TAO: DRUMMING ATHLETICISM
By Paul Freeman
TAO involves far more than just pounding on the ol’ taiko. This troupe, whose latest extravaganza is “The Art of the Drum,” features 20 extraordinarily talented and athletic Japanese performers. Their skills include martial arts and dance, as well as creating mesmerizing rhythms.
The show’s charismatic female focal point, Arisa Nishi, explained, “We don't want to be just a regular Taiko concert and we are not. The performance that you can enjoy with your eyes, with your ears, and feel through your heart and the entertainment that gives audience joy and power, these are where we are going toward.”
The TAO troupe, formed 19 years ago, has earned global acclaim and won raves at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It incorporates Korean, Maori and Indonesian influences, as well as Japanese.
Of the concept, Nishi, 33, said, “The goal was not to only inherit the traditional Japanese drum, but to assemble drummers who wanted to create a new form of artistic entertainment using Japanese drums.”
Nishi, who is among the group’s members who compose original music for the shows, said that Japanese drumming is about subtlety, as well as power.
“Taiko makes a quite big loud sound, but it’s never taken as loud noise. Sometimes, taiko creates real calm, heartwarming sounds. Maybe it’s because taiko is made of trees and its skin. Probably that's the aspects that people don't expect from taiko but makes taiko unique and appealing.”
Taiko is not easy to master. In fact, according to Nishi, one never actually masters them. “There is no limitation for the training. It’s like endless challenge. Playing drums requires quite a hard physical strength, so we really have to train our whole body. Running and muscle workout are very important.
“Everyone can just hit the face of the drum and make a sound, but the deep part of taiko is to create the sound from whole parts of it and that’s the hardest skill to obtain. Some people can create this sound quickly, but for some, it takes years of training process. To create the true sound of taiko, we keep swinging taiko sticks continuously for one hour without stopping each day to create enough upper body strength. There are no tones in drumming world, but you can still make so many different sounds out of one taiko by changing where to hit and how to hit by adjusting the degree of the sticks that are hitting the drum.”
She finds there to be a spiritual aspect to the art of the drums. “When I and Taiko become one, that's when my true feeling reaches to the audience. It is really important to have clear feeling and mind of what kind of image or world we are creating through the music. Because that's the message that we are trying to send to the listeners. It does reach out to the audience and I think it's spiritual.”
Only those with elite level potential can become part of TAO. “Out of a pool of 200 applicants each year, only about 15 are picked for the auditions. There are years where none have made it through to becoming a trainee drummer. Our audition consists of physical test and taiko test. Drum experience is not required. Each of us can create their own sound, and somehow these different sounds get synchronized on a stage and it makes our performance unique.”
Performers come from different creative backgrounds. “Some come straight from high school or college. One came from academy of art, another used to belong to an amateur rock band. One came from fashion design school. One came from self-defense force of Japan. One used to be a tour guide in Canada. So many backgrounds and some had taiko experience, some did not. Nobody had professional knowledge or skill of music. But therefore, everyone learned it together from zero.”
All of the performers live together in the mountains of Southwest Japan, in a commune-type setting. This way, they can maximize their long hours of training, physical and musical.
This communal living bonds the troupe. “On the stage, we can understand each other without words. When something goes wrong on stage, we cannot talk. When that happens we communicate with our eyes. Living together helps the process of creating the music and performance, because when someone has a great idea, he or she does not need to wait till the next day to share the idea. We call everyone into the meeting room, even though it’s in the middle of the night. We get together and share the fresh idea. Also, because we share what we see, what we hear, what we feel, pretty much everything, when we go on stage, we all have same image and message that we want to share with the audience.”
The nature of the drumming creates a sense of community among the audience members, as well as the performers. “They are always moved by our sound. Taiko sound has the power to make people feel comfortable, we believe. And you can feel the taiko not only by ears but also through the shake of the air.”
For Nishi, it’s not possible to become overly comfortable within the context of TAO. “We are constantly seeking something new and fresh that does not fit into the frame of tradition. We are constantly challenging to create our own entertainment that has no script and keep moving forward.
“Seeing all of those faces smiling, crying in the house at the end of the show, it always reminds me how an entertainment can move people's feeling. It is a great thing and I’m so thankful that I get to be a part of it.”