Friday, August 14, 2009

The Beat Goes On

Drawing by Jiro

A while ago I joined a wadaiko (Japanese drumming) group. I thought it would make picking up the language a little easier. Close interaction with a group of native Japanese speakers in a casual setting where the conversation would likely focus on hitting a raw cowhide covered barrel with a stick was the exact ticket to fluency I was looking for.

Boy, was I ever wrong. Japanese and the language of wadaiko are worlds apart. After immersing myself into the cultural waters of Japanese drumming, which is divided into a myriad of islands with their own unique styles and philosophies, I soon found myself floundering. The brand of drumming I adhere to is known as hachijoudaiko, originating on the semitropical Japanese island of Hachijoujima. Hachijoudaiko drummers position the drum so that it sits or hangs vertically, allowing two drummers to play opposite heads of the drum at the same time. It’s an improvisational style in which one drummer plays a continuous beat to provide the canvas upon which the other paints a unique rhythmical composition that fills the air. Now when wadaiko teachers try to teach a particular rhythm or convey how something should be played, they might explain it like this: “ka ka don don ka ka don don don su don su don su don su don don dadon don ka ka ka su don.”

Get the picture? Neither did I at first. “Ka” is the sound that is made when the drumstick hits the rim of the drum. “Don” is the sound the drum makes when you bang its center. Then there is “su,” the sound the drum makes when you don’t hit it??? That’s just three. The Taiko Dictionary, a glossary of terms used in wadaiko, or taiko for short, lists no less than 30 similar onomatopoetic descriptors. When I first started out playing my son tried to help me navigate through the difficult musical passages with little signs that said “ka” or “don” which he taped to the various drum parts that would correspond to those particular sounds. The problem was that each reverberating beat of the massive drum would send the little slips of paper flying into the atmosphere. After retrieving my crib notes, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they all went so I was constantly mixing up my “ka ka’s” and “don don’s.”

Another quandary I had was that darn “su,” the sound the drum makes when you don’t bang it. I wasn’t puzzled by the “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound” aspect of it. My problem was that in Japanese “su” can also mean vinegar, that essential ingredient which adds so much flavor and helps keep food from spoiling. Whenever I practice with my group, everybody always tells me I should add more "su," or that I add it to late or too early. More vinegar, hmm? Whatever it is, this unheard, unseen “su” is the essential ingredient lying at the heart of wadaiko and maybe elsewhere too.

Give the drum a bang with your mouse and transport yourself to the world of hachijoudaiko

To learn more about Hachijodaiko read:


  1. I love this posting, the drawing, the text and the link to your performance.
    Have you considered compiling all of your JohnTaro letters into a book? I think you would have a strong reader following.
    Have you read the book Julie & Julia ( and now a movie)? The author started with a BLOG of her experiences in one year of cooking all the recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

  2. Dear Anonymous Reader,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment!