Standing in front of a four-foot-wide drum wearing nothing but a Japanese loincloth and holding sticks the size of tree branches, a single Taiko drummer commanded complete attention. The audience could see every muscle in his back contract and release as he struck the hira daiko with all the strength of Hercules, but with moves as graceful as a swallow.
This was (re)generation, a show from the Los Angeles-based group TAIKOPROJECT. American taiko is a relatively new form of art influenced by traditional Japanese drumming, and it erupted onto the stage of the Granada on Friday night.
The show opened with Santa Barbara drum troupe Boom Chaka, comprised of drummers ages 12-14. Their performance lasted less than 10 minutes, but it had the crowd captivated. “I really thought the kids were very good,” said April Field, visiting from Houston, Texas. “I was impressed by the choreography and the detail.” The group used buckets and trashcans as drums to create an alternative style of drumming reminiscent of the Broadway show Stomp! This troupe of young drummers started as an aerobics class 10 years ago, and has since evolved into a community of artists who also give back. Last year they performed to raise money for Katrina victims and pulled in more than $8,000.
After a brief intermission, the lights dimmed yet again and lacquered drums took the place of the buckets. A slide show was projected onto a screen above the stage to give a brief history of American Taiko, beginning in the 1960s. As the slideshow neared its end, the high notes of a fife and the slow beat of a drum set an even pace.
One by one, drummers entered until there were 11 of them on stage, and an explosion of sound filled the theatre. Silk banners dropped and rose, increasing the dramatic effect of the drumming and reflecting its Japanese heritage. A xylophone, a cowbell, and what appeared to be Asian maracas provided an unusual, delicate contrast to the bold beats of the drums.
The main drums used throughout the evening were nagado daiko, and resembled a barrel with cow skin pulled tightly over the top and bottom. Shime daiko were also featured, and looked more like a snare drum on a wooden stand. Performers used bachi, or drumsticks that lack the rounded tip of their Western counterparts.
The second song came as quite a shock to the audience, both for the contrast between drummer and hand-gong player, and because the drummer was wearing a fundoshi, or Japanese loincloth. The crowd giggled, then whooped with enthusiasm.
The drummers incorporated aspects of traditional Japanese kabuki theater in the “Shi Shi Bai,” or Lion Head Dance. In this piece, two performers in masks had a picnic when a ferocious lion, constructed from a paper m•che head and a long cloth covering the rest of the performer’s body, crashed the party and scared the couple away. After seeing that the lion was taking a nap, the couple came back and prodded the lion until it awoke in a rage, expressed by the furious pounding of the drum.
In a later portion of the show, drummers leapt and twirled in circles and around the seven drums on stage, displaying their inventive choreography. Their shouts sounded like war cries, and the steady, lively beat of the drum echoed this feeling.