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Roots of the Taiko


Some taiko are several times bigger than a person. (Asano Taiko Store)

The taiko is a kind of drum that has been used in Japanese music for well over a thousand years. We know this because of a clay figure of a man playing a taiko that was discovered in a tomb built in the sixth century.

In these early times, many different types of music and musical instruments were brought to Japan from the outside world. There are records of musicians from the Korean Peninsula performing in Japan from the fifth century through the seventh century. We also know that musicians came from many different parts of Asia to play at the dedication ceremony for the Great Buddha at the Todaiji temple in Nara in 752. Music was an important part of the ceremony in which the elite of the Yamato kingdom (4th-5th C.) had their first opportunity to see the huge new statue and welcome the spirit of the Buddha. In fact, some of the taiko used in that ceremony are still in existence more than 13 centuries later.

During the middle ages (the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries), powerful Buddhist temples supported performers who specialized in mimicry, or in dancing and singing. This gave rise to a form of classical theater called noh. Taiko were used to play the hayashi music that accompanied the noh performers, and the drums that were developed in those days became the standard for today's taiko.

Kabuki was the most popular form of theater among ordinary people during the Edo period (1603-1868), and once again the taiko played an important part in the performances. A dozen or more different kinds of taiko were used to accompany the colorful dramas. They were also played regularly in folk music and at festivals throughout the country. Some were large and some were small, but they were all called taiko.

* Hayashi is the name given to the rhythmical music played in noh and kabuki performances, and at Japanese festivals. It often involves a combination of taiko, flute, tsuzumi (a small hand drum), shamisen (a three-stringed instrument plucked with a large plectrum), and gong. The Wakahaya Taiko group in Shimodate plays with taiko and flutes.