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Q&A: Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

posted on 5 April 2018

How many Taiko groups are there?
There are about 20,000 groups in Japan – mostly community groups but with a handful of excellent top-class groups.

There are hundreds of groups in the USA and at the last count about 50 performing groups in Europe – of which Mugenkyo is the only professional touring group.

What are the drums made of?
The nagado drums carved from single tree trunks are made from keyaki – a kind of Japanese elm.

The very biggest of the o-daiko (big drum) are made from African Bubinga trees. The okedo barrel drums are made from cedar.

What are the skins made of?
They’re made of cowhide. In ancient Japan the original Taiko were made of badger’s skin and other smaller animals, then they were made of horse-hide. Now you can get both horse and cowhide drums, although cowhide is far more common.

Do you ever break a skin?
In Japan a Taiko drum is said to last a lifetime. However, this was probably said before the days of professional touring groups! We expect our skins to last between 7 and 10 years. When they break, we have to send the drums back to Japan to be re-skinned.

What does all the shouting mean?
We shout ‘sup’, ‘sore’, ‘ha’, ‘sya’, etc while we play. These don’t actually mean anything. These are random shouts (not cues!) to let out our ‘ki’ energy, and also to shout encouragement to the other players. They are similar to the ‘kiai’ shouts in martial arts.

Is Taiko spiritual?
Taiko is originally religious and spiritual music, played in temples and shrines in Japan.

In Japan, Taiko is still played at all kinds of religious ceremonies, however it is also played in every other imaginable venue and purpose.

In Mugenkyo, although Taiko has spiritual meaning to individual members of the group, as a group we are mainly concerned with Taiko as a performing art.

Do women play Taiko in Japan?
In ancient times women were not allowed to play Taiko, because they were considered too polluted to play the sacred instrument! However this is no longer the case, and since the 1950s there has been a huge growth in the number of women playing Taiko.

Now there are many all-women’s groups and mixed groups, in fact there are probably just as many
female Taiko players as male.

Do you ad-lib in your playing?
Yes. We were very fortunate to learn the Hokuriku style, which is one of the few areas in Japan where improvising is part of traditional Taiko. In other areas of the country Taiko is far more rigid.

Once we learned the traditional patterns, then we were given permission to mix them around – so this is a form of ad-lib within the structures of Taiko.

Do you use western musical notation?
Taiko is traditionally taught using verbal notation: for example “Don Kara Ka Su Don Don”. In Mugenkyo we still learn rhythms verbally, as we believe that chanting rhythms enable you to feel the rhythm with your whole being. However we do also use notation as a method of recording our songs.

Who does Taiko appeal to?
It may be a cliché, but Taiko really does appeal to everyone. Taiko cuts across musical boundaries – we have performed at festivals for every kind of music – jazz, classical, rock, folk.

Taiko really is the ‘people’s music’.

What does ‘Mugenkyo’ mean?
Mugenkyo can be translated as ‘limitless reverberation’ ‘sound everlasting’ ‘endless rhythm’.

We named the group after our teacher’s group ‘Hibiki Daiko’ – Hibiki can also be read as ‘Kyo’.

The idea was that the reverberation of Taiko knows no boundaries and spreads throughout the world.

How traditional is Mugenkyo?
We play traditional instruments and we have a strong foundation in the traditional Taiko discipline. However, we are modern in our approach.

We compose our own music and we are developing a uniquely European form of Taiko.

Have you ever mixed Taiko with other instruments or other disciplines?
In 2010 & 2011 we collaborated with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

In 2008 & 2009 we worked on a joint project with bagpipes, harp, fiddle, Indian song, tabla and dance.

In 2004 we presented the show “Rinnetensho”, with taiko, dance, electronic music and projected visuals.

We have also collaborated with rock musicians, Japanese sword fighting masters and of course other traditional Japanese instruments such as Shamisen, Shinobue flute and even a Japanese choir!

What do Japanese audiences think of Mugenkyo?
We perform in Japan regularly at theatres, festivals and events, as well as appearing on television and radio – and it’s gone down a storm!

Japanese people really appreciate the fact that we take Taiko very seriously and respect the art-form greatly.

Where can I learn how to do this?
We run workshops from our base: the Mugen Taiko Dojo, in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. The Mugen Taiko Dojo is UK’s first purpose-made Taiko drumming centre. Workshops are advertised through our newsletter and website.

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