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Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)

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8.0. Japanese Percussionists. The martial art of noise

For a musicologist with an academic education that is, and it is worth repeating, unwittingly ethnocentric, it is not easy to deal with Eastern percussion.80 Therefore, due to the large variety of available percussion, I will 'limit' my arguments to Japan because it is impossible to memorize and find reliable information on each instrument. Judging from many videos I viewed and some writings I read, one of the most known and used instruments is the wadaiko (和太鼓, literally "large Japanese drum") also called taiko (太鼓), which means simply "large drum." The first existing taiko soloist is Eitetsu Hayashi (林英哲) (Hiroshima, 1952-) who, after having played for two years in several ensembles, debuted in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984. Another video shows him playing in an arena with the Berliner Philharmoniker in front of 18000 spectators, while more videos have him playing with many other ensembles: in Berlin with a string quintet and a wood trio, in Guinea, Korea and other places with many percussionists, etc. Therefore, we can state that Eitetsu Hayashi is the most representative Kodo Dadan (子どダダン).81 In this kind of show the interpreters bow to the audience's applause and some of them are even smiling. The shows by the Yamato ensemble and, mostly, the Japanese drum group Tao (2005) are even more westernized: the performers are totally dressed and manifest a pleasure in playing that has nothing to do with a religious attitude. In addition to several female components — one of whom, Arisa Nishi, is particularly seductive when playing percussion and posing — the group Tao makes extensive use of flutes playing the melodies. Being a sort of story tellers, those melodies are much easier to understand than when the same narrative role is taken by percussion (I will come back on this point when speaking about the Irish Dance). Show titles such as Message from Ancient Times, Tranquil Light of the Rising Sun, Sounds that Rock the Heavens, Yearning, etc., allow the group Tao to provide a 'user guide' that both reduces the expressive potentiality favoring a pre-established path to follow and leads the audience, recalling an image-music relationship. Finally, there are lighting effects from the stage floor that, without being too invasive, help the audience to empathize with the show.

80 In order to partially mend this lack of familiarity, I read Daniele Sestili, Musica e tradizione in Asia Orientale. Gli scenari contemporanei di Cina, Corea e Giappone (Rome: Auilibri, 2010); and Mogi Hitoshi, Taiko. Il tamburo giapponese. Tradizione e rinnovamento, Italian trans. M. Caprino, with a forward by L. Galliano (Merate, Lecco: Go Book Editore, 2008). Source for both books: Archive S. M., Florence.

81 "Kodo" is the name of the best known taiko drumming group; "Dadan" means drumming man. Therefore: drumming man of the kodo group [EN].

I think that the ensemble Kodō suffers from a similar kind of impurities with respect to the original taiko show. I say this, although the ensemble visited Italy and I have not seen it, because of their touring around the world. My interest instead goes to those percussionists who do not leave Japan.

In many ancient Japanese traditions the taiko possesses a magic or religious function. Mogi Hitoshi wrote about it:

Japanese people have a special feeling for the taiko and its sound. That feeling is composed of three layers of images: the function the instrument has traditionally had, an exceptional empathy with trees,82 and the sensations aroused by the drum's rhythm. It is not possible to analyze in a simple way the essence of such feelings because it varies according to the region and the historical period. It is a sensitivity that has been cultivated for a long time and, no matter what its motivations are, it has become almost a subconscious presence, mainly because a lot of time passed by since it started. Yet, when Japanese people hear the sound of the taiko, that sensitivity weakly revives in the dark bottom of their consciousness and, inexplicably, becomes again aware of its existence […]. The taiko is used in several folkloric celebrations. Most of them are regional festivities organized to honor the kami;83 the taiko is the indispensable instrument used to make them happen and to invoke the presence of the kami within the celebration. Therefore, the taiko is more of a magic tool with mysterious powers than a simple musical instrument [ET].84

82 The taiko referred here comes from a tree log which is often taken from an elm in the Caucasus region. The drumheads are made of ox's or horse's skin.

83 In Shintoism, the kami are sacred spirits.

84 Daniele Sestili, 63 and 71.

Those who saw the Chinese film Nanjing! Nanjing! (aka City of Life and Death, dir. Chuan Lu, 200985), especially the second last scene with the Victory March of the Japanese troops — a sort of tribal choreography — cannot feel indifference before such an abnormal display of pure violence and the 'reincarnation' of the taiko. The movements of the percussionists in the 1930s, motivated by the symbology of military and spiritual victory rite, may be juxtaposed to the modern performances of those artists-percussionists who are so interested in the bond between art and religion that they seem not to care at all whether or not the audience is listening. In fact, there is even who leaves the stage without bowing to the audience.86 Eventually, one feels that they are well-aware of being the creators of a rite-show that people are allowed to attend.

85 See at least Marco Dalla Gassa and Dario Tomasi, Il cinema dell'Estremo Oriente. Cina, Corea del Sud, Hong Kong, Taiwan, dagli anni Ottanta a oggi (Turin: UTET, 2010). Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

86 Besides having read about it, this example refers to the YouTube video Kodo - O-Daiko - HD (Japanese drummers - Taiko - tambours géants Japon, http://youtu.be/C7HL5wYqAbU (last accessed 11/30/2014).

Video HD of the film Nanjing! Nanjing!

Victory March of the Japanese troops.

Japanese Drums.

Contemporary, public performance.

Both situations — the historical reenactment and the modern performance — have a common feature that conveys a sense of primitive panic to Western spectators. It is also because of this that the reconstruction of one of the most terrible massacres of contemporary history — the Japanese siege of Nanjing (南京) in 1937 — and the consequent violations, tortures and slaughters of civilians, even when made without morbid or rhetoric intentions, seem to have much more than a mere perceptive association with the modern taiko show. All this goes beyond the obnubilating ostinatos that are at the base of both the filmic sequence87 and the contemporary performance. The reaction of a Western s-pectator might get to the understanding of how the Nanjing historical episode is still an open wound. However, what might and should be mostly interesting here is the peculiar meaning of the show and the relationship that each musician establishes with his body. In fact, I think that it is not by chance that these percussionists, both nowadays and in the past, both as independent artists and gears of a rigidly hierarchized military system, usually play bare-chested. After all, the show relies not only on sounds, but also on the muscular masses that produce the percussive energy. This is a rare case of performance where the spectator has the privilege of grasping everything from the music, being it made not only of the sounds and their particularly intense vibrations, but also of the physical efforts needed to produce them. Moreover, it is worth to notice that the musicians' facial expressions do not let any 'human' feeling surface. Whatever they do it is generally the outcome of a cold calculation and a hyper-determined motivation. Our Western conception of drawing sounds out from an instrument is more connected to the action of playing, jouer, Spielen than to the effect of sounding. As a consequence, musicians whose feelings spontaneously emerge from the musical page are preferred to those whose feelings are overtly staged to the audience's behalf. The authenticity of 'our' musicians is assisted by self-irony and even humor — think about Leonard Bernstein (conductor, pianist), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), the Loussier Trio (piano, bass, drums), Bob McFarrin (voice), Nina Corti (castanets), Stefano Bollani (jazz piano) or Itzhac Perlman (violin, who sometimes seems to be moved by a histrionic impulse). Therefore, the absence of any self-irony in the Japanese percussionists could be the reason why the Western spectator perceives an increasing tension and a sense of anguish when they play.

87 Analytically speaking, the sequence presents a very interesting case of level transition: internal > mediated > external, with a potential allusion to musicals. See Sergio Miceli, Film Music, 500 ff. and 598 ff.

With regard to the reaction of the audience and the participation of the percussionists, I would speak about a sort of physical and metaphysical engagement of a kind that has much to do with a spiritual state. However, such spirituality is not cynically sought for, but inevitably found as a gift along the road that leads to that deep involvement.


Daniele Sestili, Musica e tradizione in Asia Orientale. Gli scenari contemporanei in Cina, Corea e Giappone, con CD, Rome: Squilibri 2010.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Mogi Hitoshi, Taiko, il tamburo giapponese. Tradizione e rinnovamento, italian transl. and ed. by M. Carpino, Merate (LC): go book ed. 2008.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

The Sound of Japanese Drumming, online CD, MP3, Pulse Percussion Ensemble, from the Album Pulse - Live, Classical Concert Records, Amazon GB (2005).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Japanese Drums - Japanese Taiko Drums, online CD, MP3, New Earth Record, Amazon U.S.A (2011).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Taiko Spirits by Akinobu Yamamoto. Music application for Apple iPad, v. 4.9.1 (03/23/2015), 22.3 MB.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Other source: YouTube (accessed in 2013-2014).


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