Skip to main content

I thought Africa knew about drums. Then I played taiko.

I've always known about biceps. They are those particularly attractive gibbosities (go on, look it up) on male upper arms, and they work quite hard if you're a bookshop assistant, as I was, and have to carry lots of books. What I didn't know is that they rather like hanging from your shoulders, and that they get extremely contumacious (go on, look it up) when you not only force them in the opposite direction, but also expect them to beat the living daylights* out of a drum while they're up there.

* I'm trying to be polite, but it would be more appropriate to say you're beating the crap out of a drum. Albeit with great discipline.

I'm talking about taiko (太鼓) or Japanese drums. Ensemble drumming, called kumi-daiko, has become quite popular in Japan, and as an African I regarded it as my cultural duty to attend a kumi-daiko class. I mean, Africa = drums = cross-beats, right?

Yes. Well. There are African drums, and there are Japanese drums, and they are not the same.

These drums belong to a group called Obiki. I photographed them at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno.

Let me tell you about a typical taiko class. You play on a drum that stands about 1 meter high, and you hit it with sticks called bachi. Your starting position is with arms held straight above your head, bachi pointing upwards, and you're supposed to return your arms to that position after each beat. When you're playing a very fast rhythm it's impossible to do that, but when you're hitting a slower rhythm, your arms have to return to that position. Do that for an hour, and the next morning your arms are paralysed. Everything aches: biceps, triceps, deltoids, brachialis, brachioradialis, extensor carpi radialis longus.

You didn’t know you had muscles like that? I didn't either. Then I played taiko. Every single muscle, sinew and tendon made itself known. Loudly.

I attended my first class about two years ago, and I was greatly amused throughout my experience. It was very Japanese. You don't immediately start hitting your drum, oh no, you spend about ten hours learning how to stand behind the drum, then another ten hours learning how to hold your bachi, and then finally you're allowed to hit your drum once.

All instructions were in Japanese, and I couldn't follow all of it. I had to watch what everybody else did before I could copycat them, and that meant I was perpetually off-beat. Fortunately everybody was a nervous, raw beginner, so we were all pretty pathetic.

I was particularly pathetic. I have a reasonably good brain, at least when I'm not on cloud eleven, but my body has always been very stupid: can't dance, can't do sport, can't do anything gracefully. So I couldn't even get that basic position right. You have to maintain a very specific stance behind the drum: with your legs spread, squatting slightly, and your pelvis tilted down so that you're "centered". (If you're into aerobics, you'll be very familiar with that "tummy tucked in, butt tucked in, pelvis tilted down" position.) We all struggled a bit, since your natural tendency is to push your butt out.

The instructor decided I needed help. "May I?" he asked as he stood next to me. (It's interesting that a Japanese person never touches a stranger without asking permission first. Even a pharmacist who wanted to show me how to wear a hay fever mask asked me whether it was OK to touch my face.)

I nodded nervously.

The next moment this magnificent specimen of Japanese manhood, bare-chested and sweating slightly, put his one hand on my lower tummy and the other one just above my butt, and pushed me into position. Is it necessary to add that the rest of the class was a battle of two minds? In this corner, The Noble Mind who wants to do things as well as possible; in that corner, The Lecherous Mind who believes there is nothing quite as sexy as a smooth, slender, well-toned Japanese male. I really wanted further assistance. Sigh. 

Taiko playing is lots of fun and highly recommended. Excellent antidote for that dreaded upper arm flab that attacks all women of a certain age. If you want to take lessons, it's probably better to have a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, but you could always play dumb and enjoy the extra attention. I went to Taiko-Lab.

Incidentally, although I've tried drumming myself, I firmly believe it's a male enclave. Men can drum; women can't. Sexist? No. Men can park cars, women can't. Men can read maps, women can't. Men can throw a ball effortlessly, women can't. Women, on the other hand, can put up with men, which means we're stronger. We win.

She won't agree with me ...

If you want to see how a master does it, here you go, Kodō drummer Mitome Tomohiro on the ōdaiko. This is the real thing ...

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.

Thunder myths in Japan

Last night we had a magnificent thunderstorm in Tokyo, so today: a post about thunder! I've also discovered that there's a thunder temple in the shitamachi, but I'm going to keep you in suspense. I'll try to get there today, provided it stops drizzling, but it probably justifies its own post. Meantime … Raijin (雷神)
The god of thunder is called Raijin, Kaminari-sama or Raiden-sama, and he loves to eat the belly buttons of children. When there's thunder, parents tell their kids to hide their navels so that Raijin can't kidnap them.
Quakes, thunder, fire and father
Traditionally the Japanese feared four things in ascending order of severity: 地震·雷·火事·親父, jishin (earthquake), kaminari (thunder), kaji (fire), oyaji (father). The father was the most terrifying because in old days he had complete control over his household. (I can hear men sigh with longing, "When did it all go wrong?") I've also seen a slight adaptation:地震·雷·火事·大山風. The first three terrors r…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Swing yourself into good luck at Ana Hachiman-gū

I'm not superstitious. I firmly believe that chocolate ensures mental health and books bring eternal happiness, and that's why I gather as much of both as I can, but that's science, not superstition. Don't you dare argue with me.
That doesn't mean I don't find superstitions interesting. Anything that humankind applies to explain what it doesn’t understand yet – or should that be to understand what it can't explain yet? – any fire that the talking ape lights in an attempt to keep the darkness at bay interests me, be it religion, mythology, superstition or folktales.
Why are we always asking why? That's what I want to know. Anyway.
When I heard about a shrine in Waseda that has a "return of spring = change in fortune = swing from the negative to the positive" festival, complete with charms and whatnot, plus a quirky combination of astronomy and astrology, I toddled along.
It's held at Ana Hachiman-gū (穴八幡宮), and it’s called Ichiyō Raifuku (…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

The bridges across the Sumida River

The Sumida River covers a distance of 27 km from Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay, but its most interesting section is – of course! – the one that runs through the shitamachi.
Today, in the second part of my Sumida series, I'll cover the lower section from Shirahigebashi to Eitaibashi. I originally included extra information about the river's main shrines, for example a shrine that's dedicated to the river god himself, but the post got so long that you would've fallen asleep halfway through. Let's focus on the bridges, and then I'll interrupt my series with an extra post about the gods.
This section has the most interesting bridges, several of which were constructed by Kawasaki Steel Construction (currently Kawasaki Heavy Industries) after older bridges collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The company rebuilt a total of 25 bridges using 16 000 tonnes of steel after that quake, including Shirahigebashi, Kiyosubashi and Eitaibashi. The Sumida bridges became famo…