Blazing drum rhythms

Two Japanese drum groups share their passion for creating raging beats with various drums. 

Five years ago, Mizue Yamada, 21, saw a rousing taiko (Japanese drum) performance that would change her life. Hono-o-Daiko, an all-female troupe, led the audience to a frenzy. They clapped, thumped their feet and hooted.  

“I was enthralled,” recalls Yamada who was still in high school. “I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do with my life.’’  

Fast forward to last weekend at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur. Yamada, now a member of Hono-o-Daiko, stood on the stage, grinning widely and dazzling the Malaysian audience with her stirring drum rolls.  

Women drummers:Hono-O-Daiko all-femaletaiko troupe displayingtheir skills with elegance.

Hono-o-Daiko and all-male ensemble group, Tokyo Dageki Dan, were in Malaysia for the concert, beating and blazing, an event organised by The Japan Foundation, Embassy of Japan in Malaysia and Ministry of Culture, Art and Heritage to launch the Japan-Malaysia Friendship Year 2007.  

The free concert (with two performances) kicked off the first of many activities lined up for the year in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Malaysia.  

The ‘blazing’ performers  

Formed in 1986, the group’s name, Hono in the Kanji character means “flames” or “fiery” and it certainly defines the groups' spirits and performance.  

Founder and group leader, Akemi Jige recalled what led to Hono’s birth.  

“I saw this huge taiko, almost as tall as me, and I was just captivated,” says Jige, who has a 26-year-old son, from Ishikawa prefecture.  

In Japan, traditionally, taiko groups consists of largely male drummers with a small number of female performers who are relegated to playing drums with softer sounds, Jige explains.  

“But I really wanted to play the o-daiko (big taiko) and produce the loudest sounds,” says Jige.  

For one year, the determined lady went under the tutelage of a taiko master from Fukui Prefecture, named Tamamura Takeshi of the Gonbei-daiko troupe. Jige wanted the freedom to create her own music so she and another friend created Hono.  

Other than Japan, the troupe has also been to Russia, Mongolia, Senegal, France and Cuba. In 1999, the group went on a world tour covering US, Europe, Africa and Australia.  

The following year, they released an album entitled The Hono-o-Daiko Sound.  

These days, they spend two or three times a year overseas, playing for two weeks to a month in different locations. Over 20 years, Hono drummers have changed five times except for Jige.  

“To play taiko, you need to have a good combination of physical, mental and spiritual strength, plus good musical sense.  

“It’s not easy to find someone who can achieve that balance,” says Jige, 53, whose incredible zest on stage belies her age.  

Being a taiko performer requires many sacrifices and the players certainly don’t lead what most people would call a “normal” life.  

Their routine starts from 7am till noon when the three members play together. In the afternoon, the ladies use their time off to brush up on their skills.  

Between 7pm to 8.30pm, they will attend a workshop, explains Yamada.  

Prior to big events like the recent Supershow at Tokyo Dome where they played with 300 taiko performers from all over Japan, the women trained intensively for three days. 

“Although I missed out on going to college, and hanging out with friends, I have no regrets.” says Yamada of Shimane Prefecture.  

“This is my passion and I chose to do it.” 

The third drummer, Chieko Kinoshita, 29, believes in letting nature take its course. 

“I do wish to get married one day and have children. And I know it’ll be difficult to continue this kind of life once I do,” says Kinoshita, who joined Hono in 2003. She initially joined a renowned taiko factory, Asano, because she wanted to learn how to make taiko.  

After working for a few years, she joined taiko workshops and started playing with amateur groups.  

“But at this point, I want to keep doing what I love. All these years, I sacrificed time with my family,” says Jige with a smile.  

“But they have been so supportive and just say, ‘Suki na koto yarinasai!’ (do what you love).”  

Jige will fight tooth and nail to keep Hono-o-Daiko alive and maintain the performing standard of the group.  

“Most importantly, we want our music to energise and inspire people,” says Jige, who writes most of the songs.  

“Our most rewarding moment is knowing we have given our best. And that we’ve touched people with our music,’’ says Jige. 

Over the years, Hono has also received letters from people from various parts of the world who were touched by their shows.  

Mind-blowing act  

Generally, most taiko groups consist of 10 or more drummers. Tokyo Dageki-Dan is unique in that there are only six members and they are all males, says music director and flutist Jiro Murayama, 39.  

“Even with only six members, we can show that we’re as good as bigger troupes,” says Murayama who has more than 20 years’ experience as a shinobue (type of flute) flutist. 

The Tokyo-based performers, whose ages range from 24 to 39, has toured in more than 20 countries around the globe.  

One of their biggest accomplishments was to play in the closing ceremony of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.  

At home in Japan, they still play in local festivals, shrines, performing halls. They also conduct workshops for schoolchildren. The group plays a taiko genre called kumidaiko.  

A percussion ensemble with a relatively young history of about 50 years (compared with traditional taiko like gagaku – ancient court music, which dates back to the 12th Century), kumidaiko is credited for the revival of the popularity of taiko in Japan in the 1970s. Today, foreign kumidaiko groups are not uncommon, especially in the US.  

“Two important things in taiko are the balance of energy and calmness. If we only use brute strength, it is just noise with nothing,” says Murayama, who also teaches music part-time in schools.  

So, what makes a good taiko performance?  

“When you’re happy and entertained, you talk about it after you go home.  

“Our drums have a universal message, regardless of countries. People from all walks of life can feel the spirit of the drums.”  

Judging from the standing ovation the groups received, the drums have indeed imparted their message.  

o For more information, browse 

o Look out for the concert review in Star Mag tomorrow. 

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