In a drum beat

In a drum beat

These beats have resonated in Japan for over centuries during wars, celebrations and cultural events. Hema Vijay writes about the art of ‘wadaiko’ drumming

The drum beats continue to resound in the Japanese countryside to this day. Beats that charged up Samurai warriors setting off for battle; beats that set the pace for their march and their leaders’ call to attack; beats that rang in festivals and seasons down centuries; beats that voiced prayer, thanksgiving to nature, beats that accompanied traditional performing arts like kabuki,

and beats that relayed messages between tribes...Well, wadaiko drumming is perhaps as old as Japanese civilisation itself. With its wide repertoire of rhythms, sounds and tones, Wadaiko offers extensive scope for musical expression. But curiously, it is only in recent years that it is emerging as a performance art.

Many moods of drumming
While the world sees wadaiko drummers as one, these drummers actually specialise in various music styles. “When we collaborate, we try to bring out this essence and simultaneously blend it with other styles to create a novel music experience that is focused on music and performance, one that is not seen in the world of traditional

wadaiko,” says Tetsu Minegishi, one of the trio of wadaiko drummers from Bachi Atari — alternative wadaiko unit, who are on tour in India for performances in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Dehradun and Coimbatore.

Bachi Atari was formed in 2009, ‘to revolutionise the traditional image of the Japanese drum wadaiko and give it a brand new shape’. Their focus is not just on the legendary wadaiko styles of Tokyo, but also local styles from across Japan, that of the Edo festival music, and the nagauta accompaniment from the classical performance arts.

In the last few years, the group has been globe-trotting and has taken the sensitive rhythm, beats and tones of traditional wadaiko to countries like France, America and England, besides India of course.

Diversity is the hallmark of wadaiko drumming. There are hundreds of variations in terms of size and shapes for these drums, not to mention the divergent styles of drumming in various regions within Japan. These drums are made of local hardwood like kayaki, while the vibration surface is created by animal hide.

There is the nagado-daiko — the wine barrel-like, long-body drum that is traditionally carved by hollowing out a log, with cow hide as its vibrating surface; this drum may be played by two drummers at the same time.

There is the large o-daiko drum whose vibrating surface stretches over a metre; there is the conical wadaiko drum, smaller shime-daiko, the flat wadaiko... “Traditional wadaiko drums range from tiny hand-held ones to huge ones that may be as tall as a human being. The sound they emit is equally diverse.

And the echoes from the same drum can also vary. It takes years to master wadaiko, and I am still learning” says Tetsu Minegishi, who has 20 years of wadaiko drumming behind him.

What made wadaiko emerge a war signal is perhaps the fact that the beat from these drums can cross 130 decibels! Such a beat can reverberate over miles and miles across the quiet Japanese countryside.

A traditionally-made wadaiko drum can last over 300 years. The Japanese hand-make it from hard wood like zelkova (Japanese ashwood), letting the wood dry and the leather get cured for a long time — sometimes extending to a few years! This gives the drum the toughness to take beats that produce 130 decibel sounds.

Only some of the wadaiko drums like shime-daiko are tuneable by tightening hemp cords and ropes. Many other wadaiko drums get tuned for a lifetime, when they get made.

More than just music
Not just the sounds, but the kata or posture and movement of the drummer are central to wadaiko, and the stance of the stomach is given great importance. “We hold that the sounds are channelled from the base of the stomach,” says Masashi Oikawa, Bachi Atari. So you would notice that wadaiko drummers are as graceful and poised in stance as a dancer.

The drummer’s body is held flawlessly stable on widely spread legs, and streamlined movement is seen from the drummer’s hands. Likewise, the drumming sticks called bachi are to be held in specified styles.

And even today, be it in Los Angeles or the Japanese countryside, most wadaiko drummers continue to perform in traditional clothing — the happi that is a sleeveless, decorative jacket of light fabric, momobiki the loose-fit pleated pants, hachimaki or the headband, and tabi the split-toed shoes.

Indian connection
Incidentally, these wadaiko drummers do perceive certain common threads in Japanese and Indian percussion traditions. Says Bachi Atari’s Yuhei Motoyama, “As in the Indian percussion tradition, voice notes are important to wadaiko drumming.”

The origin of wadaiko is not clear, and theories range from a mythological origin to it being born from being Korean/Chinese/Indian influences. But, we do know that wadaiko drumming existed in Japan since at least the 6th century CE, during the latter part of the Kofun period.

We know this from the discovery of the 6th century haniwa statues that are seen drumming wadaiko. These statues were discovered from Japan’s Sawa district.
Motoyama shares that interest in wadaiko drumming is resurging in Japan, and that he himself teaches the form to children. Unlike in India, where female percussionists are a rare entity, wadaiko drumming is not limited to men alone.

“In fact, at the amateur level, there are more female wadaiko drummers than males,” says Motoyama. Meanwhile, in recent times, kumi-daiko (ensemble drumming) first staged and developed by Japanese jazz musician Daihachi Oguchi in 1951, has caught the fancy of the audience, rock musicians and classical purists alike.

Much of wadaiko drumming does leave you charged up. That is perhaps innate to the nature of all percussion music, but in Wadaiko, you feel this excitement more intensely. Like ikebana, bonsai and other uniquely Japanese arts, wadaiko drumming takes its cue from nature. Sounds reminiscent of rumbling thunder, the flash of lightning, the slap of the wind on the trees, and the beat of the waves on the sand and rocks can be heard in wadaiko.

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