Friday, May 8, 2009
Japanese drum ensemble mixes culture with sound
Do you consider banging on very large drums noise or music?
Practitioners and audiences of the art of Taiko affirmatively consider the Japanese drum specialty not only as music – but as a philosophy, and even a way of living. Last year Odaiko New England – the area’s premiere Taiko ensemble – emerged as Boston’s newest musical sensation performing twice at Fenway Park, once at a regular Red Sox game and again when they were called back for a playoff game. The acclaimed music department at Concord-Carlisle High School, with a concert band that has just earned an 18th consecutive gold medal in state competition, currently hosts the “Taiko After Dark” club, the only high school Taiko drum group on the East Coast.
“When we first went to Nanai, Concord’s sister city in Japan, in 1998, the kids heard Taiko for the first time,” recalls Al Dentino, CCHS faculty member and maestro of various student bands. He recounted that the Japanese students had their own Taiko club and the CCHS kids subsequently wanted the same. The first step was to purchase the Taiko drums. In Japan, these instruments are fashioned from a hollowed limb or trunk of a single tree; however, the cost is exorbitant. Dentino first contacted Mark Rooney, Artistic Director of Taiko New England and a member of Odaiko New England. With his advice and some additional research, the music department found a U.S. manufacturer on the West Coast that made the drums more inexpensively by putting them together in pieces not unlike wooden barrels. Dentino continued, “We fund-raised half, and the school matched the other half. We got a great deal, but they were still over $10,000.”
The CCHS Taiko collection consists of ten drums. The smallest, the shime-daiko, has a lightweight body and keeps the basic rhythm in Taiko groups, but it also can function as a solo instrument. The group has eight chu-daiko drums, a medium sized instrument with a deep, reverberant sound. The largest drum, the Odaiko, has a drumhead over three feet in diameter. Placed on a stand, the Odaiko drum usually requires two musicians who play it horizontally. Typically, one player beats out a basic rhythm while the second player performs solo instrumentation.
You can view and hear the drums firsthand as well as the Taiko after Dark club performing in the Spring Thunder Festival, a showcase of local Taiko talent tonight, May 8, at 8 p.m. in the high school auditorium. The event will feature Odaiko New England and other area community groups. There are no tickets and no admission fees although the Taiko groups appreciate donations made at the door.
Learning from a master
Mark Rooney first came to CCHS to teach Taiko drumming three years ago through the Concord-Carlisle Community Education program. Currently a dozen high school students take the class, as well as a few adult residents of Concord. Most high school students also practice two days a week as part of the club, on Mondays and Thursdays after school.
“There’s a lot of emphasis from me outside of just learning an instrument,” says Rooney, who communicates the history and culture of Taiko to his students. From a metaphysical standpoint, Rooney focuses on “life lessons” including “philosophies of respect for each other, for the space that we are in, for ourselves, for our instructors. We talk a lot about the energetic connection that you make with the drum, with each other, with the audience.” Dentino agrees these are “good messages to learn aside from the musical messages.”
Apart from learning about the Taiko tradition and philosophy, there are the drums themselves. Rooney explains, “There’s a lot of technique. It’s very different from Western percussion.” One of the biggest differences is that the students do not learn pieces from written music but from singing or vocalizing the rhythms. Although there are some teachers who use standard musical notation, Rooney prefers to use the Japanese traditional style. He’s found it’s not the fastest way to learn, but “the deepest way.”
Rooney has taught at the high school through the community education program for three years. As such his class often combines more experienced Taiko players with beginners.
“Through necessity and experience, I’ve learned that you can use the Japanese system for teaching anything where it’s necessary to have different levels of skill,” says Rooney. “You have the Sempai, which are the senior, more experienced people, and you have the Kohai, which are the newer people. And you have the Sensei – the teacher who teaches the Sempai – and it is the duty of the Sempai to teach and nurture along the Kohai. This teaches a sense of responsibility and a depth of appreciation. They may know a song, but they don’t really know a song until they have to teach it to someone else.”
Son of a Japanese mother and an American father, Rooney grew up in New Bedford, where he studied and performed music, both voice and piano. After graduating from high school, he studied film production at Boston University, then spent a few years performing and acting until he attended a Taiko New England performance and got hooked. He later went to work in Japan from 2000-2003, where he learned more about Taiko from a previous generation of masters.
Working out like an athlete
The noise factor does attract some new students. “A lot of the initial appeal for a lot of students ‘is wow I get to hit these drums and make a lot of noise, and that’s certainly fun’. It’s what drew me to Taiko” admits Rooney, “but it speaks to the character of the students who continue with it. It is difficult. It is a physical challenge. So it’s really not for the casual person.” In the New England area, the number of Taiko groups has doubled in recent years, mostly at colleges. Given the demanding physical nature of Taiko, it’s not a surprise that younger people are the most willing to try it.
“Taiko is a young person’s sport,” he admits, but adds “I know people that play in their 80s. It does help you stay spry and beautiful.”
And what about all that noise? Rooney laughs, and reminds us that he provides earplugs for anyone that wants them. The high school students in the Taiko class that day didn’t use them. Three adults did -– with the exception of Rooney. “My hearing, knock on wood, up to now has been okay,” he says. “I’d advise everyone who practices Taiko to wear earplugs, and then they ask me why I don’t. It’s difficult as a teacher, but I can’t hear questions and what people are playing with earplugs. By some fluke of nature I seem to be immune to the very real and very pervasive hearing loss that happens for Taiko players.”
To decrease the impact of the sounds, the Taiko class takes place at the CCHS library. In the first semester that Rooney taught the class, the group had to use a mobile classroom and the experience was “horrible.”
“Taiko sound waves tend to be in that bottom range and are huge,” says Rooney, “The decibel level of 20 drummers going at one time is like a freight train going past your head. It is an enormous amount of sound.”
He called hearing loss a “bonus concern” for Taiko players in addition to all the sport injuries they share. He lists knee issues, “tennis- or Taiko elbow,” shoulder problems and bad backs as the usual ailments.
So, if you go to listen to Taiko tonight don’t be ashamed to take a set of earplugs available at the door. The master will not be offended. ∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito