Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Christchurch Earthquake and The Ring of Fire

Our hearts go out to the people of Christchurch!  We pray you're all doing fine and coping as well as you can with these terrible events.

I was just having a discussion with some Californian taiko friends who also face the risk of earthquakes, and I noticed that some of the strongest taiko cultures seem to be right along the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The Ring of Fire has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes ... About 90% of the world's earthquakes and 80% of the world's largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire. 

Both Japan and New Zealand are directly on the rim, as is California and Argentina.  Many people don't know this but Argentina also has a very strong Japanese culture.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Brian's Shamisen Studies

Our equipment manager Brian built all of Tamashii's drums, including our O-Daiko, and he has turned his attention to studying shamisen.  Of course in truly Brian-fashion, he had to make it himself, which got a great response from some of our Japan-based taiko friends.


English Translation

(A quick translation whipped up by our teammate Alec)

Last year, on a New Zealand blog, I was introduced to someone who makes all sorts of musical instruments. He's made Nagadoudaiko's (what we call chuudaiko) about 60 cm long, Oodaiko's about 90 cm long, shimedaiko's, marimbas, and a tsugarujamisen modeled on my shamisen, and his name is Brian.

I've got the latest on Brian.
He keeps on improving his improvements and no matter where you look at it from, it's a Tsugarujamisen.
The skin is cow hide. I don't know what the plectrum's made of, but it looks like he's made that too.
The thread doesn't appear to be silk. I'm not sure what the strings are. The is also quite an interesting shape.
The sound is something between a guitar and a shamisen, like a banjo. What kind of sound does it give out......?
I want this instrument and definitely want to try playing it.
I also want to gift him some strings.
His playing is very much in the Tsugaru style and I've heard that he taught himself.
There are some amazing people in this world.

Friday, 25 June 2010

On the Spiritual Aspects of Taiko Drumming

Like most Japanese arts, taiko is mainly about practice.  Once you build sufficient "muscle-memory", even the most complicated rhythms and movements all feel very natural and straightforward, and you get to think about other things like your interaction with the crowd, your voice, facial expressions... your timing and connection with the team... and so on.

This has an innately spiritual essence to it, because your body is a flurry of activity, doing things that, by all accounts, you never believed it capable of doing -- and yet at the same time your mind is completely relaxed and at peace, not even really "in the moment". 

Recently I've become aware that this relaxed state of mind occurs the moment I pick up my bachi (taiko drumsticks).  Suddenly everything is peaceful and well-ordered and makes perfect sense.  My mind can take a nap since my body already knows exactly everything that's going to happen.  

As I understand it, this is the essence of the asian concept of "no mind", and in entrenched deeply in everything from martial arts to music to zen meditation.  Probably, training in anything enough will ultimately reach this state, but for me, physically-oriented arts like taiko, music, and martial arts fit best. 

Friday, 21 August 2009

Behind the O-Daiko

The O-Daiko ("big drum") is a magnificent instrument.  Long before I was given the opportunity to perform on the O-Daiko I remember watching a concert with awe and wondering what it was like to play such a drum.

I suspect others have the same curiosity, so some of the interesting points of my experiences are written here.

The O-Daiko is Loud

Usually when I play the o-daiko, I'm directly facing the "head" (one end of) the O-Daiko, and the O-Daiko is positioned at the back of the stage, facing the audience.  Therefore my back is to the audience, and the rest of the team with chuudaiko and shimedaiko are behind me, between me and the audience.

This positioning is important because I can't see anything except the big drum.  That means that during the course of a performance, I have no visual cues at all... only audio cues can tell me whether I'm in sync, and when to start and end my solo parts.  The O-Daiko however is so loud, that it tends to cancel out a lot of the other drums and therefore many of the timing & transitional cues are lost.

The sensation is something like having a "cone of sound" that envelopes me like a wall, negating all but the loudest and highest-pitched instruments.  I suspect this is why the tettsu-zutsu was invented.  The tettsu-zutsu is a short, metal tube which makes a very loud, high pitch when you hit it.  By itself, it's unimaginably annoying, but with all the drums going at full speed it has the benefit of providing a base rhythm that the O-daiko performer can hear, even when everything else is obliterated.

The beginning of the movie Rising Sun has a piece that shows this exact combination in action.
It is also interesting to note that I don't feel the O-daiko in the same way that the front and centre audience members do.  On the first hit, you can see them all jump -- not just from the sound (which they are expecting) but from unexpected sensation of feeling the vibration pass through their bodies.  However the "cone of sound" works, it seems to pass around me--or perhaps at my near proximity to the drum, is of a nature that is not really physically noticeable.

The O-Daiko hits back 

Because it's such a large drum and has a natural cow-hide skin, the skin vibration is significant.  I've never measured it at performance speed, but my guess would be that the centre of the skin fluxuates as much as 6 - 8 cm.  This means that when you hit the drum hard with a heavy bachi (drumstick), it pushes back hard, bouncing your stick away quickly.

The net result of this is that to keep a steady, fast rhythm, you have to "go with the bounce" and use that energy to rotate your shoulders quickly for the next hit.  In fact, to play fast, you depend on this bounce, which means that to play a fast rhythm with big movement, you must strike the O-Daiko hard (thus loud).  To play more softly, you either have to play more slowly, or you have to make the circular movement much, much smaller.

This action-reaction cycle creates an interesting synergy between volume, speed, and the distance of movement.

The bachi I usually use are also quite large and heavy, which means that certain rhythm combinations are very difficult.  In particular, anything that involves rapid double-strikes with the same hand.  The first hit, if it's too hard, causes too much bounce back and therefore an enormous amount of stress on your wrist as you try to halt and return the bachi for the next hit.

You also have to be careful to control the sticks, so that they slice down just past your ears and bounce of your shoulder for the next hit.  a few cm's off, and the bachi will bash you on the forehead.  I've never seen anyone knocked out from a bachi yet, but bruises around the forehead, temples, ears, and shoulders seem to be a hazard for new players who are just learning the ropes...

Another interesting thing to mention is the "shoulder bounce".  When you're playing fast, speed and consistency are critical, so I use both the action of the drum rebound, and the action of the bachi bouncing off of my shoulders as well.  So at fast speeds you see the bachi hit the drum, bounce off hard, arc past my ear, hit my shoulder, slice forwards and upwards to strike the drum again.

Clearly, getting whacked in the shoulders a few thousand times can leave you sore... but there is an art to it.  If you have enough control, there are big benefits to the shoulder bounce, which is faster speed and a lot less less stress on the wrists.

Preparing to Play

Since the bachi are large (about 3.5 cm diameter), they rest right against that sensitive webbing between your thumb and first finger.  I've learned to tape my hands well, which does wonders.  Basically I never get blisters -- if the taping is inadequate, you just end up losing chunks of skin, usually on the inside of your thumb.

Stretching is also critical, but I've only just begun learning what stretches work best for me.  I've observed that Kenji Furutate -- a brilliantly talenteted O-Daiko performer who puts my talents to shame, had an expert, intense full-back massage done for an hour just before his performance.  Smart guy.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Behind the O-Daiko - Post-Performance Recovery

Like any hard exercise, O-Daiko playing is followed by a good deal of soreness, plenty of hot baths, and lots of stretching.  My last big performance was a 90 minute event 6 days ago and I still feel it, particularly in my lower back, and upper neck & shoulders. 

At present, I only get to perform publicly on the O-Daiko a few times a year.  Normally I play the chu-daiko (mid-sized drum) on a similarly raised stand that positions centre of the drum at head-height.  O-Daiko playing is different in a number of key ways,
  • You're hitting higher, as the center of the drum is above your head.
  • You're hitting harder.  A big drum demands a heavy strike.
  • You're playing longer.  The O-Daiko is difficult to transport, and therefore it is only brought out on longer performances. 
  • The bachi are heaver.  I generally use larger and heavier bachi on the O-Daiko
These differences stress some new muscle groups that I do not normally use as heavily in a performance.  The muscles I notice most;

Upper traps, technically known as the trapezius (upper fibers), and the back of the neck or splenius.  Basically the entire back-of-neck area is noticeably sore.  This muscle group is stressed because the center of the O-daiko is above your head, so you are looking and striking upwards at an angle through most of the performance to get the loudest sound. 

Lower traps, aka trapezius (lower fibers).  Honestly, I'm not sure why these are sore.  Those musles are mostly used to pull the arm and shoulder back, which seems unnecessary as the O-Daiko bounces you back heavily already.  I may be tensing unconsciously.

Shoulders, in particular the lateral deltoids, which are sort of the "outside" of your shoulders.  These are used because your arms are lifted for much of the performance, with your elbows above your shoulders.

Hip flexors or iliopsoas, essentially the lower back & sides.  Power is generated through the hips, something like swinging a baseball bat, or throwing a good punch.  There is a lot of torso twisting accordant to that which stresses these muscles more than usual.
I'm a bit surprised that upper pecs and the front of the shoulders (anterior delts) are not sore at all, as these are used a lot.  I suspect they've been well enough conditioned in normal taiko playing to weather a 90 minute performance without ill after-effects.

Also intersting is that even with heavy taping, the entire inside of your hand, from the base of your palm to the fingertips, is rubbed slightly raw.  I don't normally notice this, except when I go to shower or wash my hands.  Warm water stings a lot for the first few days after the performance. 

Sunday, 14 June 2009

SkyCity Performance

We had a fantastic performance last night for St. Kentigern's school ball next to Sky Tower in central Auckland.  The organizer did a fantastic job of orchestrating the event, complete with fire dancers and geisha girls at the entrance.  And the most fun of all, they gave us the opportunity to roll out the big drum!

The crowd was amazingly vibrant and enthusiastic -- both the students and the crowd of passers-by who gathered to watch.  At one point I counted at least 20 cameras filming us.  Afterwards we learned that many of the people in that area were visitors from out of town enjoying the Auckland scene.

A couple from Australia said our performance was one of the most amazing things they had ever seen, and that there as "absolutely nothing like it" in Australia ;>

It was a great time--we even got a rest break in the middle of the performance due to a fire alarm!
Unfortunately, we were shut down before we could complete the 90 min non-stop performance, due to complaints from the 21st floor penthouse suite of the nearby hotel.

But if you got a chance to see the performance, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Event - Zeal MASH

We had a fun evening performance at a youth event called MASH, where a lot of different musical groups are brought together to expose teens to a wide range of genres, bands, and styles.

The event was at a great venue called Zeal, which is a really awesome 'youth-town' facility (ie, performance areas, recording studios, art galleries, cafes, lounges, X-box 360...) and is mostly run by volunteer work by youth.

After we'd done our set and pulled the drums off-stage, we realized that the crowd was trying to call us out for an encore -- but not being Japanese, they had forgotten how to pronounce "Tamashii".
The chant was enthusiastic nonetheless... "Tie-my-shoe!"... "Tie-my-shoe!"...
We had a good chuckle...