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What Is a Taiko?

Stacy Taylor
Stacy Taylor

In its simplest form, a taiko is a Japanese drum that produces deep, resonating tones. As with many other musical instruments, there are several versions of both the instrument and its terminology. Laymen as well as people involved in the music industry often refer to a taiko as a fat or big drum, wide or broad drum or great drum. Etymologically, any of these terms is correct in modern musical nomenclature. The Japanese word taiko also means the art of drumming as part of Japanese musical styles in which drumming dominates.

These drums traditionally feature taut drum heads on both ends over a hollowed-out wooden cavity that usually has been carved from a single log. Drum makers stretch the heads as tightly as possible to create high tension, resulting in a higher pitch relative to the instrument's body size. In most cases, drummers use three wooden sticks called bachi to produce the deep resonance associated with a taiko. Two exceptions to this playing method include kotsuzumi and ootsuzumi drums, which produce sound when struck by hand.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Although these wide drums might come in many shapes and sizes, there are two main methods of construction. To create a byou-uchi daiko drum, craftsmen tweak the instrument until it produces the proper tone and then nail the drum heads into place permanently. This form of construction requires a master's touch, because the drum cannot be tuned after the final nail has been placed. The other type of construction is shime-daiko, which utilizes rope-tensioned bolts or turnbuckles to attain the perfect level of drum head tautness. While still considered a complex and creative procedure, shime-daiko construction allows for occasional retuning after the drum is complete.

Many history scholars believe that Asian-style drums might date to at least 500 BC, when Chinese explorers took them to Japan. During feudal Japan, taiko drummers appeared on battlefields to intimidate enemies, motivate troops and set a brisk pace for marching. In addition to the military, Japan's royalty also came to admire wide drum music. The instruments became part of the gagaku style of court music and could be heard in castles and temples all across early Japan. Contemporary times have ushered in fresh adaptations of taiko music, although traditional drum forms and playing styles have continued to endure.

In addition to the revered art of building and playing wide drums, a portion of the instrument's allure comes from its early association with Japanese religions. Both Buddhist and Shinto holy men use taiko drums during special ceremonies, and many followers believe that a godly presence inhabits the instruments. As a result, taiko typically are the only form of musical instrument permitted inside Japanese shrines and temples, even in modern times.

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