Reflections on the Art of Taiko and World Peace -
By Koji Nakamura

Koji Nakamura is the leader of Shinji Shumeikai's Shumei Taiko Ensemble, one of the foremost taiko drumming groups in the world today. For close to twenty years the Ensemble has inspired audiences with the beauty and precision of its modern interpretation of one of Japan's oldest musical traditions. The Ensemble performs throughout the world, appearing at such venues as Lincoln Center, New York; the United Nations, New York; and the Parliament of the World's Religions, Cape Town.

The Ensemble was featured in a benefit concert entitled "An Affair with Nature" with Paul Winter and the Paul Winter Consort on September 7, 2000 at Lehigh University, Zoeliner Arts Center, Baker Hall, Bethlehem, PA. Proceeds from this concert benefited the expansion of The Rodale Institute's "Kid's Re-Generation" 2000 Educational Programs.

The sound of taiko drums have played a significant part in Shinji Shumeikai since first used in one of our ceremonies nearly thirty years ago. It is felt that each of us can communicate with God through our individual prayers and that the deeper and more intensively we pray, the more intimate our communion with God becomes. In Japanese this idea is called "Kanno Doko" and denotes that moment when human prayers interchange with Divine Light. It is the moment when a person's purified soul, like a spark flying from a flint stone, emanates radiance that connects one directly with God. By its very sound taiko expresses this state of Kanno Doko. Taiko is a prayer. This is the most basic and the most important principle of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble.

The Ensemble was founded in 1982 as part of Shinji Shumeikai's endeavor to foster an appreciation of the arts. Our founder, Meishusama, taught that through art man's nature can be purified and elevated, and its baser elements removed. Naturally, we pursue this aim through literature, painting, music, drama, cinema, and other art forms. The artist's soul summons all people to be elevated through all the various mediums that art employs. The mystical power that springs from the artist's soul passes through the words, pictures, musical instruments, the song and dance of art and touches the soul of all mankind. This link, this spiritual cord between the artist's soul and the souls of his or her fellow human beings, can be very strong. Because of this, if an artist's character is troubled, he or she will trouble his or her fellow humans. And, if an artist's soul is fine and pure, he or she will refine and purify the souls of his or her fellow men. This ability to exalt and elevate the soul is the noblest aspect of art of any medium, and the artist should use art to become a worthy guide for the rest of mankind.

The Shumei Taiko Ensemble's way of living is based on this idea. Every day we practice purifying our souls and elevating our characters through serving God. We do this by developing within ourselves an appreciation of beauty and art, and by helping people. To improve our minds and bodies we do strenuous exercise daily. By running, stretching, and rehearsing we strengthen our muscular powers. Surrounded by the beautiful Shigaraki Mountains, in which Shinji Shumeikai's headquarters of Misono is located, we practice on our drums, flutes, and harps to create a graceful and dynamic sound.

Since 1988 our Ensemble has performed under the artistic leadership of Meisho Tosha, who is considered by many to be the greatest yokobue flute player. Under his direction Shumei Taiko has come to occupy an eminent place in the world of Japanese performing arts, both in our mastery of traditional taiko and yokobue techniques and in our approach to contemporary and innovational forms of taiko music.

Art has the power to move beyond the differences that separate human beings from one another. It transcends language, customs, and race and oversteps political, religious, and national boundaries. Art has the power to dissolve all that spawns bitterness, hatred, and hostility between people.

Last year we participated in a series of eight performances at the Parliament of World Religion in Cape Town, South Africa. It was our privilege to play following addresses given by Dr. Nelson Mandela and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Afterward, Eugene Imai, the Director of Shinji Shumeikai of America, told us that our performance was a great success, not because it insured that Shinji Shumeikai and our Ensemble would become better known but because the sounds of our drums made the hearts of all who heard us beat as one. And that one heartbeat overcame religious intolerance and beat a strong and clear message of world harmony.

Of the many types of drumming practiced in the world, Shumei Taiko's drumming aspires to produce a particularly spiritual sound, like that of Native American and ceremonial African drumming.

This year we were honored to be invited to perform in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations during the opening ceremony of the Millennium World Peace Summit in August, 2000. It is our hope that through participating in this event we will continue to make our contribution toward the achievement of world peace by bridging the distances that exist between people.

 

Editor's Note on the History of Taiko

While the early history of taiko remains obscure, scholars claim that as a drumming style that includes military, cultural, and religious uses it dates back 1400 to 1800 years. Drums resembling those used in contemporary Japanese taiko were used as early as 300 AD. The booming sound of taiko heralded the opening celebrations of the Todaiji Buddhist Temple in the sixth century and later provided the regal music of the imperial court. In religious ceremonies, taiko has been used for centuries in both Shinto rites and during various Buddhist festivals. The result of this long history is the rich body of traditional rhythms that form taiko's existing repertoire.

Although the Shumei Taiko Ensemble's mission is to promote peace among mankind, it is certain that taiko drums were first used as a battlefield instrument to intimidate enemies and rally arms. A vestige of the art's military origin is found in the heavy regimen of physical exercise, emphasis on discipline, and the tight communal ethos of most modern taiko troupes, including that of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. Yet, the irony of taiko's martial origin supports rather than contradicts the Ensemble's mission of peace and the beliefs held by Shinji Shumeikai concerning the role of art as a great purifier of the human spirit. For if artistry does possess the power to refine the hearts of mankind, it certainly also has the power to take what was once a brutish din heard before battles and transform it into sublimely spiritual music.