table tennis match. While there was no actual ball, the sounds from the cymbals and the body language of the performers had the audience following the imaginary ball. It was so much fun to experience.
When they were done, they were not done. Just as Jun had said, their goal was to transfer their energy to the audience, and they did. As the curtain closed for the first time, the audience rose to their feet, giving the troupe a well deserved standing ovation. Taking the stage again, the members worked the audience to another climax with all eight members of the tour showcasing their talents on the entire array of taiko.
As we all left for the night, the excitement in the air was obvious. The members of the troupe came to the lobby to interact with those in attendance. It was obvious that the Yamato, the great harmony, went far beyond the stage, the sounds, and the music. It was all about the harmony of all things, of the people, the show, the history, and the energy. When we left I think we all felt the Passion (情熱 or Jhonetsu) of which Jun spoke. It was not just a feeling, it was a gift so wonderfully delivered by Yamato.
Yamato The Drummers of Japan Performance Schedule
Netsujoh – Passion
Ishikure – Pebble
Rekka – Wildfire
Rakuda – Joy of the Beat
Ucho-ten – Rapture
Ittetsu – Stubborn
Garakuta VII – Junk
Itadaki – Summit
Show Date: February 21, 2020