There are Japanese percussion instruments that sound like rumbling thunder and lend themselves to powerful and dramatic stage performances, filling listeners with excitement. Wadaiko, or taiko for short, are traditional Japanese drums. They are used to perform at festivals and other events, infusing them with energy and listeners with excitement. Today, Japanese taiko performances with other instruments and spanning various genres, such as classic and jazz music, are thriving as the instrument finds fans across the world.
Participants show off a spectacular wadaiko performance at the taiko festival in Saitama.
Five Years to Make Wadaiko
A primary school student team at the taiko festival beats powerfully on a nagado-daiko.
The best-known Japanese taiko drum is the nagado-daiko (long-body drum), made from hollowed-out log with both ends capped with cowhide. The largest taiko drums are called o-daiko, some of which are greater than one meter in diameter. Wadaiko are played using wooden sticks known as bachi. When hit hard with bachi, taiko can produce sounds topping 130 decibels, a sound level that is on a par with the noise produced by jet airplanes. Outside, such sounds can be heard over a distance of several kilometers. In fact, in ancient Japan, such taiko drumming was even used to signal soldiers on the battlefield.
A man uses a plane carefully to shape the body of a wadaiko drum in the studio of Miyamoto-Unosuke Co. Ltd.
Jacks are used to stretch the cowhide to its limits in making wadaiko, one of the world’s most sturdy instruments. A heavy wooden hammer is used to repeatedly strike the instrument when to fine-tune its sound at Miyamoto-Unosuke Shoten.
Taiko are typically made of hardwoods such as zelkova or Japanese ash, which is used to make baseball bats. The production process, which involves drying the wood and processing the leather for the skin of the drum, takes close to five years to complete. The life of a taiko is said to be commensurate with the age of the wood used to make it as calculated by tree rings. A taiko 45 cm in diameter could have a surprisingly long life, lasting as long as almost 300 years. Moreover, taiko made by traditional methods are sturdy enough to withstand even the strongest of strikes without breaking.
Evolution of Taiko as Instrument
Japanese taiko have a long history and are closely connected with Japanese history. In ancient Japan, they were used at festivals to offer prayers to the gods for a plentiful harvest as well as to accompany traditional performing arts like kabuki. It is only in the past 30 or 40 years that taiko have come to be featured in stage performances. Gradually, taiko troupes formed around Japan. In 1975, one such group, Ondekoza, began performing on a worldwide basis, helping in part to ignite the current boom in the instrument in places such as Europe, North America and Brazil. Today, in fact, there are more than 1,000 taiko groups in North America alone.
Taiko as an art continues to evolve, transcending its place in Japanese traditional performing arts and being performed in a variety of musical arrangements ranging from orchestras to rock concerts.