Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 Reseach, Part 4: Taiko drums in Japanese folk and ritual music

In this post I will look at minzoku geino – the Japanese folk and ritual music. As we move away from the realm of court music and classical theater towards the field of folk and religious performing arts, the prominence of drums and drumming increases. However, we also get to the place where the division between folk performing arts and religiously inspired festival music becomes very ambiguous.

Most of what is called folk music, with exception of some folk songs or work songs, is derived from religious festivals or worship and in turn, folk music also influenced the religious practice, as we’ve seen with sarugaku and dengaku monks. Whether or not folk is considered as a separate form, or a part of religious music, remains unclear, but folk performing arts are distinctly separated from the classical theater, despite Noh and kabuki having roots in folk entertainments.

The music of Japanese ritual and festivity derives primarily from a collection of religious practices and worship of Shinto religion, dedicated to ancestors and supernatural spirits kami. (Fig. 1) Formal rituals evolved into the sacred music and dance called kagura – god music. It is typically divided into two types – mi-kagura, which generally speaking, includes performances inside the precincts of the Imperial palace by court musicians of the Imperial household, and sato-kagura that accompanies festivals, usually at important seasonal moments in agriculture. (Ortolani, 16) The form today associated with contemporary Japanese festivals, descends from the latter.


Fig. 1. Woodblock print of kami – Amaterasu

Ensembles typically have two kinds of taiko drums: already mentioned shime-daiko and larger chu-daiko. Chu-daiko (Fig. 2) is a smaller version of odaiko, which I wrote was used in kabuki’s geza. Beside Shinto rituals, it also has an important position in Buddhist ritual. Shomyo chants, based on sacred Buddhist texts and hymns, are vocalized to the steady rhythm of the chu-daiko drum. During the annual summer Buddhist festival of O-Bon, chu-daiko drums accompany festival dances and singing. It is from the musical accompaniment to this ritual that one influential style of ensemble taiko – kumi-taiko, derives.  During the rituals of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, fan drums from kabuki theater are also used to accompany the chanting.


Fig. 2. Chu-daiko

Thus, the use of chu-daiko in kagura, Bon dance and also in the forms of the folk performing arts, are related directly to the majority of the Japanese population under the religious institutions of Shinto and Buddhism. But it is in festival music that taiko drums play the most central role and the drumming of festival ensembles is more extensive than in other music. Although the rhythms used can be complex, they are rather slow and timed to coincide either with dances or with movements in a procession. (Malm, 1959, 50) The rhythms are also organized around rhythmic cadences rather than harmonic motifs.

In much of Japanese history, the customs and celebrations of the common folk performances were looked upon as crude and vulgar, in comparison to the refinement of the classical stage arts, due to the lack of notation and other unregulated points. However, in the aftermath of World War II, these rude and vulgar customs were transformed into examples of national-cultural heritage and with the elevation of the contemporary kumi-daiko (Fig. 3), their central implement – taiko was turned into a symbol of new Japanese performance culture.


Fig. 3. Kumi-daiko ensamble

This post concludes my research  about taiko drums and japanese traditional forms. From here, I will move on, since I already had a plan to realize my example through a woodblock and a taiko drum, in a different musical context from the ones mentioned. However, I do plan to do more research and analysis, and perhaps in future write some of the pieces from all the three traditional styles of Japanese music. Take a look at my next post to see the musical structure that inspired my example.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Woodblock print of kami – Amaterasu

Fig. 2. Chu-daiko [public domain]

Fig. 3. Kumi-daiko ensamble


Ortolani, Benito (1990) The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Leiden, New York, Kobenhavn, Köln: BRILL

Malm, William P. (1959) Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. C. E. Tuttle Co.

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