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The little drummer boys

Children’s Museum in Poughkeepsie hosts Children’s Taiko Drum Concert this Saturday

by Frances Marion Platt
April 07, 2011 11:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As readers of these pages are likely aware by now, every year the Folk Arts Program of the Dutchess County Arts Council (DCAC) picks different countries to feature in cultural festivals and public presentations. Presumably these decisions get made many months in advance, in order to organize the events and engage appropriate performers. So it is an interesting coincidence that the organization, in collaboration with the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (MHCM) and the Mid-Hudson Japanese Community Association (MHJCA), will be focusing the spotlight this weekend on a traditional art of the country whose recent triple whammy of suffering – the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak – has riveted the world’s attention these past few weeks. It will be a relief to be able to think of Japan, at least for a little while, as a land of sublime cultural treasures instead of as a people beleaguered by disaster.

To be specific, this Saturday, April 9 at 2 p.m., the Pavilion at MHCM will host a concert of traditional Japanese taiko drumming by and for children. This is an artform as old as Shinto creation myth and as contemporary as jazz, reverberating throughout many aspects of Japanese culture. Although the taiko or “great drum” is widely associated with its longtime role of rousing the fighting spirit of an army – rather like the bagpipes in Scotland – its inventor, according to ancient tales, was a female shaman named Ame-no-Uzume. It is said that the Sun Goddess Amaterasu was sulking in a cave after a tiff with her brother, plunging the Earth into darkness. To entice her out again, the other gods threw a raucous party outside the cave and persuaded Ame-no-Uzume to stomp with wild abandon atop a hollow wooden tub, thereby inventing both taiko drumming and the kaguro ritual dance tradition in one fell swoop. (Apparently the ruse worked, since sunlight subsequently did return to the world.)

Historically, it is believed that the types of drums used in taiko were brought over from China to Japan sometime between 500 BC and 300 AD. They were first employed in a style of court music called gagaku, then adapted to martial uses, with specific beat patterns devised to communicate specific tactics to the troops. Taiko drums were also played for more celebratory occasions, such as alerting villagers of festivals and to awaken the rain spirits during rice harvest ceremonies. But the rise of taiko as a popular artform didn’t occur until the 1950s, when a jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi put the first taiko ensemble together to improvise on a large collection of drums of different sizes and pitches. Up until his death in 2008, Oguchi went on to help found nearly 200 taiko groups in Japan, Singapore, Canada and the US.

Struck with sticks called bachi or with bare hands, each drum’s tonal quality depends on its size and shape, the thickness and tightness of the head, the type of sticks used to strike it and each player’s technique. Learning taiko requires physical discipline, aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual cultivation. Observing taiko playing is a multisensory experience, as the musicians’ dramatic body movements and the dynamic rhythms stimulate both the eyes and the ears.

What makes this Saturday’s performance truly unusual is the fact that the musicians are themselves children. This special concert features 12-year-old Subaru Honge, of Windham, and 5-year-old Kazuma Ban, son of taiko drummer Kenji Ban. Both youngsters have taken lessons with taiko master Koji Nakamura, who visits this area every few months. Honge has also studied with Akemi Imai, a member of the Los Angeles-based group Makoto Taiko. At the Museum, these young musicians will play a selection of traditional and contemporary taiko drum pieces, showcasing both nagado-daiko (long-bodied, medium-sized) and shime-daiko (small-sized) drums.

The Children’s Taiko Drum Concert is free and open to the public. Museum admission is also available and encouraged, and costs $6.50 per person. The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum is located at 75 North Water Street on the Poughkeepsie waterfront, adjacent to Waryas Park; take a right turn off lower Main Street. For further information, contact DCAC at (845) 454-3222 or www.artsmidhudson.org; MHCM at (845) 471-0589 or www.mhcm.org; or the Mid-Hudson Japanese Community Association at www.mhjca.org.

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