Apr 11, 2012

TAO is not just a group of drummers. It is a troupe of performers: dancers, comedians, master musicians of various Japanese instruments and, yes, drummers as well.

The group came to Staller Main Stage as part of its 2012 North American Tour on Sunday, March 25. I had no idea what to expect because I hadn’t heard of Taiko—Japanese drumming, typically performed as an ensemble—prior to this show.

My first thought as it began was, “This is so earthy.” The house music prior to curtain featured the sounds of running streams and leaves blowing in the wind. The opening sequence was equally elemental. The colors, black and red, along with the beats of the drums practically screamed “primal.”

The costumes—which I can only assume were inspired by traditional Japanese dress—were fascinating; long, streaming skirts and bare chests were the norm.

The physical endurance required for this single performance is staggering. The first sequence alone featured much hopping about with large drums strapped to the performers’ chests. The force exerted on the drums to produce the necessary level of vibrations was equally impressive.

At times, the performance reminded me of a college drumline…on steroids. Imagine if the bass drummers from the marching band were hopping around in a choreographed pattern while wearing streaming skirts instead of struggling to sway back and forth to the beat in a stuffy uniform. Got that image? Still not close to how fantastic this show looked.

There was even a number involving giant red flags that five of the drummers-turned-dancers twirled like an all-male color guard. That’s not to say that the entire cast was male. There were four women; they all beat the drums just as hard and played as many different instruments as the men.

However, I was most impressed with the diversity of the performers’ talents. They all were excellent drummers, but many played two or three other instruments during the show, including a shamisen—a square-bodied, four-stringed instrument similar to a guitar—and something that looked like a flute, perhaps a shakuhachi.

A simple screen depicting mountains below a rising moon served as a backdrop for the drums of varying sizes, which ranged from no bigger than a ping-pong paddle to far bigger than the two drummers beating it.

The transitions between scenes were very funny. The little kids next to me were laughing infectiously at the antics of a few of the performers. They always incorporated fantastic drumming with funny facial expressions and some slapstick. For instance, the first transition featured several of the drummers holding wooden paddles of varying sizes as they “passed” sound back and forth as if it were a ping-pong ball.

These were the times when audience participation was brought in as well. The crowd loved it once they figured out what was going on, though there were still some epic failures.

The hilarity was necessary to break up the intensity of the main ensemble performances. Traditionally, Taiko tends to start out rather slowly and build to a crescendo, sometimes ending abruptly just to launch into a frenzy again a moment later. The peaks could be so intense that I would start marveling at the speed and precision of the drummers. Mostly I wondered how they didn’t smack themselves or each other in the head with the way their arms flailed through the air.

A few audience members left immediately after the standing ovation, perhaps not realizing there was more to come, and they certainly missed out. The performers returned with a stunning encore, which I’m sure could be heard outside of the Staller Center.

I can’t wait to see another Taiko performance, though I’m sure it won’t be able to match this first introduction from TAO.