After a quarrel with her brother, the god of sea and thunder Susanoo no Mikoto (建速須佐之男命), Amaterasu Omikami (天照大神) the goddess of the sun hid in the cave Ama no Iwato (天岩戸) in a gorge near Takachiho (高千穂) in Miyazaki (宮崎) Prefecture and the world became dark. The other gods tried to persuade her to come out but didn’t succeed until Ame no Uzume no Mikoto (天宇受売命), goddess of dawn and joy upturned a barrel of sake (probably after drinking it although the legend is a little vague on this point) and started dancing on it in front of the entrance of the “Cave of the Heavenly Rock”. Amaterasu came out to see what was going on, was dazzled by her own reflection on a mirror hanged on a tree by Uzume, the sun returned to the world, Shinto (and Japan’s emperor) got themselves one of their basic symbols, the mirror and Japanese culture got itself one of its basic elements, the drum; or at least this is what the ancient texts “Kojiki” and “Nihon Shoki” tell us.
The admirers of Japan’s from all over the world who crowd to watch the concerts of drum groups like “Kodo” (鼓童) don’t find it hard to believe that what they see and hear is the product of an ancient tradition –and the Haniwa (埴輪) clay figurines in the National Museum in Ueno confirm their notion: the relationship between the Japanese and drums goes back at least 1500 years. But what both the figurines and the classic texts fail to mention is that the “kumi-daiko” (組太鼓), the drum groups involving taiko drums of various sizes and shapes are a much more recent invention owing its existence to a jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi (大八小口, 1924–2008) founder of the first of these groups, the “Osuwa Daiko” (御諏訪太鼓) and his will to modernize and popularize the old instruments used in festivals, No and Kabuki. Many followed his example –the group “Oedo Sukeroku Taiko” (大江戸助六太鼓) from Tokyo, the group “Ondekoza” (鬼太鼓座) from Sado (佐渡島) Island from which “Kodo” also sprang out and countless others- and today taiko groups are so widespread that no one can believe that in essence it’s a music genre contemporary of Rock n Roll.
And when you get down to it, it doesn’t really matter. Thanks to the laborious efforts of Oguchi’s hundreds of successors and their thousands of students of all ages in the last 60 years, kumi-daiko are now part of the Japanese cultural landscape and one of the best ambassadors of Japanese civilization all over the world. Their concerts in Japan and abroad are always successful and people enjoy both the music (like all drummers in the world, Oguchi had noted that people are instinctively drawn to drum music because they are accustomed to the steady beat of their mother’s heart in the time they are in the womb) and the visual as well as the discipline easily discernible behind every performance. It’s regrettable though that a really enormous musical tradition has been identified with just one genre, regardless of its technical impeccability: even an amateur digging expedition into Japan’s religious and folk musics, will reveal more instruments, more timbres and more interesting rhythmic games from those starring in the square music of kumi-daiko; which is pretty much what happens with all music traditions in the world.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.