In the village of Asuka, in Nara prefecture at the outer edge of the massive Osaka conurbation, the 17 drummers of Yamato — who are actors and athletes as much as they are master musicians of the ancient Japanese form called taiko — wake every morning and head out together on a 10-kilometer run.
Later in the day, they cook, eat, and practice together deep into the night. Their shared quarters in the mountainside village serve as both living and work space, and as home base for a company that has brought a vivid, spectacular style of taiko to audiences in Japan and worldwide since artistic director Masa Ogawa founded the company in 1993.
Using an array of massive drums, passed down through centuries of regal and religious ceremonies, and accompanied by smaller drums, cymbals, and flutes, Yamato, which brings its 20th-anniversary tour to Sanders Theatre on Saturday, performs with a keen sense of drama, humor, and verve.
Yamato, The Drummers of Japan
One of several modern taiko ensembles to have made an international impact — in the footsteps of Kodo, which began in 1981 — Yamato favors an active, theatrical style of taiko drumming. Its numbers have contemplative passages and moments of subtlety, but its trademark is in the fireworks and choreography.
“We don’t just focus on complicated rhythms or techniques,” says company member Gen Hamada. “It’s more important for us to make sound theater. It’s like a big explosion. We like to have fun.”
Hamada has been with Yamato for eight years, having joined the group after seeing one show when he was a college student. “I didn’t know anything about taiko drumming, and I was amazed,” he says. “Although I was studying business management, as soon as I graduated, I went to their village and I started my life as a trainee.”
Now, he’s speaking by phone from Amsterdam, where Ogawa has sent him to supervise Yamato’s taiko school there, which opened a few months ago — its first permanent overseas outpost — while the rest of the group is on tour.
Indeed, taiko is seeing a rise in global visibility, with non-Japanese drummers learning the art, and growing interest in collaborations with other genres. Large, multi-generation Japanese immigrant communities in the United States and Brazil have also produced homegrown taiko players and academies.
“Taiko drumming in both the US and Japan is at a turning point in its development,” says Kazuo Watanabe, a former member of Kodo who runs a taiko school in New York and collaborates with jazz musicians and others. “We have a wide range of professional groups touring these days. Some emphasize their connection to traditional Noh and Kabuki theater and folk music, and some are really aiming to create a dynamic, crowd-pleasing performance.”
Putting taiko onstage before a concert audience is itself a relatively recent development in the music’s history, dating only to the 1960s.
“The instruments themselves came from China and Korea a long time ago,” Hamada says. “And since then, they were used for different occasions: to encourage soldiers for war, for ceremonies at Shinto shrines, and also for festivals in the summer. But taiko ensembles that you see onstage don’t have a long history.”
The concert hall setting may have taken away some of the ritual and spiritual aspects, but it also introduced new possibilities, including the chance to innovate with stage mechanics, sound systems, and lighting.
“The major groups are constantly calibrating the balance between ‘art’ and ‘show’ in their esthetic,” says Watanabe. He says great performers can make any performance sacred, as long as they play from the roots of the music, which should convey gratitude for the harvest and connection to family, community, and nature.
One break that many taiko companies have made with tradition has been to include women drummers. Yamato was coed from the start, Hamada says. “We were one of the first ones, but not the pioneers,” he says. “But now in Japan, many women are into taiko drumming. In Yamato, I would say the girls are stronger than the boys.”
More controversial, he says, was the exuberant esthetic and performance style that Ogawa instilled in the group from the outset. “When Yamato first went onstage, we got complaints that we shouldn’t smile, or wear certain costumes — that we had to be very serious when playing taiko,” Hamada says. “But we believed in what we were doing.”
The troupe’s relish for playfulness and desire to make the crowd laugh distinguishes Yamato from other groups that are more formal and meditative. In part, Hamada says, that may be a regional stylistic trait. “We live in the western part of Japan, near Osaka, and they say people from that region have a special kind of humor. We can’t do anything without adding some humor.”
But it’s also a performance approach that seeks to demystify taiko and turn the show into a communal event with the spirit of a party.
“We want to spend time together with the audience,” Hamada says, “and make the atmosphere feel like a festival of life itself.”