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Bang the drum loudly 

To one degree or another, you can thank the following for the success of modern taiko drumming: a sacred striptease, jazz music and the Olympics.

You could also argue that a cultural backlash surrounding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II pushed the musical style to its place in the U.S. But let's instead talk about Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, the Shinto goddess of revelry and mirth whose wily ways brought about the creation of the drum in the first place.

"According to the story, the storm god Susanowo-no-Mikoto left his sea domain and began wreaking havoc on the land," reads a doctoral thesis written by Brian Vogel in 2009 for Rice University. "This so angered his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, that she ran into a cave, rolled a boulder in front of the entrance, and vowed never to venture out again."

Sunlight being in somewhat high demand, the other gods tried to coax Amaterasu out. However, it wasn't until Ama-no-Uzume turned a barrel over and "began to dance wildly on the barrel in a way no one had ever seen," as Vogel puts it, that, out of curiosity, the sun goddess left her cave for good.

So, the rhythm on the barrel begat the drum — or, you know, a need for a means of communication over distances — which then, for centuries, proceeded to live a fairly quiet, singular existence as a bit player in festivals, rituals and other facets of life. Then, in 1947, musician and former soldier Daihachi Oguchi returned to Japan from captivity in China, and joined a jazz band in Nagano. Long story short, he came across a relic of taiko music, transposed it for a modern era using musical knowledge itself born in the American South, threw together a clutch of players, and today's kumi-daiko — that rolling rumble of multiple pounding drums that can be felt in the body — was born.

Things really got going, though, when the athletes hit town.

"Kumi-daiko burst onto the world stage in 1964 at the Olympic Games in Tokyo when it was featured in the 'Festival of Arts' presentation," Vogel writes. "Soon after its international debut, Oguchi was invited to teach the new kumi-daiko style all over the world."

It was a hit, and much later, Oguchi starred again at the closing ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, telling the Associated Press at the time: "Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm — 'dontsuku-dontsuku' — in their mother's womb," he said. "It's instinct to be drawn to taiko drumming."

Faint of heart

Interestingly enough, you can draw a direct line from the masters of the craft — including Seiichi Tanaka, who founded the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first school of its kind in the U.S., in 1968 — to Colorado Springs and its own year-and-a-half-old Taiko Society, operated by Jesse and Carla Maddox.

"Some of the pieces that Taiko Society performs are Oguchi — they were written by Oguchi," says Jesse, a 37-year-old resident of Monument. There, he also runs a company with his wife that makes custom taiko drums for customers like Cirque du Soleil, casinos in Europe and schools like the University of Utah, which just received from the Maddoxes what's thought to be the largest taiko drum in North America at 3 feet tall and 6 feet across. "Our background, where we learned, we learned from someone who was taught by Tanaka, as well as several other teachers."

Maddox says those in his school's performing group, both men and women, routinely warm up for practice with multiple sets of push-ups, tricep dips and three-minute plank exercises; one practice for a certain piece that requires the drummer to hold his or her body at a 45-degree angle for four minutes is often rehearsed for more than 90 minutes at a time.

And though beginners get off a little easier, everybody is expected to treat the dojo with deliberate respect — from arriving early to sweep the playing space, to saying certain phrases when entering and leaving. It takes the whole thing from part musical performance, part theater, all the way to a kind of lifestyle.

"[Students] enter into the classes thinking it's just a fun thing to participate in," Maddox says, "and then they realize it kind of spills over."

Sisterly love

Talk to Eiji Miyashita, and he'll tell you the drums' effect goes way beyond even that. Miyashita is the head of Fujisan Kaen Taiko, a group whose 30 members are traveling from the Springs' Japanese sister-city, Fujiyoshida, to play with the Taiko Society during the upcoming day-long Mountain Festival, a celebration of that relationship.

"The music resulting from the simple rhythm of the [taiko] combined with the unique timbre seems to lend well to the human pulse," writes Miyashita via e-mail through Paul Maruyama, translator and president of the Japan America Society of Southern Colorado. "And we feel that it resonates with the sacred mystery that lies in mankind, not only of [the] Japanese, but of all the people of the world. ... It strengthens the bond between mankind and it is our hope that it ultimately results in peace."

Fujisan will be performing in the Springs for the third time, says Miyashita: the first time came in 1998, and a second in 2005 with the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony Orchestra. Also, the group held a benefit concert in Fujiyoshida for victims of the Waldo Canyon Fire, similar to the local fundraising that took place here after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

"There are so many people in Colorado Springs with whom our souls communicate," says Miyashita. "We are very much looking forward to again meeting with those people."

And the performance itself will be no joke, says Maddox, whose group will be playing with Fujisan.

"When you get that many performers that are in time with each other, and have one mind and perform with one body, there's a lot of things that come together and jell at that moment that just makes it really exciting."

bryce@csindy.com

  • The thundering pulse of modern taiko brings two cities together.

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