Wadaiko Yamato – bringing big energy and big sound to Vancouver
The birthplace of taiko in Canada, Vancouver boasts a large number of taiko ensembles, each with their own identity and approach. The founding members of Katari Taiko, Canada’s first group, modelled the group on North American ensembles like San Jose Taiko and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, but the origins of the art form go back to rural Japan, where the simple but compelling rhythms are rooted in the land and the people who tend it. The thunder of the drums recalls the old gods and ancient rites of a pre-industrial society and at its most compelling touches something deep inside one’s core.
Most Vancouver audiences were introduced to taiko, Japanese style, through Kodo and its predecessor, Ondekoza, ground-breaking groups that were the first to take the massive drums beyond Japan’s borders. Their muscular, visceral performances set a standard for other Japanese taiko groups, shattering western stereotype of Japanese culture in the process.
In the years since Ondekoza formed on Sado Island in 1969, innumerable taiko groups have sprung up around Japan. While many rarely perform outside of their own communities, several groups have ventured overseas, seeking new audiences and experiences.
On February 6, Vancouver audiences will be treated to one such group, Wadaiko Yamato, who promise to shake the foundations of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with their drums and their spirit. Wadaiko (or taiko) is the generic term for the Japanese drum, while Yamato is the former name for Nara prefecture, where the group is headquartered. Located in the Kansai region, Nara Prefecture has the distinction of having more UNESCO World Heritage Listings than any other prefecture.
Considered one of the oldest regions of Japan, Nara provides an ideal home-base for Yamato, according to artistic director and founder Masa Ogawa. The group lives and works in the village of Asuka-mura, Japan’s original capital, where, he told The Bulletin, he seeks to create an original sound and performance style. “We believe that we have to avoid getting influenced too much by tradition or any other taiko companies because we recognize that we should be Yamato.”
Trained as a graphic designer and glass blower, Ogawa was introduced to taiko through a friend and has never looked back. He formed Yamato in 1993, gathering a group of drummers around him who share his vision of creating a performance so powerful that it enfolds audiences in the energy of life as expressed by the drummers and their instruments.
As the primary composer for the group, he says the aim from the beginning was to find their own voice. “Of course we are aiming to create a beautiful, powerful performance that people have never seen, never felt. However, the most important goal is that we give the energy to our audiences. We train hard. And we are trying to give our energy to the people by the sound vibration of Yamato.”
Asked how the group recruits new members to this punishing art form, Ogawa responds that they are often approached by audience members, some of who express an interest in joining the group. He says anyone is welcome to to stay with them and try their hand at it, however, “Almost none of them can stay with us because the training and the life we lead is not so easy for them, as you can imagine!”
Traditionally male-dominated, at least in Japan (female taiko players in North America tend to outnumber their male counterparts), taiko has seen more woman take up this athletic art form in recent years. According to Ogawa, woman play an important role in Yamato. “Yes, the women drummers of Yamato are so powerful, and they give big energy to the company! Yamato aims to create a powerful and energetic performance with many smiles. This is not common for taiko drumming in Japan. Our lady drummers could change the traditional feeling of taiko to Yamato style!”
The group’s approach to taiko is summed up in their motto: “Go anywhere if invited and make the world a little more happy,” and their touring schedule bears this out. With six to ten months per year on the road, they have brought their sound and “big energy” to thousands of people in over 50 countries.
Vancouver audiences will be treated to the group’s most recent production, BAKUON – Legend of the Heartbeat. According to the group, “This sound of the heartbeat is continuous, from our birth & growth to our day-to-day existence. Each beat from the taiko drums in Yamato represents who we are. It is our history, a life’s story of sweat and tears, and the endless memories recorded in the sound of every person’s heart who is gathered here.”
Bring your heart and your ears to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on February 6 and prepare for the ride of your life . . .
Yamato, The Drummers of Japan
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Tickets: $24 to $100 (plus charges)