Sakai Diary: Young skinpounders seek global stage

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SAKAI CITY, Japan — We heard it the moment we entered the building—a faraway rumbling like distant thunder. The sound—a rhythmic badum badum badum—grew louder as we walked through the snaking corridors of the Mihara Bunka Kaikan, a nondescript theater in the heart of this city in the Osaka prefecture. There was something urgent about the beat, like it was enjoining us to hurry on toward it.

So we did.

By the time we reached the source of the sound, some members of the Japanese drum ensemble Wadaiko Miyako were already deep into practice, furiously pounding away on taikos (drums) of various sizes, creating a seismic sonic assault so powerful and massive it shook us —visiting journalists from ASEAN countries—out of our Saturday morning lethargy.

“We don’t usually practice on Saturdays,” Gaku Yano, the group’s 61-year-old mentor, told the foreign guests through an interpreter. “We practice on Wednesdays and Sundays, but today you are our special audience.”

That group was also rehearsing for Sunday, when they were scheduled to headline the Sakai ASEAN Week Cultural Festival, a morning-to-afternoon show outside the Hotel Agora Regency Sakai that showcased cultural song and dance performances from participating ASEAN countries, including the Philippines.

But the 10 young members of the Wadaiko Miyako—including one who, at the time of the interview, was visibly pregnant—were looking beyond Sakai and Sunday.

“It would be an honor to perform overseas someday,” said the group’s 29-year-old leader Haze Shote, taking a break from the rehearsal to chat with the foreign visitors. Although the group is primarily based in Sakai, they have stirred enough buzz to land them out-of-the-city gigs.

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Three of 10 members of Wadaiko Miyako in practice.

Age could be the group’s main selling point. All the members of Wadaiko Miyako are in their twenties, with day jobs and, in the case of one female member, a social welfare course in college to finish. That they decided to spend their energy, passion, and free time to keep a Japanese tradition alive in the face of slowly creeping influence from the West is worthy of note.

“After we finish high school, we decided to keep the tradition of drums (alive),” said Tsu Tsui, 27, who described himself as the group’s “mascot.” This decision led to Wadaiko Miyako’s formation six years ago.

“We like to learn and play the wadaiko,” said Yoko Takaota, the soon-to-be mother, referring to a taiko ensemble. “I just love the sound of it.”

The “tradition of drums” Tsui was referring to began in Japan over 2,000 years ago, when taikos, which are made of animal skin, mostly from cows, were used in religious activities and local festivals. But it was only in 1951 that a kumi-daiko or wadaiko (a taiko ensemble) was popularized by Japanese jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi, the founder of the famed Osuwa Daiko.

Since then, other countries, including those in the Western world, have caught on, as Japanese immigrants started bringing this uniquely local musical tradition to foreign shores. The website Taiko Center said in Canada and the United States alone, there are an estimated 1,000 active taiko groups wowing audiences worldwide, among them the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and the Kinnara Taiko groups.

The members of the Miyako Wadaiko want to be on par with this league of extraordinary drum masters. But they are taking it one step at a time.

During their Sunday performance, Miyako Wadaiko’s thunderous set was met with warm reception from the audience, composed mostly of locals and a sprinkling of international guests. Applause came even in the middle of a particular number (the group said they already have five original compositions); passersby on their way to the nearby Platplat commercial center stopped in their tracks to gawk and admire and perhaps wonder.

Each number exuded a kind of energy that was raw and forceful. It was mayhem onstage, but not quite, as the music seemed to reach deep into man’s inner beast, stirring something primitive, conjuring images of deep woods and moonlight.

“When I play, I feel something is coming out of my body,” Shote, the leader, said. “It’s power and energy.  And I want to convey that feeling to the audience.”

Watching them perform, one could conclude that it is high time for the rest of the world to get reacquainted with that youthful feeling of power and energy that in Sakai is known as Miyako Wadaiko.

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As published on GMA News Online. Edited by Vida Cruz.

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