The Taiko (Japanese drum) group, Isshin Daiko, performed on Saturday with rhythms thundering through Harbach Theatre. Based in Chicago, Isshin Daiko (meaning “one heart”) is led by John Sagami and its members are Michael Takeshi Kudo, Jiroj Sookdee, Lin Sookdee, Scott Watanabe, and Knox College freshman student Terian Koscik.
The program describes Taiko as used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions. The drums, which the performers had made themselves, have heads made of cow skin on both sides of the drum body, creating a sealed resonating cavity. Taiko also have a high amount of tension on the heads of the drums with the pitch being higher relative to body size. From largest to smallest, the types of Taiko performed with are: the barrel-shaped odaiko, the medium-sized Taiko, and the snare-drum sized shime-daiko. Most Taiko are struck with sticks called bachi. Other Japanese traditional instruments included in the performance are the chappa, small hand cymbals, the kane, a small gong, and the shinobue, a bamboo transverse flute.
Senior Jessica Smarsh and junior Saori Moriizumi hosted the night and before the performance, entertained the audience with banter between them. Before Isshin Daiko was to go on, junior Akina Nagata acted and danced in a Noh performance — described in the program as “a Japanese traditional theatre that was established around the 14th century” that includes both story and dance sequences —
about the story of “Hagoromo” — “a beautiful robe.”
Moriizumi read the story in Japanese while Smarsh read the English translation. It began with a fisherman named Hakuryu finding a beautiful robe on the beach. He decides to take it home but a beautiful heaven dweller calls for him to stop. She pleads with him to give her back her robe so she can fly back to the heavens. He refuses and when she sees a bird fly by, she cries. Feeling bad, he agrees to give the woman back her robe if she agrees to dance for him. Delighted, the celestial woman puts the robe on and begins to dance.
During the Noh performance, Nagata wore a mask of an old woman. Adorned in a checkered gown with transparent purple fabric draped over her, she shuffled her feet as an elderly male voice sung. She held her fan out and covered her face. Balancing precision and grace in her movements, Nagata used the fan as an extension of herself, a guide in her direction of motion. Ending her performance, Nagata folded her fan and bowed to the cheer of the audience.
Afterwards, Isshin Daiko went on. The largest drum was placed in the center of the stage. The three medium–sized drums were placed in front of the odaiko with the shime-daiko placed on one of the platforms behind. As Isshin Daiko drummed, they stood with one foot nearest to the drum firmly planted and the other extended. There were sharp exchanges between hitting the drum and holding the bachi in the air. At certain intervals, members would chant or yell. The members showed extreme discipline as during the first song, when one member would play the Taiko, the others would not move as they were crouched down with their sticks horizontal to the ground.
The third piece played was an original of Isshin Daiko, which was composed by leader John Sagami.
Sagami said of the piece, “I practiced kendo, which is Japanese fencing, and at that time I was in my early twenties and my sensei fell ill … The reason why I wrote this was to let him know that I was practicing kendo hard and I want him to get better so we can practice and keep battling it out. Very strong, strong feelings, I think, for that … You’ll notice they’ll be different patterns going on here and almost to be choreographed like a real-life field battle.”
The powerful, quickened rhythms alone could have made one’s blood boil but accompanied with yelling and the tense, precise movements of the drummers, there could be no mistake — this meant battle. The intensity conveyed during the performance was characterized not just by sound, but by feel as the drumming sent vibrations through the seats of the audience.
Known for its exaggerated kata (body form), the last piece Isshin Daiko performed was called Hachijo, based on the story of a man exiled to an island by his lord. He would play on the edge of the island, hoping his loved ones would hear his message. With the shinobue, the bamboo transverse flute, Terian Koscik played a pensive melody to accompany the drumming. The song crescendoed multiple times, each time propelling the tempo quicker. After the song ended, the audience gradually stood up in a standing ovation.
Freshman Maisie Maupin said, “I was really impressed that someone in my class was in the group. The drums were pretty awesome and so was the Noh dance at the beginning. I’ve never seen Taiko before so I love stuff from a different culture and time.”