Odaiko New England

TAO: The Martial Art of Drumming

TAO review: Berklee Performance Center, Thursday, March 18, 7:30pm

Taiko performances can give audiences the impression that taiko and martial arts are closely-related disciplines, if not fully intertwined as one art. The group TAO seeks to obliterate any distinction between the two while putting on a dynamite concert. Since I have no background whatsoever in martial arts, I cannot comment definitively on how successfully TAO accomplishes this mission; however, in performance there is no question that TAO puts on a thrilling, exciting show. This is a group that hits an audience between the eyes with blazing energy, exuberant, restless rhythms and exceptional athleticism.

Thanks in part to the fine acoustic environment of the Berklee Performance Center, the group’s sound was clean and articulate. An array of wireless mics for the performers and instruments was no doubt carefully aligned, with degrees of reverb calibrated and volumes balanced. TAO’s attention to sound prompted me to recall the amount of time Mark, Victor and others spent working on the sound balance for ONE’s “reVision” concerts.

The group’s choreography is precisely crafted – down to the last detail. While much of the movement was performed with a panache that suggested spontaneity and improvisation, my impression was rather that these had each been completely planned and polished, calculated for maximum effect so as to leave nothing to chance. From time to time the group seemed to pull in an element from Blue Man Group here, a comedic exchange there, which never failed to entertain the audience. The group’s visual appearance also evinced a similar attention to minute detail: the costumes were excellent, and even the performers’ hair was scrupulously tended to, whether frizzed out, short and spiky, or drooping locks partially obscuring the eyes, a multitude of styles, every strand perfectly in place.

The transitions possessed some ambiguity; was the music being played still part of the previous song, an entirely different song in its own right, or the intro to the next song? On one hand this could be confusing for those who like to know what’s being played and when, but I think many people would prefer to simply experience the performance without wondering which song is which. Having no clear start or finish to some of the songs helps to convey a quality of time out of time so that the audience comes under the group’s spell.

The group’s outstanding athleticism is mainly demonstrated by the male drummers, which made me wonder about how TAO sees the role of its female members, who, other than assertively playing Odaiko, generally do not perform the most physical or flashiest movements. Precision-crafted choreography isn’t limited to one particular physique or brute strength; while we may never know the rationale behind TAO’s leadership’s decision to not have any of the women participating in the same choreography as the men – at least, in the full-ensemble pieces featuring the most aggressive, acrobatic moves – audiences will wonder: Why does it have to be that way?

A remarkable contrast of styles came to mind, having seen Kodo in 2009 and TAO one year later: Kodo, for all its virtuosity, is exquisitely economical in its movement and playing. Not an ounce of wasted energy. On the other hand, while TAO does not recklessly misuse energy, its members expend an extraordinary amount of it to achieve the extroverted, aggressive, dynamic entertainment that appears before the audience. To use a pair of sports metaphors, it’s like the group was playing full-court, run-and-gun basketball while running two half-marathons – with only a 15-minute intermission in between.

I don’t want to sound like I’m nit-picking, but a possible shortcoming of this approach is that subtleties of sound, composition, and performance can be lost on an audience after they’ve been hit with a pumped-up sonic and visual barrage.  If TAO seeks to achieve a perfect blend of art and full-throttle taiko, the group may need to explore ways to strike the right balance so audiences will appreciate the quiet songs just as much as the noisy ones.

The group’s approach suggests a fascinating cultural perspective; the members live and train in a national park on the island of Kyushu, observing a strictly disciplined lifestyle and practice schedule in much the same way as Ondekoza, Kodo and Shidara. However, while such groups strive to maintain a thoroughly Japanese identity and serve, one could say, as guardians of Japanese culture, TAO deliberately steams ahead in a different direction. For example, right from their first recording, many of the compositions reveal non-Japanese influences; songs like “Horizon”, “Queen”, and especially “Maori” go beyond traditional taiko rhythms. Most telling is the fact that the group is establishing an office in NYC and its management apparently views America as a kind of entertainment Mecca. TAO doesn’t just want to embark on world tours – it wants to enjoy a level of success in America far surpassing that of any predecessors or contemporaries.

Any reservations aside, TAO performs exhilarating, vibrant, engaging taiko – simply, it’s a “must-see” ensemble. I hope the group continues to pursue new ideas for making taiko accessible to people who might otherwise have no interest in seeing a taiko performance, and it would be great if their combination of taiko and entertainment leads more people all over North America to discover the unique quality of joy imparted by taiko – and to discover the taiko groups that already exist within their own communities.

1 comment to TAO: The Martial Art of Drumming