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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 ...

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