shumei taiko

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Taiko: Myth and History
Once, at a time more distant than human memory, the storm god Susanowo-no-Mikoto left his home on the seas and began to ravage the land. His wild rages so upset his sister Ameterasu Ohmikami (the sun goddess) that she fled to a cave and, rolling a boulder over its entrance, vowed never to show herself again.

The world fell into darkness and devils sprang from their hiding places to roam freely across the earth in its endless night. Knowing that all life was doomed without Ameterasu Ohmikami, the gods of heaven and earth gathered at the cave’s mouth. They reasoned. They begged. They threatened. At last, they tried to force the rock from the cave’s entrance but Ameterasu Ohmikami would not budge from her refuge. All creation seemed doomed.

Until, Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, a small goddess with a face creased by age and laughter, made her way into the midst of the other gods and declared that she would coax Ameterasu from the cave. The mightier gods looked at the old woman and sneered. Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto smiled back at them, poured out a huge sake barrel, jumped on its head, and began a wild dance.

The loud, hard, frenetic pounding of her feet made a sound unlike any ever heard before. The rhythm was so lively, so infectious that soon the other gods, caught in Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto’s revelry, began to dance and sing as well. Music filled the earth and the celebration became so raucous that Ameterasu Ohmikami peeked out from her cave and, seeing the joyful faces, brought her light to the earth again. Thus, Ameterasu Ohmikami’s light returned to earth, Susanowo-no-Mikoto was banished, and taiko music was born.

So goes a variation of an old story from the Nihon Shoki, a chronicle from 7th and 8th century A.D. Japan. The story is pure myth. The truth of this myth is that taiko has the power to bring joy and expel anger. And, in accordance with Shumei’s philosophy concerning art, it brings light into the world. However, the historical origins of taiko are less straightforward and hazier than the myth.

Some claim that, because a drum’s sound is as fundamental to us as our own heartbeat, the first musical instruments used by cultures throughout the world generally are percussive. If so, the precursors of taiko drums could go back at least 2000 or 3000 years deep into Japan’s prehistory.

As with most drumming traditions with origins in primitive societies, taiko celebrated almost all aspects of life from birth to death. Taiko drums roused the troops and intimidated the enemy on battlefields, were paraded through village streets to call people to joyous festivals, and were played at rice planting ceremonies where their thunderous tones scared away insects and awakened the spirits of rain. In some Buddhist traditions, its rumbling sound represented the voice of Buddha and in Shinto shrines it accompanied prayers to heaven. Not only did the sound of taiko transcend the borders between the human and the divine, but could also fix firm boundaries here on earth — in ancient Japan, the distance one could hear a taiko drum from the village’s temple determined a town’s borders. Obviously, it benefited a town to have a large drum.

Others claim that taiko’s linage began in India and, following the path of Buddhism, came to Japan by way of China and Korea a little before 600 A.D. Drums with some resemblance to taiko instruments can be seen in ancient Buddhist sutras and murals, and medieval paintings show taiko-like drums circling the head of the god of thunder.

The oldest portrayal of what is thought to be the ancestor of the modern taiko drum is found in a sixth or seventh century clay statuette unearthed in Gunma Prefecture. It is a figure of a musician with a drum hung hip-level from his shoulder. The instrument resembles those found to this day in rural China and the musician beats the drum with both a stick and the palm of his hand, as did Koreans drummers of that time.


One theory that falls in line with the idea of taiko’s origins being imported holds that it originated with the introduction of Gigaku Theater from the southern Kingdom of Wu in China during the Asuka period (circa 600 - 710 A.D.). Gigaku is a form of dance and mime that employs a small staple of stock characters, among them a bird, a lion, and the Lord of Wu. This theatrical form is accompanied by instruments, among them drums. The connection of drums and theater is evident in the later development of Japanese Noh and Kabuki plays, where taiko drums still play an important part in the orchestra because of their ability to evoke a setting by mimicking the sound of animals, wind, the sea, and thunder. )

The thunder of taiko was not used only to represent the Buddha's voice in temples, or mimic the wind and sea in the theaters, but its roar also was employed to intimidate enemies and rally troops on Japan's earliest battlefields. A vestige of the art's military affinities survives in the intense regimen of physical exercise, the discipline, and tight communal spirit that is practiced by members of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble.

While the martial leanings might seem at odds with the Ensemble's mission to promote peace, a deeper look into Shumei's philosophy dissolves the contradiction. For if art has the power to purify and refine hearts (as Shumei members believe), it then certainly has the power to transform the brutish din heard in battle into sublimely spiritual music.

During the tenth century, the tide of Korean and Chinese influence on Japan had ebbed and many of the artistic forms imported from abroad evolved to something uniquely Japanese. By the end of the Heian period (circa 1185 A.D.), a style of drumming had developed that was recognizable as taiko. (Photo right - A Gigaku mask of Karura from the Miho Collection.)  

Whether taiko was born of indigenous Japanese traditions or was adopted into early Japanese culture from more sophisticated societies cannot be determined with complete certainty. The truth may be that the art form arose and grew from an ongoing synthesis of different influences, both imported and domestic. What is certain is that taiko's spirit, with its precisely articulated rhythm and movements, is deeply ingrained in Japan's culture and that its power to stir the emotions and touch the soul transcends national borders and cultures.

Within the last hundred years taiko has gained an international audience and, as with American jazz and European classical music, it is on its way to becoming a truly international musical form. In this, the parallel between taiko music and Shumei becomes apparent. As with taiko, Shumei draws deeply from its Japanese roots while embracing the influences of other cultures and with its emphasis on all people being "citizens of the world" it is truly international in its outlook.