Take a step back. Lift your arm holding a wooden drumstick. Then bend your shoulder, elbow and wrist. Hit the drum and shout, “Ha!”
This is taiko, “a big, fat drum,” in Japanese. It’s also the name of a performing art lasting over 1,400 years, originally meant for religious ceremonies and festivals.
The St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, one of the oldest taiko groups in the country, brought a taiko workshop to Columbia and joined the Sounds of Japan concert at Missouri Theatre on Saturday. The team invited groups of people to the stage to learn taiko and more importantly, to enjoy the moment of drumming, stomping and shouting, which conveyed the charm of taiko and the Japanese culture. Along with the taiko group, the Choral Arts Alliance of Missouri and the MU Asian Affairs Center teamed up to bring Columbia a Japanese-themed concert along with a series of cultural events introducing calligraphy, Japanese traditional clothing, music and animation.
Jeremy Majors, a member of St. Louis Osuwa Taiko for eight years, said he was attracted to taiko because of his interest in both drumming and martial arts.
Taiko has a lot of visual elements to it, which is different from the western percussion with small motions and the focus on getting a certain sound. Taiko has a lot of big motions and choreography, he said.
St. Louis Osuwa Taiko is an all volunteer group, meaning that its members have full-time jobs. Majors, for example, is a full-time veterinarian assistant, he said. The group practices for eight hours a week and has around 40 performances each year, according to the website.
Practicing taiko helps him release all the stress, Majors said.
“Sometimes I came to practices, very exhausted already,” he said. “I got through practices. Even though it took a lot of energy, I felt better after the practice.”
Andrew Thalheimer, the artistic director of St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, led Saturday's workshop. He talked with participants about how they would feel less stressed after a short time of practicing.
"Guess how many minutes we have just drummed?" he asked at one point. "One minute! It’s less than the time you park your car, and you see the difference?”
Thalheimer said during the workshop that there was a cultural and historical background embedded in the percussion instrument.
After he learned taiko, he said he learned that most people in Japan were predominantly right-handed and that there were cultural reasons behind it.
It was the first time the group partnered with the choir from Choral Arts Alliance of Missouri and the MU Asian Affairs Center. The concert was also a celebration for the 40th anniversary of CAAM and the 20th anniversary of the Asian Affairs Center.
All the songs prepared for the concert were in Japanese. The language was a barrier and challenge, but it also stretched and expanded the team. Performers gained a different understanding of the songs since they had to learn the Japanese lyrics, which was different from their usual experiences, said Emily Edgington Andrews, the conductor and CAAM artistic director.
“Most of the people in the choir have never been able to sing this type of music before,” said Colin Knoth, the assistant conductor. “It’s a very new experience for everyone involved, with the language, with composers and the style of some of the pieces. It’s very different than anything that we’ve ever been able to sing before.”
The last piece, which brought the choir and the taiko drummers together, was composed specifically for the concert.
Taiko brought new excitement and energies. “It brings life to the piece,” Edgington Andrews said.
The choir and drummers yelled "Ha!" together, which Edgington Andrews said was symbolic to the piece and brought energy and aggressiveness.
While languages might be different across the world, the music bridges different cultures. “We all walk different paths, and we all have different experiences and different beliefs, and our connection here is the music,” Edgington Andrews said.
Rebecca Lloyd, who attended the concert, was fascinated by the choir, the drum, the flute and all the actions associated with the percussion.
“All and all, it was a great evening,” she said.
The music made her think of Madama Butterfly, her favorite piece, with all the humming and cherry blossoms. “We didn’t know if that’s what the composer had in mind, but we thought we heard it, so it was beautiful,” she said.
Some songs were reflective. One of them was Mae-e, a song that memorialized the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The phrase, “Oboete-iru” which means “I remember,” keeps repeating in the song. It’s also a song about moving forward in life after someone you love has passed, Knoth said.
He read part of the lyrics: “I remember your warm hand. I remember your kind voice. I remember your honest eyes and quiet prayer. With memories of you in my heart. One step at a time, I walk forward.”
Supervising editor is Claire Mitzel.