Arts concert review

A once every two year experience

DRUM TAO presents a traditional Japanese art form in a riveting way

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DRUM TAO is world-renowned for their riveting, high-energy performances.
Courtesy of DRUM TAO

Berklee Performance Center
Feb. 18, 2018
North American Tour 2018 running until May 6, 2018

From the very first drum beat, I felt like I was home. Now, before I continue, I should put in the fact that I was personally very excited for this show for weeks. Growing up, my mother introduced my sister and me to our local taiko dojo, and the rest is history. I performed as part of the Orlando Taiko Dojo for about six years before moving to MIT, and I’ve missed the energy of the hobby ever since. (For those of you who don’t know, taiko refers to the art of traditional Japanese drumming, typically used for performing at festivals and so forth.)

The moments leading up to the performance feel like forever ago. I walked into the venue with my invited friend, and we quickly found our way to our seats. Before the show, some peaceful, traditional Japanese music played. The kind of backdrop you’d expect in a peaceful Japanese restaurant. This, of course, contrasted heavily with the show that was to come.

And, oh boy, as soon as the show started, the stage exploded with energy, and it just kept exploding until the end of the show a little over two hours later. That’s one thing I’ve always found to be the most impressive part of taiko performances: the endurance and energy it takes to put on such a great show for so long. Imagining jumping and dancing around a stage and swinging your arms around for two hours with minimal breaks. Now imagine that with drums — that you either carry or play stationary — that can weigh well over 20 pounds and crying out with all your might, just to add that extra umph. And then don’t forget the acrobatics and the martial arts showcases and the playing of several other instruments such as the koto, fue, and shamisen. You get the point. Doing this for two hours straight sounds exhausting, but speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that it’s so damn fun.

The best part is when the performers’ energy bleeds into the audience, and you can feel the performance area just brimming with excitement and joy. Everyone’s on the edge of their seat, waiting for the next big bang or trick or acrobatic feat. No matter what the performers did, it was truly mesmerizing and amusing to watch. Some more humorous highlights from the show include the House of Marbles monkey drum-off (yes, that is the actual name for the toy); the part when the performance center is completely dark save for the LED-lined suits and handheld drums of the performances, and just the performers’ facial expressions when they knew they could be silly or have fun with the current number.

The unfortunate thing about taiko drumming is that it’s so hard to capture its essence with mere words. The best way to experience taiko is to go and see it for yourself, but I will try to touch on the more technical side of things.

Within the program, it lists that the performers take “a strict, traditional approach to training… The strenuous physical demands of the troupe’s performance style require that all performers also train as athletes. Their daily workouts… start at 5 a.m. and end at 10 p.m.” If you couldn’t tell already, the group basically lives and breathes taiko, but when you watch them, you can tell that they wouldn’t rather do anything else.

Throughout the performance, the level of synchronisation, skill, and technique on display can be mind blowing for any audience member, whether or not they are new to the art of taiko. Sometimes the performers’ hands would move so fast that it didn’t even look like the bachi (drumsticks) touched the drum face, yet all you could hear is the heart-pounding beat of the high-energy performance.

Their teamwork is also a feat to behold. The key thing about performing in a group is working together, especially in an art form as highly specialized and skill-based as taiko. The transitions between songs must be smooth and seamless. You must always be performing even if you are not necessarily playing a beat. Some of my favorite parts are when the performers are visibly struggling to finish the song because it’s so intense, but their peers, who are aiding as backup rhythms, cheer them on with their voices and their energy. Together, they form a support network that carries them from one exhausting song to another, in order to put on the show that has dazzled audiences worldwide since the founding of their group.

As is always the case whenever I get immersed into the world of taiko, the drumbeats from DRUM TAO’s show will most likely be stuck in my head for months on end. So, a warning to my fellow classmates: don’t be surprised if you see me drumming my fingers, tapping my feet, or bobbing my head in the midst of class, remembering the whirlwind that is DRUM TAO when I should be paying attention in class instead.

If you missed out on the show, don’t fret! World Music/CRASHarts will host many more once-in-a-lifetime shows to come, especially their big upcoming show CRASHfest, which will take place on Feb. 24!