Japanese drumming at Ottawa school

The Toronto-based taiko drum ensemble Nagata Shachu rumbled into Ottawa’s École Secondaire Publique de la Salle Auditorium Nov. 13 to present its new show, Iroha.

Nagata Shachu’s performances have their roots in the traditional Japanese art of taiko drumming. According to their artistic director and stage performer, Aki Takahashi, Nagata Shachu’s principal objective is to rejuvenate the ancient musical art by creating their own dynamic sound that “seeks to create a new voice for Taiko.”

The ensemble, who have been together since 1998, stay true to the origins of taiko by using drums that are very similar, if not exact replicas, of those originally used in Japan.

Their stage show began with the song “Shinonome.” According to Takahashi, this opening song was composed to represent “a pale shade often seen in the early morning sky.”

“Shinonome” began with simple nothings: distant bells, singing and minimal percussion, but much like a sunrise, the song awoke.

“Shinonome” morphed seamlessly into the second song, “Kyara,” one that took the gentle beginnings of the previous number and turned them into a roaring taiko drum exposition, complete with one performer dancing in a traditional Japanese noh mask.

Nagata Shachu’s performance progressed into the following pieces, each one exposing another colour or wonder of nature. These pieces included various drums, Japanese woodwind instruments and even at times a string instrument known as a shamisen.

The fourth song of the night, “Tokiwa,” showed the audience that it’s not the size of the taiko drum that matters, it’s how you use it. It was one of the more understated songs of the evening, its stage setup consisting merely of four men in white outfits seated behind their small drums, known as hira-daikos.

However, these four drummers managed to create an echoing soundscape between them, making their drums emulate the rippling motion of a wave in water — one that carried into the powerful final piece of the first act, “Sei Gai Ha.”

“I wrote [Sei Gai Ha] imagining a ripple endlessly reaching out on the surface of the water,” Takahashi said in the show’s program.

“Instead of beating [the drums], we loosen our body like running water. We let the waves take control.”

The second act opened with “Batta” — which means “grasshopper” in Japanese — introducing the audience to chappa, hand cymbals generally used in traditional Buddhist ceremonies that can create an array of different tones. The piece incorporated on-stage dancing, even provoking some moves from the audience.

“It is hard to stop wiggling when struggling to create the variety of sounds,” Takahashi said about chappa. “Like grasshoppers dancing in the field, we reach out and jump around.”

The show culminated with a two-part song that was explained as a progression from white to black or from light to dark.

The first part, “Shirogane,” grouped taiko drums with a xylophone, a glockenspiel and a shamisen in order to create a calm in the show’s progression. Takahahsi called Shirogane a minimalist piece wherein the drummers restrain their urge to beat the drums and wait.

The show’s final piece, and the transition from light to dark, was called “Shikkoku.” Takahashi referred to it as “the most beautiful and dignified black.”

“Shikkoku” was one of the most powerful piece of the night. It painted the sounds of deep, heavy taiko drums one upon the other in order to create a booming song that literally shook the auditorium, bringing Iroha full circle and punctuating the show’s transition from morning glow to deep, absolute darkness.

Iroha closed with an intimate encore that featured each of the seven drummers individually. The encore brought light back to the theatre and sent the audience home on a light note.