By Kelsey Volkmann
St. Louis – while 6,000 miles away from Japan – celebrates a direct tie to one of the fathers of modern taiko, the art of Japanese drumming. The Gateway to the West’s connection to the birth of modern taiko took center stage Sept. 27, 2012, when Dr. Shawn Bender, author of a new book, Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion, lectured at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Bender, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., discussed what he called the three distinct genealogies of taiko: Osuwa Daiko, Sukeroku Taiko and Ondekoza.
Taiko, thunderous drums made out of tree trunks or barrels topped with animal hide, had been played for centuries at temples, shrines, festivals and by the military. Grandmaster Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa Daiko was the first musician to transform taiko into a performance art played by an ensemble. “Oguchi and Osuwa Daiko really were the first to put taiko together and play them on stage, with different pitches, in an orchestral form,” Bender said in an interview.
Oguchi was inspired to create “kumi-daiko,” or the taiko ensemble, in 1951 after deciphering an old scroll of taiko music found in Suwa in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan. Oguchi, a jazz drummer, “incorporated western rhythms that appear entirely indigenous,” making the roots of this “new folk art” just as American as it is Japanese, Bender said. Oguchi and his group, Osuwa Daiko, helped propel taiko to the international stage in 1964 when they played at the Tokyo Olympics. Taiko showcases breathtaking choreography, and the rhythms reverberate in audience members’ chests, giving it universal appeal. “Your heart is a taiko,” Oguchi once told The Associated Press. “All people have an internal taiko, and they listen to a taiko rhythm, dontsuku-dontsuku, in their mother’s womb. It’s instinct to be drawn to taiko drumming.”
From Suwa to St. Louis
In 1986, Oguchi visited Suwa’s sister city, St. Louis, to form St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, which began as a children’s group. A year later, Oguchi donated drums to St. Louis Osuwa Taiko. Oguchi died in 2008, shortly before St. Louis Osuwa Taiko’s first trip to Japan, but his legacy lives on in taiko groups on both sides of the Pacific.
More than a quarter century after Oguchi founded St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, the group has grown into an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization devoted to spreading and evolving the art of taiko through workshops and shows across the country, with the largest performance occurring every year on Labor Day weekend at the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
St. Louis Osuwa Taiko’s repertoire blends both original pieces (watch a video about the group’s newest original piece, “Oni-Daiko”) and traditional ones composed by Oguchi, including “Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi.” Taiko players across the globe, including St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, honored Oguchi’s memory this summer by playing “Hiryu” and posting videos of their performances on the Hiryu Project website on the anniversary of his death. “Hiryu,” which Oguchi wrote in 1972 based on rhythms from Osuwa Shrine, tells the story of a dragon god circling overhead as the drummers pray for the god to stay and give its blessings.
‘New Folk Art’
Osuwa Daiko, along with Sukeroku and Ondekoza, were at the forefront of what became a “new folk art” that represents the new kinds of communities that emerged since postwar Japan, Bender said. Sukeroku Taiko, the first taiko troupe in Tokyo, is the second limb of the taiko family tree Bender describes in his book. The group popularized flashy moves and a style of playing that uses slanted drum stands, which groups worldwide, including St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, have adopted.
The third arm of modern taiko stems from Ondekoza, which was based on Sado Island and served as the “world’s ambassador of Japanese drumming,” Bender said. The group’s popular canon of songs, including “Odaiko,” which features solos on the group’s largest drum, has influenced taiko worldwide. Ondekoza “elevated” taiko to make it the “focal point of stage performance,” Bender said during his talk.
“As a new genre, taiko is no longer attached to a particular local tradition, but is more a readymade, off-the-shelf folk art,” Bender said in an interview. “It has the same costuming and the same drums, but the groups occupy an interesting position: They are new, flexible about participation, but yet they have a sort of feeling of oldness with their instrumentation and costumes. It’s neither traditional nor new – it’s new folk. It celebrates the present and how it makes them feel and how much joy they derive from it.”
St. Louis and Suwa Continue Taiko Ties
To celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2011, St. Louis Osuwa Taiko hosted Osuwa Daiko for a joint show in St. Louis. To continue to strengthen those ties and celebrate a common founder in Oguchi, the two groups plan another two-way cultural exchange in 2013. Osuwa Daiko will visit St. Louis to perform alongside St. Louis Osuwa Taiko at next fall’s Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden. St. Louis Osuwa Taiko will then travel to Suwa later that month to study and perform in Japan. St. Louis Osuwa Taiko has launched a fundraising campaign with the goal of including as many group members as possible in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We continue to carry on Oguchi’s tradition by playing his original songs, introducing taiko to new audiences and performing across the country as one of the only North American taiko groups left with ‘Suwa’ in our name,” said Andrew Thalheimer, artistic director of St. Louis Osuwa Taiko. “Visiting Suwa in 2013 is the next step in our ongoing partnership with Osuwa Daiko and our sister city. We’re really looking forward to it.”
For more about St. Louis Osuwa Taiko and its classes for children, adults and seniors, visit stltaiko.com.
Kelsey Volkmann is a corporate communicator and freelance journalist and has performed with St. Louis Osuwa Taiko for three years.