Yamato bang the drum for the art of taiko

Yamato: the drummers of Japan.
Yamato: the drummers of Japan.
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Japanese taiko drum group Yamato stop off in York next week. Drummer Gen Hidaka spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Passion, the new concert programme by the Japanese taiko drum troupe Yamato, is so-named with good reason.

It’s a quality the group have been bringing to their performances for more than a quarter of a century.

Formed in Asuka, in the Nara prefecture, renowned as the birthplace of Japanese culture, their ranks have swollen from a quartet to currently 20 members.

Since 1993 their tours have taken them to 54 different countries, with more than 3,500 performances seen by almost eight million people.

Artistic director Masa Agawa, the company’s founder, says: “There is no doubt that it is our passion that keeps us going, preventing us from feeling discouraged along the way. That’s right. We have only realised this now. What moves Yamato forward is its passion. Passion encompasses the feelings behind the concepts of Yamato’s previous programmes: spirit, body and heartbeat. Passion mobilises people. Yamato’s passion can be seen unfolding on stage.”

Yamato: the drummers of Japan.

Yamato: the drummers of Japan.

Gen Hidaka joined the troupe 13 years ago. At the time, he admits he was a complete novice. “Before I joined Yamato I had no experience of taiko drumming,” he says. “I was actually a college student in Canada and I was studying business management at that time. It was quite different.”

Despite his lack of prior musical experience, Hidaka proved a quick learner. “I remember I joined Yamato on January 3, 2006 and my first performance as a Yamato drummer was on March 14 in the same year, so it took about two months to performance stage.”

The programme that new members of the Yamato troupe go through is intense and involves communal living. “In Yamato we live in the same village called Asuka,” Hidaka explains. “We have two houses for the men and the women.”

Rising to performance standard involves a routine of fitness and muscle-building required to sustain the drummers through their rigorous two-hour-long shows. “In Yamato the most important thing for us is the physical strength,” says Hidaka, “so before we start drumming the taiko it’s really important we gain some physical strength.”

Yamato taiko drumming we do not consider it’s percussion, it’s more like martial arts because I would say after every show we lose about 2kg through sweating.

Gen Hidka

He describes a typical day so: “We get up together early in the morning and we go running together for about 10km. Where we live in Japan there are a lot of mountains so we go up to the mountains and then go down, we run for about one hour, and then after that usually we cook together, we clean together and we eat together and then we usually do the weight training. Then from the afternoon we do taiko drumming practice until midnight, when we have to stop because of the big noise we create for the neighbours.”

Yamato’s performances have been described as “the music of the body”. Members of the troupe certainly invest heavily in their shows. “Yamato taiko drumming we do not consider it’s percussion, it’s more like martial arts because I would say after every show we lose about 2kg through sweating,” Hidaka says. “It’s really hard work.”

Yamato had made in-roads into international markets before their appearance at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1998 – with tours of China, South Korea, Indonesia and Brazil already under their belts – but appearing at the world’s largest arts event was to open the door to new audiences in the West. Over the course of the next three years the troupe toured the UK, Europe, Scandinavia, Israel and the USA.

“Yamato attended the Edinburgh Festival and it was a huge success for us, we performed there for one month and all the shows sold out,” says Hidaka. “Then after that the journey started. We started the world tour, going to many countries as well like Germany, Netherlands, North America. Our motto was ‘Let’s go to the place wherever people call us’.

Gen Hidaka has been a member of Yamato since 2006.

Gen Hidaka has been a member of Yamato since 2006.

“Since then I think we have been to 54 countries and performed more than 3,500 shows all over the world.”

Hidaka says the troupe “find it interesting” to see how audiences differ from country to country. “It’s difficult to describe, but I would say in each city and each country they all have a different reaction, all depending on the day, the weather and what kind of day the person had. With all the many factors involved, the reaction every day is different.”

Yamato’s 25th anniversary last year might have been a cause for celebration but the troupe found themselves so busy on the road that there was little time to savour the achievement. “It’s difficult for us because we were on a world tour and we were really busy,” says Hidaka. “For example one day we perform in a city but the next day we are in a different city, so we are travelling almost every day to make performances.

“Of course we had our 25th anniversary last year but time flies really fast and we did not have time to even enjoy the anniversary. It went really quick.”

Artistic director Masa Agawa might compose the group’s music, but all of Yamato contribute to the creation of the shows. “The costumes are made by one of the Yamato members and all the drumsticks – we call those bachi – they are handmade by the drummers, also the stands for the drums we all make those by ourselves as well.”

As for their new show, Passion, Hidaka says: “Our artistic director created this programme with the passion he has. He wanted to describe how in a busy life everybody has some passion. We could not create our sound without passion, so during our two-hour performance we wanted to express our passion through taiko drumming.

“Without the energy from the audience our tour cannot keep going. We always try to do our best and we get energy back from the audience by hearing the clapping hands and nice voices, that’s why we can keep going with the tour.”

Yamato: the drummers of Japan play at York Grand Opera House on February 18. yamatodrummers.com/uk