The Art of Japanese Drumming – An Outline of Belonging
By Jessica Watson
for Z, that you should not be so alone.
Horse. The poet Fady Joudah has described how souls linger in living horses. The souls of past horses and the souls of the horse’s past riders. It is the same for taiko drums, those used in Japanese drumming. Each drum bears the physical marks of the person who played it: fingerprints, scuff marks on the drumhead, gashes in the wood. Drummers that prefer to play a certain drum become associated with it, and drums are remembered for the drummers who played them.
What I have left of Z’s belongings include a copy of Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening, the used black Yamaha stage custom 5-piece drum set that he gifted me, his music theory notebooks, and papers appointing myself as the representative for his social security disability benefits.
His notebooks are full of music charts, hand-drawn and color coded, of scales and chords, delineating the relationships of every note on a guitar fretboard. The covers are decorated in his naïve, expressionist style of painting: bold strokes of color smudged across the covers using fingers and paintbrushes. Maroon and cerulean dominate one notebook cover; black and peach dominate the other. On one scale (A minor), he overlaid a miniature photo of a groundhog, standing upright with its two front teeth sticking out. On another page, he glued a photo of the lead singer for Joy Division, Ian Curtis, whom he idolized. After our separation, he let me keep the notebooks for my own guitar studies, and I began to chart scales using his format. A note from my first guitar teacher sits in front with the message “Slowly is beautiful” written in cursive. Looking at many of the scales now, I’m not sure what is his handwriting and what is mine.
‘Horse’ is one of the base rhythms that everyone learns to play in a taiko dojo. Base rhythms beat continuously, like an ostinato, underneath other melodies or soloing drums. ‘Horse’ sounds like a galloping horse, especially at faster speeds. When practicing ‘horse’ it’s important to vary which hand leads, to develop ambidexterity.
Not long after getting my first drum set from Z, and taking my first drum lessons, I saw a college group play taiko. I remember being transfixed by the group’s performance. They were disciplined, standing in powerful stances comparable to martial artists, barefoot so their feet could feel the ground and sometimes vocalizing sounds that I would later learn were called kakegoe. Group harmony was the focal point; it was important that everyone coordinated their movements and drum beats with one another. It was important that you had an awareness of where the other players were in relation to you, where you were in relation to the drum.
Z interfered with my chance to play with the college group, but before he did, I had one memorable practice session with them. We stood in a circle and stretched our calves, wrists, quads, neck and shoulders, all parts of the body that we would need most. Then we pulled the drums out into the center of the room and warmed up by playing rhythms in a call-and-response format. The group leader would play a rhythm (call) and the rest of us would play the same rhythm back (response). We were using rhythm to talk to each other: the difficulty of communicating with words became supplanted by rhythms whose meaning is intuitively understood. Soon they started to teach me my first song and I committed it to memory right then, as if it was my native tongue. As I played the song with a smaller group, the others cheered us on.
Years later, after a move to Miami, I joined a community group with a dojo in Hollywood. The rules were simple: if we carried any negative emotions from our daily lives into the dojo, our sensei would tell us to leave it at the door. We were only ever allowed to be in the present moment, so it was in the present moment that we traveled to Berkeley one year to be guests at a taiko festival. It was also in the present moment that I received some devastating news about Z that same weekend of the festival.
Z used to tell me a horse joke. He would use his dog voice when he told it, the same voice he used to talk to dogs, including the two dogs that lived a block from our apartment on Clay Street in Denver. The same voice he used to tell me about Ebony, aka Ebeneezer, a black collie mix that, based on how often he spoke about her, was essential to his recovery after his most recent relapse from heroin and cocaine. He told me about Ebony, who he couldn’t keep after moving to the city, before he introduced me to her by way of trespassing into the yard of her new owner. But the voice, the voice conveyed his love of animals. The voice conveyed affection for horses and an admiration of what made a horse, a horse. It conveyed empathy, and empathy was, after all, the doorway in which I first entered into life with Z. With few exceptions, I had never met anyone with as much empathy for me.
A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”
Ki. Kee. Energy. I carried my bachi (drumsticks) around in a yoga bag decorated with a rainbow array of chakras. I purchased the bag because I liked the colors and designs, since I had only the vaguest notion of chakras and their potential reverberating impact on someone’s life. Whether or not one puts any stock in chakras, energy is something that manifests in people in empirical ways: how they gesture when they speak, the weight of their touch on your arm, their productivity, speaking volume, body language and posture.
Some drummers practice exercises to develop individual control of each finger that can be commanded while playing through their grip on the drumsticks. They use fine motor skills to go fast, and the larger muscle groups of the forearm and biceps when hitting hard. The wrists of drummers are vulnerable to injury because of their looseness, which allows fluidity and speed, permitted by the joint’s motion in two planes, and that juncture of veins, arteries and nerves.
Z’s energy extended through his fingertips and spine, out the top of his head. His wrists and fingers were skilled in handling the strokes of a paintbrush, strings of a guitar, the knobs on his mixing board and pen tool of his desktop.
Taiko songs are learned by muscle memory. Still, the best drummers don’t rely on physical strength alone. Power can be gained by one’s stance and form. Most important, though, is the power that stems from one’s will. It supersedes exhaustion. You have to want to exist to strike a drum. In that moment of striking a drum, you exist for that purpose.
Taiko gets energy flowing through me. If I have an emotional block, I can dislodge it through the physicality and communality of taiko. Energy spills off the stage in a taiko performance, reaching the audience. The sound of taiko can be heard from a distance, and when I’m in its presence, I can feel the vibrations in my chest.
Anergia is a symptom of depression. It can also be a symptom of fibromyalgia, m.s., Ehlers-Danlos, lyme disease and ovarian insufficiency. Like most people, I google symptoms when seeking explanations.
History. Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka brought taiko to the United States from Japan in the 60’s. Taiko is one of the few physical art forms that you can improve upon with age. Taiko groups consist of students, apprentices and performers. When I first met Tanaka-sensei, I wasn’t a performer, or even an apprentice yet. I was a student of the taiko group, tasked with the job of staging the drums for each of our group’s songs during an anniversary performance. Tanaka-sensei was a guest performer on this occasion of our 20th anniversary. Myself and the other students were invited to play one song with the performers that evening, called Suwatte, which means ‘seated.’ The song is named after the row of drummers that play in a seated position, leaning back as if they are doing sit-ups while striking the drum. This style of playing the nagadō-daiko is extremely physically demanding, but your ability to get through a song playing in this position signifies your growth within the group by way of endurance.
When I first meet Z it seems all he has is history. He lives in a room full of memories. The storage over his bed houses stacks of white boxes that contain the thousands of slide photographs he has taken over two decades of his life. Eventually, he took photos of me, designing a set with mirrors and colorful cloth.
When I begin performing with the taiko group no one has any idea how uncomfortable I am with being photographed. How uncomfortable I am wearing the uniform. There is probably no word for the discomfort in Japanese. Photographers are everywhere, taking photos and videos that later surface on Facebook or Youtube. I think maybe when I look in the mirror I see something different than what others see. Something upsetting.
Z was the first person to show me that what I saw was not what others saw. He was the first person I trusted to take my photograph.
Wind-in-the-pines, or Matsukaze, is the name of a famous Japanese horse that I read about online. The horse was too wild to be tamed until he met a kindred spirit: a samurai wild enough to tame him. They were inseparable until the samurai died, and the horse was never seen again.
The subject of one of Z’s emails to me is: I loved water polo until my horse drowned.
I googled this to make certain that water polo does not, in fact, involve horses.
Naming. In taiko groups, once someone has reached a certain status of respect, we affix 'san' to the end of their name. Rin becomes Rin-san, Kei becomes Kei-san, Haruto, Haruto-san. It happens spontaneously. People just start saying it.
Z did not want to be called by his first name. He introduced himself to everyone by his last name, a name he shared with his brother in Portland, his writer sister in New Hampshire, his chemical engineer father in Bethlehem and his now deceased mother. On learning his name, which I took to be his first name, it gave him an air of mystique and evoked Hungarian origins. Together with the way he dressed (thrift store blue postal jacket, black boots, grey utility pants), the name helped to house the creative spirit that he embodied, a spirit most people didn’t appreciate.
He was difficult to be around when going through withdrawal. If only I hadn’t seen his other sides, Brian Eno on mix tape, French toast on challah bread, tickets to King Crimson, it would have made it easier to leave. Our last Christmas together, when I realized he was too depressed to enjoy the gifts I had gotten him, I could have packed up my belongings and moved out of the apartment we shared in a renovated threadmill on a river in central Connecticut, and finish my degree in ecology. Eventually I did move out, I fled to an apartment a few blocks away mid-semester. The physical separation couldn’t substitute for mental separation though. He had been my best friend.
I avoided sharing too much of my private life with people during those years because of the shame of living with someone who I loved who was self-destructing. At the same time, I thought it was my birthright, to be ashamed, to love what I was ashamed of. You might wonder who could ever be made to feel that way, especially someone who looks so normal, so privileged on the outside, someone that blends in so well. My answer to that is that it starts very young, before you are your own person, when you’re just a girl, and it becomes embedded in your skin the way calluses form on your fingers from drumming. You can’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy, happy and sad. By the time you almost reach mid-life, that’s when you can start to tell the difference. By this time, you are almost your own person.
He was the first person to call me ‘whole.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant except that it filled me with a sense of confidence, and after feeling invisible for many years, I had a sense of belonging.
Z took the news of his mother passing quietly, but I know he felt more orphaned than ever before. At his most ill, he blamed his parents for not doing more for him. They gave him refuge a few times during rehab. It was during one of his stays with them, in their trailer in the quaint mountain town of Bethlehem, that he created the music theory notebooks that I have now in my possession. He stayed in a small spare room with wood paneling, where I imagine him drawing the grids for his scales and painting the covers of his notebooks, pouring over music theory books borrowed from the local library, and duplicating what he learned in his own hand. His study of music was his own form of therapy. On particularly beautiful nights, I imagine he drove to Route 3, and cut through a sliver of the White Mountains to breathe and look at the patterning of trees from road to peak.
I never attain 'san' status, but I also tell myself that quiet people are always underestimated, and that if I had to choose between follower or leader, I’m neither. The nice thing about taiko, is that the drum speaks for me. A vast space opens up where I don’t have to use words to communicate.
The dojo. I shared five living spaces with Z. He was clean at three of them, but there were times I wondered if I knew everything.
The dojo is our practice space for taiko. It will become a welcoming space. A space of possibility. A space where you start to take up space. After being in this space a while, the dreams you have of being invisible start to dissolve. When you pull into the lot and see the bay, it fills you with excitement and nervousness. The dojo belongs to all of us. Each of us takes ownership in taking care of the space and equipment.
One spring in Bethlehem, I woke up on a sofa-bed in the sunroom at Z’s parents’ house, dust glinting streams of sunlight. We made the trip from Denver after his father called to say, "She’s dead." That morning, I woke up in a sunbath, forest birds around. Came from the city to this small mountain town. Saw the light through the trees, didn’t know the word in Japanese: komorebi.
Kata. Kata means ‘form’ in Japanese. According to Heidi Varian in The Way of Taiko, “In taiko, kata refers to the stances and movements used for a particular song or style.” Form is related to discipline because it requires physical and mental discipline to maintain your form, to be mindful of your lines in space, the grip on your bachi, the way you fold your arm down to strike the drum and the way you stand. By being so mindful, the act of playing the drums pulls you into the present, into intense interactions with the other drummers and the audience.
Z always had good posture standing or sitting at his computer recording music. At least, that’s the way I remember him. I’m not sure why his depression was not reflected in his form, the way some people slump their shoulders forward. He kept a rigorous schedule for his art, but avoided self-care. I would tell him to go outside, take a walk and get fresh air.
Some think mental health issues are a result of a lack of discipline of the body, like when they say, "You should smile more!" or, this time louder with more emphasis, "Why do you always have to look so sad?", then scrunch their face into a hideous frown. A social worker told Z it might be manic-depression.
The first time I tried to write this essay, I attempted to write in a conventional form. But the story bled beyond the edges of the page; suicide and taiko, belonging and loneliness bound together like roots and dirt. I couldn’t separate the two, I could not have one without the other, and when I began to remember the details, how I went to the apartment we used to share, and when he finally let me in, I saw blood in the bathroom and a trail on the floor, how another time I tried to be let in, then I tried to use my key, but the door was barricaded, and another time the police had to break the door down. So I couldn’t write the story straight. I needed an outline to hold its shape, the way that ribs contain the vital organs. I needed the outline to hold the wild horse galloping inside my chest.
Kiai or Kakegoe. If a taiko drummer is summoning something deep, they might call out kakegoe. If a drummer is losing energy, the other players might shout kakegoe to support them. Kakegoe is sometimes considered ‘spirit.’ We draw strength from our own and others’ kakegoe.
It’s been over a decade since I last saw Z, but I still remember the tone and pitch of his voice.
Skin. Care of the skin of a drum is very important. The heads are made of cow hide and can be nailed on or fastened with rope. You learn not to touch the drumhead with your hands or to place any objects on it. Sometimes audience members or festival attendees will try to pound the drums with their hands or touch them.
Eventually, you’ll get blisters on your fingers from playing, a big one right in the crook of your thumb. Especially after a long session or when playing odaiko (the big drum), holding those extra large bachi, blood blisters well up and threaten to pop. In a moment of pride, you’ll take a photo of your raw thumb, with the skin torn off after a workshop.
In an old photo of Z, his face looks more scarred than I remember it. There are white patches on his cheeks and nose that I suspect are healed spots. The collar of his t-shirt is stretched out and frayed. His hairline is receding and he appears to be consciously holding his head at an angle.
Belonging. Taiko groups welcome everyone. They are meant to be inclusive but it can be intimidating to start playing and continue attending practices. Before and after class, we all line-up in order of seniority and bow.
To be ostracized is to be cast out of a group that you once belonged to. Ostracism isn’t something that is ever stated as such. There is never a written decree or announcement that excludes you from membership or destroys your sense of belonging. You just feel it.
According to Merriam-Webster 'ostracize' came from the “Greek ostrakizein: "to banish by voting with potsherds." Its ancestor, the Greek ostrakon ("shell" or "potsherd"), also helped to give English the word oyster. Those that got ostracized from civil society were either too powerful or too unpopular.
Z was probably always an outcast. Some people never find where they fit.
He told me a terrible story of something that happened to him when he was young.
If it is true, the police should have been notified.
Depression and anxiety are alienating features of anyone. How can you feel like you belong, if you don’t feel right?
A firefly flitted by;
“Look!” I almost said –
But I was alone.
Our taiko group was invited to perform at the 45th International Taiko Festival at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. When we arrived at the auditorium, the excitement of being in a large theatre would have normally made me feel outside my body, like a vibrating electron about to hit the ground, were it not for the grounding effect of the drums, and the salt lamp glow of the stage emerging from a cavity of dark. We each took a seat in one of the rows close to the stage. The seats had knit cushions in shades of purple with wooden arm rests which I used, and gradually forgot about as I became more and more engrossed in the sounds and energy of the drummers. San Francisco Taiko Dojo stood in rows spread across the stage to rehearse a song called, “Hiryu”. The first part of the song was familiar, then unexpectedly, the row of drummers split as they stepped wide and turned until each side passed the other to swap positions. They moved like petroglyphs, extending their arms and holding the bachi like staffs. Their movements seemed reckless, but each time drummers crossed, the passage was smooth. I could feel the sounds in my chest, ribs and sternum vibrating, loosening sinews and grit, my heart absorbing a low hum.
For weeks after the experience, I am walking on a cloud. I wonder if this is what beatification is like.
In the middle of that weekend, I watched a fight break out over karaoke at a sushi restaurant that was like a scene from a David Lynch movie. Sitting next to a friend in a crowded van, feeling slightly claustrophobic, it is odd that I should open an email, it is odd that it would also lead to one of the lowest lows, that I should feel despair at this pinnacle of hope. It is odd that I should see the attached photos. Z’s wrists, blood spilling from the slit like seawater gushing from an oyster, blood and pills spattered the ground. It is odd that I don’t say anything to my friend.
Kumi-Daiko. Group taiko. Ensemble drumming. Created in 1951 by Daihachi Oguchi, the founder of Osuwa Daiko, whose grandson I met at the festival. Kumi-Daiko sees the good in everyone. Lifts all the members up. Brings out everyone’s strengths. Pot-lucks, holiday parties, borrowing someone’s bachi, fixing someone’s hachimaki, smell of pine pitch, walking on pine needles at the Morikami in your tabi (ninja boots), smell of sweat, screaming “ya sa-sai” before you get loud, smell of sea salt, getting sore muscles carrying drums through the parking lot at Perez Museum on Biscayne Bay, smell of fish, being served a whole fish that you couldn’t eat after playing a restaurant opening, your first gig at the Hilton, playing on the third level of a riser platform that swayed with every beat, oshogatsu, lantern festival, hatsume, otsukaresamadesu—you worked so hard, you must be tired!
I always thought that marriage and family was for other people, happy people, blessed people.
Depression wasn’t widely recognized in Japan until the ‘90’s, then it was called kokoro no kaze - cold of the soul.
Your heart is a taiko. Oguchi said. We all have inner taiko, and we’ve all heard the rhythm of taiko, dontsuku-dontsuku in our mother’s womb. It is instinctive to feel attracted to the percussion of taiko.
Don doku doku don, don doku doku don, don doku doku don, don doku doku don
11. Ma. The space between drum beats, the silence that shapes sound. When you learn how to play taiko, the concept of rest notes in Western music is supplanted by ma, with its philosophical undertones.
Ma suggests that you can’t have presence without absence, words without white space, together without alone, belonging without loneliness.
In the dark theatre, a
solitary figure basks in
a spotlight. Stage dust flecks
light as it falls. The pale
skin is lit and girded by
shadows. Muscles dance under
the light, remembering how
to move. Salt sprays of sweat
and huffs of breath. A drum
gazes at the figure tenderly.
Bachi tell the drum how to feel,
but the drum already knows. Horse
and samurai. Samurai and horse.