Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Under the (Drum) Skin

I got hooked on this video while surfing the web the other day. If you were to take the drummer out of that sparkling yellow-sequined blazer, stick him inside a similarly hued kihachijo kimono and turn his drum kit on its side, he would be right at home on Japan's Hachijo Island (Hachijojima).

Hachijojima is an island paradise for drummers and the birthplace of the unique brand of drumming known as hachijo taiko (or hachijodaiko). The Wikipedia entry on hachijo taiko (which I actually penned a few years ago) says it is:

Two women in kihachijo kimonos play the drum 
on Hachijojima (Photo by Geomr via Wkipedia) 

"a unique style of Japanese drumming originating on Japan's Hachijo Island (Hachijojima), lying in the Pacific Ocean some 287 kilometers south of Tokyo. Hachijodaiko is an improvisational style of drumming in which the drum is positioned vertically to allow two players to hit either side at the same time. One player provides the underlying beat, or shitabyoushi, while the other builds on this rhythmical foundation with a unique and typically improvised musical composition (uebyoushi). While there are specific types of underlying bass rhythms (shitabyoushi), the accompanying player is free to express an original musical beat.

Hachijojima was once the final destination for political enemies of the ruling government, petty thieves and others banished from the mainland during the 19th century. Home to a diverse population hailing from across the Japanese archipelago the island witnessed the birth of a unique culture with the drum beat at the center of it all. 

Among the various Hachijodaiko rhythms, perhaps the most unusual is the intoxicating honbataki rhythm which is often sung to by one of the two drummers. These songs of longing and romance once served as a courtship ritual and still do today to some extent on this island where the drum is an integral part of the culture.

One of the most notable and oldest living adherents of Hachijodaiko is the nonagenarian Kumao Okuyama. Serving as a bridge to 19th century life on Hachijojima, Okuyama is regarded as a wellspring of information by ethnomusicologists and historians alike.Popular performers of Hachijodaiko include the group, Rokuninkai,who regularly appear in concerts and festivals throughout Japan. Today Hachijodaiko is no longer confined to Hachijojima but can be heard all over Japan as well as the U.S. and elsewhere due to a growing musical diaspora that stretches around the globe."

Now take a look at this Youtube video featuring a couple of traveling Rokuninkai members playing a hot number at a summer festival in that little slice of paradise in Yokohama City we call "Craineview." Jump ahead to the 5- or 6-minute mark and tell me the guy on the drum set and these two fellows aren't brothers under the skin (I guess we all are really).

That drummer is definitely at the wrong gig, he should be here:

(I didn't take this video but I did go to this festival. In reality it was every bit as dark and eventually just as blurry.)

Related post: Behind the Label


  1. Have to share with my 12-year-old niece who was in a Taiko troupe during elementary school. They really have chops. She would say these guys "got game." Hachiojima was one of the Georgias and Australias of Japan! Most of the "criminals" sent to those destinations were political prisoners. I think Sado has similar history and it is home of amazing drummers (Kodo) too - who are tight with Irish musicians.

    1. I don’t know if this is true but I heard that the banished samurai
      kind of beat their swords into drum sticks. Weapons confiscated, they continued to practice the martial art of sword fighting under the guise of drumming with the sticks serving as the sword. It's almost like capoeira in that way (I think?), both hiding the martial arts in music and motion. (Not too sure about the origins of either Hachijo taiko or capoeira really - I have to study further)