Connecting Past and Present
As far back as the 5th Century in Japan, the arts of taiko (drumming) and folkloric dance have been interwoven into the fabric of society. Part of folk festivals and Buddhist rituals, these arts symbolized a connection to both time and place.
In the 1950s, a shift in the world of taiko came about when a jazz musician, Oguchi Daihachi, began to experiment with an ensemble based approach to performing taiko by incorporating drums of various sizes and pitches, and setting up the stage as one might see in an orchestral percussion section (Bender, 49). This reimagining by Daihachi, led to a taiko renaissance, during which professional taiko performing groups emerged and began to explore contemporary rhythms, stagecraft, and physicality. Despite the emergence of a new musical sensibility, many taiko performing groups still maintained a strong sense of cultural identity derived from traditional Japanese instruments and technique that is based upon movement motifs grounded in local custom. One of these groups is Kodō.
An intensely physical art form, taiko originally emerged when life was physically demanding and survival required a deep connection to the earth and community. As anthropologist and Taiko Boom author, Shawn Bender, notes from his own period of study with Kodō, on Sado Island in Tokyo, the technique is as much about "embodying the inherited form" as it is about producing a specific sound (202).
Connecting to Living
Embodiment in centuries past both honored and evidenced a self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle and the shared spiritual beliefs held by specific communities. As a result, the music and the dance that emerged from those communities was deeply and locally rooted, and identifiable. When the Kodō troupe was first forming as an apprentice training program for professional taiko players in the late 1960s, the rituals of daily living, and the skills required for those rituals of living, became as paramount to the training process as was the music instruction. These same rituals are still practiced by Kodō apprentices today.
On the first day of the program, first- and second- years proceed to a workroom to begin a basic class on woodworking, an activity that has both practical and symbolic value. Their task is to whittle a section of bamboo into the one pair of chopsticks that they will use for the rest of the year. (Bender, 128)
Apprentices at Kodō also take part in farming the land and participating in Buddist ritual festival practice at a local Shinto shrine. The festival rituals, being drawn from the physicality of the agrarian lifestyle help to build physical strength, but more importantly they become a way of living and doing from which the music will eventually emerge for these apprentices. Even the communal approach to food preparation instils a respect for value of the labor and the art of living.
Vegetables are bought whole and chopped with knives (not by a food processor); fish are bought whole and filleted by hand; rice is bought unrefined from local vendors, run through a machine to remove the husks, rinsed repeatedly by hand in water, and then cooked fresh for each meal. In making the miso soup that furnishes the basis of each meal, apprentices begin not with the concentrated soup stock Japanese households use as a time- saver, but with the constituent ingredients of dried kelp and dried bonito flakes. (Bender, 130)
The music training for Kodō apprentices focuses primarily on the physicality of drumming. The movement of the drummer is not wrought out of a particular technique, or set of prescribed exercises. It is born of a practice under the watchful eye of intructors who guide through demonstration of "...the appropriate way to hit the drum...," and careful critique of each apprentice's form as they practice hitting the drum--left and right, over and over (Bender, 137).
The appropriate way to hit the drum, hold the sticks, to stand, to sit are all related to being grounded, being aware, and being connected to the earth, to the community, and to one's self--even as that self is transformed. The transformation that blossoms through this complete immersion in living and learning is perhaps best described by the account of a young apprentice, whom Bender had an opportunity to observe on his graduation day. The apprentice, Daisuke, appeared at the formal dress graduation ceremony wearing a leather jacket, but one that had special meaning for him. Bender writes:
The jacket expressed who he was— a drummer for a punk band, with an attitude and record of delinquency to match. He arrived at Kodo to play taiko, to show how good he was, and to become the best taiko drummer he could... But now sitting here...in this place in this jacket, he had come to realize just how poorly it “fit” the new him. Two years after wearing the jacket to his first day at the Apprentice Centre, he announced that this would be the last time he would put it on. (Bender, 140-141)
Connecting to the Feldenkrais Method®
Embodied taiko is born in living. It lies as much in thoughts that formulate beneath the surface of the skin as it does in the muscles that actualize the sound. Thoughts that start in the body--in the physical experience of daily life--lead to an innate understanding of the self. Having multiple contexts in which to understand one's self was also at the heart of the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, who developed a learning system known as the Feldenkrais Method of movement. Moshe designed hundreds of lessons that explored the way we think and move.
Starting with the simplest of functions (like breathing) and movements (like reaching), Moshe created a world within each lesson structure that, on the most fundamental level, was connected to daily life and the habits we form in the expression of that life. Like the young man's experience of a beloved leather jacket that no longer fit, many who study Feldenkrais regularly, experience a similar sense of self-image transformation.
Self-image in Feldenkrais terms encompasses more than the physical self. It relates to our sense of what is possible. Moshe realized that this sense of possibility was linked to our earliest experiences of learning. He, therefore, focused his Method on the very nature of learning through movement, in which the process of moving becomes increasingly integrated with thinking, sensing, and feeling. Like the apprentices of Kodō, whose mastery of taiko is linked to the values of living and learning, for those who practice the Feldenkrais Method, mastery comes with a similar devotion to self integration.
The Taiko Performer - Fully Embodied
In closing, I would like to turn one final time to the example of taiko. I invite you to watch Chanto - Masato Baba, a short documentary by Ian Mora. This film features a taiko performer and composer, named Masato Baba, who is based in Southern California. As the film opens, he plays an extended flute solo that captures the intricate dance of moving, thinking, sensing, and feeling--embodied in art. Embodied in taiko.
Bender, Shawn. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion. Berkley: University of California Press, 2012
Kodō (鼓童). Embedded on 10/24/15 via YouTube code at the following link: https://youtu.be/kI4Mqb5_jJU
Chanto - Masato Baba. Embedded on 10/24/15 via Vimeo code at the following link: https://vimeo.com/65349502
Feldenkrais Method® and Awareness Through Movement® are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America.
Embodied Taiko by Andrea Higgins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.KinEdge.com/mtsf/2015/3/20/embodied-taiko.
The captions found below appear on the original source file of Chanto - Masato Baba on Vimeo as uploaded by Ian Mora, but are not visible above, due to the way the video file was embedded in this blog post. You can visit the source file for both videos embedded in this article by using the links to each video under "References." (There were no notes provided for the Kodo video.)
Chanto - Masato Baba
Chanto - Masato Baba (1080p)
Having trouble playing? Try the 720p version - vimeo.com/65617985
Taiko is a form of Japanese drumming. This mini-documentary features Masato Baba, a musician who has studied and performed this art form since he was 6 years old. He currently composes and performs with two Southern California Taiko groups, On Ensemble and Taiko Project. Please visit their sites and look for additional content at...
I have known Masato since we were young children and this being my first video project I was lucky to have a subject I felt comfortable with. This was an excellent learning experience for me. This entire project was shot in about an 8-10 hour day and I did the one man band thing for the most part. Of course if you are able download the original file for best viewing quality.
Special thanks to Nick Maccias for helping us lug around our gear and Robert Stellrecht for letting us use his shop for the day.
Shot on Red Scarlet-X
w/ Rokinon cine 35mm & 85mm
Cut in Adobe Premier CS5.5
Graded in RedCine-X
Feel free to comment (good/bad) or ask questions. Thanks!