ByÂ Rashaad JordenÂ (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) forÂ JQÂ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad currently studies responsible tourism management atÂ Leeds Metropolitan University. For more on his life in the UK and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog atÂ www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.
Many JETsâ€”myself includedâ€”have been drawn to taiko because we love the sound emanating from the drums and want to partake in something traditionally Japanese. But what do we really know about taiko?
For those looking to expand their knowledge of Japanese drumming, Heidi Varianâ€™sÂ The Way of TaikoÂ (now available in a new edition fromÂ Stone Bridge Press) is a great way to go. Varian, a member of theÂ San Francisco Taiko Dojo, introduces readers to the history and contemporary culture of the music that is a symbol of Japan to many.
Varian calls taiko the â€œheartbeat of Japan,â€ and thatâ€™s appropriate because the drum was a method of gathering townspeople or letting them know about any impending danger, in addition to being used to celebrate festivals. Like seemingly everything thatâ€™s considered an integral part of Japan, taikoÂ has an enormously long history clouded in mystery (it actually may not have originated in Japan), but Varian explores it.
She not only examines taikoâ€™s beginning and its importance in ancient Japan, but how taikoÂ appeared in traditional Japanese theatrical forms like noh and kabuki. She also writes about how taikoÂ gained a foothold in the United Statesâ€”the first documented taiko drum appeared in San Francisco in 1910â€”and its pioneers (such asÂ Seiichi TanakaÂ andÂ Kenny Endo) on this side of the Pacific. Varian also doesnâ€™t also live in the past when talking about taiko, as she raises important issues about its future.
The Way of TaikoÂ also shines when its describes in detail the visual aspects of taiko, such as the instruments, drumsticks, formal wear and frequent mannerisms displayed during a performance, and their significance in Japanese drumming (Varian writes that â€œvocalizations are an important part of any taiko performance, offering invocations, encouragement, timing and directions to othersâ€).
Although Varian is an American of Icelandic descent, she does sound very Japanese when she writes about the emotional and physical aspects of taikoâ€”like playing from the heart, learning how to breathe and maintain correct postureâ€”and how to use them to your benefit. Varian writes that â€œeach beat should be played with full spirit, whether quiet or powerful, and have the full commitment of the player.â€ It seems like sheâ€™s writing a â€œhow-toâ€ guide for those trying to get the most out of taikoÂ (the book even includes a glossary of commonly used terms).
While it was fascinating to read about how taiko has grown in the United States, others might wonder if taiko has rivaled physiother forms of Japanese culture such as animeÂ and mangaÂ in gaining worldwide popularity. Even a word or two about taiko in places other than the United States and Japan (such as mentioning noted taikoÂ ensembles) would have enhanced the book.
However, those who want to learn more about taiko,Â whether they are novices in Japanese drumming or have been playing for several years, will be amazed by the rich history and culture of the genre. After readingÂ The Way of Taiko, they will develop a deeper appreciation for the â€œheartbeat of Japan.â€
The Way of TaikoÂ is available Oct. 1. For moreÂ JQÂ magazine book reviews,Â click here.