‘Demon’ Beats of Japan

The 17 members of Yamato breathe new energy into the ancient art of taiko

November 17, 2011
After grueling exercise regimens and relentless practices, the Wadaiko Yamato drum troupe somehow finds energy to perform.

Its style is sometimes referred to as “demon drumming,” but the troupe’s full name is Wadaiko Yamato — which translates as “Japan Drum Japan.” Yet the ensemble, known in the West simply as Yamato, is not entirely nativist in its approach to the ancient art of taiko (Japanese for “drum,” and referring to the performance of any traditional drumming). Some of the 17 exuberant young performers favor spiky hairdos, and all the music is composed by Masa Ogawa, who founded the group in 1993.

Compared with Kodo, a taiko troupe that has performed frequently in Washington, “Yamato is more modern,” says drummer Hidaka Gen. “Even though we use the traditional drums, our music is contemporary and all original.”

Whatever their approach, all taiko ensembles have an intense physical regimen. “To perform onstage for two hours, it’s really hard,” Gen says. “So we do training every day. This morning, we ran about seven miles. Usually, after running we eat something and do weight training. We use our biggest drum for weight training because it’s a little bit heavy.

“In the afternoon, we just practice and practice until showtime,” he continues. “And if we don’t have a show that day, we just keep practicing. Until midnight — or until the neighbors complain.”

There aren’t many neighbors in Asuka, the Japanese hamlet where the group’s members live when they’re not touring the world. “People consider this village the birthplace of Japan,” Gen says. “The area is called the Yamato area. That’s one of the reasons why our name is Yamato.” (As for the “wa” in the troupe’s full name, it can mean “Japan” but also “harmony” or “collaboration.”)

The troupe is based in his country’s historic heartland, Gen adds, “because we want to feel the power of Japan itself. Asuka village has some power, which we cannot see but we can feel. We get power from Asuka, and take this power to the places we go on tour.”

Ogawa changes Yamato’s program every two years. The current program is “Gamushara,” billed in English as “The Beat of Courage.”

Gen has a simpler definition. “Gamushara,” he says, “means that you just do it, without thinking of the result. You just do it.”

Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW; Sun., 7 p.m., $25-$45; 202-994-6800. (Foggy Bottom)
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